Attorney General William Barr’s decision to reinstate the federal death penalty is a cynical political ploy aimed at energizing President Trump’s base in parts of the country that still believe in the widely discredited policy of state executions.
The United States has the grim distinction of being one of the few countries in the world that still permits the government to kill its own people in the name of justice. America is joined in this regard by China, North Korea, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
“The government should not be in the business of killing people,” said Sister Helen Prejean, the pioneering Catholic nun who has spent decades fighting against the death penalty. “Capital punishment is a failed, morally bankrupt policy.”
The death penalty is also not effective as a deterrent against crime, according to leading criminal justice experts. A landmark 2009 University of Colorado study found that “the consensus among criminologists is that the death penalty does not add any significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment.”
Aside from its ineffectiveness as a law enforcement tool, the death penalty is both immoral and inhumane according to many religious leaders, including Pope Francis. In 2015, Pope Francis called for the global abolition of the death penalty, stating that a “just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”
President Trump is a longtime and vocal supporter of capital punishment. The most infamous example is when he called for the execution of five young men charged with rape in the 1989 Central Park jogger case—before they had even been tried. The five were later exonerated, after spending many years in prison. Trump has never apologized.
The modern-day death penalty in the United States is a dark reminder of America’s shameful history of state violence against black and poor and marginalized communities. As a historical matter, the death penalty in the United States should be understood less as a form of judicial punishment and more as a form of state-sanctioned political terrorism. As Jamelle Bouie pointed out earlier this month in The New York Times, the 1893 lynching of Henry Smith, a mentally disabled black teenager, was a community affair. Smith was burned alive in front of 10,000 cheering white people in Paris, Texas.
On the day of the lynching, an estimated 10,000 people crowded along Paris’s main street to witness the killing. Smith was bound to a float and paraded across town in a theatrical performance meant to emphasize his guilt. The audience jeered and chanted, cursed and gave the rebel yell. “Fathers, men of social and business standing, took their children to teach them how to dispose of Negro criminals,” a witness to the event said. “Mothers were there, too, even women whose culture entitles them to be among the social and intellectual leaders of the town.” Around noon, Smith was tortured, doused with kerosene, and lit ablaze, immolated for the crowd’s enjoyment.
Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent and presidential candidate, reaffirmed his promise to abolish the death penalty: “There’s enough violence in the world,” Sanders said. “The government shouldn’t add to it. When I am president, we will abolish the death penalty.”
The United States once aspired to be the world’s leading human rights champion, a refuge for victims of state violence. Attorney General Barr’s decision to resume federal executions may prove politically popular with Trump’s base in states that continue to kill people in the name of justice. But no amount of political calculus can remove the moral shame of a nation that kills its own people.