The death penalty divide
Today's news that the Supreme Court found, at an alarmingly close margin of 5-4, that it's unconstitutional to execute minors has caused a great deal of rejoicing amongst us liberals, who have little cause to rejoice lately. A bunch of people sent the news to me in my email with a note of relief attached. I'm relieved, too. But the spoilsport in me immediately knew that this was going to be one of those court decisions where people were going to fall along partisan lines quickly and not much communication would happen.
The first email I got today about the decision specifically refuted and rebelled against Scalia's angry dissent that outright stated that Americans are backing away from supporting the death penalty because we are afraid of what a bunch of foreigners think of us. My friend said that we were finally in line with the rest of the world on at least one issue. In a sense, I agree with him, but only because I think the majority of the Western opinion on this issue is right. But the stubborn side of me, the Bubba side, immediately revolted against the notion that we should conform to world opinion just because.
I know that my fellow liberals don't actually think that we should conform to world opinion. World opinion is something we lean on in many cases because it's a lighthouse in the storm, a way for us to recognize that once you step outside of the onslaught of conservative propaganda, reality is a lot easier to see. By pointing to world opinion, we aren't saying that we should conform for its own sake. But to be liberal in America is to be told that you are out of the mainstream and so it's both comforting and revealing to point out that we are with a mainstream in the world, a mainstream that has access to truths many Americans don't know.
This decision not to execute minors is mentally linked, for me and I'll bet for many others, with the issue of torturing our prisoners in the War on Terror, or if you prefer like I do, War on People with Resources We Want to Confiscate. Predicatably, the denials that we are torturing prisoners quickly turned into painful justifications for torture. How are the two similiar? Well, it's pretty simple--try to make a nuanced argument against the execution of minors, much less the death penalty itself, or against torturing terrorist "suspects" and face down a bunch of counter-arguments that you support murder or terrorism itself.
Well, or that you're a wuss. That's the most common argument, that we liberals are weak-willed and are too muddy-brained with sympathy for our fellow human beings to see that some people need killing. Or torturing.
The hard part is that many of the liberal persuasion probably are sensitive human beings whose emotional reaction to execution or torture really does stop them cold. Or they are hardasses who know all too well that give an inch to torture of enemies of the state leads to the callous insanity of the Holocaust. I am not picking on them. But I am offering that many of us have entirely different reasons for our opposition to state-sponsored torture and death.
I was pained to read an all too typical conservative viewpoint that implied that anti-death penalty opponents don't "get" the severity of murder at Hugo's blog.
Not so for Christopher Simmons, who plotted both the burglary and the murder with two younger friends specifically because he wanted to murder somebody, and because he thought they could all get away with it because they were under 18. He then broke into a random house in the middle of the night looking for someone to murder, stumbled across a woman he happened to recognize, tied her up, threw her over a bridge, drowned her, and bragged to his friends about having killed a woman because "the bitch seen my face."
CMC, if you want to be the guinea pig and have Mr. Simmons live in YOUR neighborhood as part of his rehabilitation, be my guest. Just make sure your new neighbor doesn't get anywhere near my neighborhood.
Anyway, I think it's just a shame that this misconception about death penalty opponents--that we have undue sympathy for monsters--persists. I personally don't care if someone who commits crimes like this is killed by being skinned alive. But there's a reason that this commenter wowed us with the horror of the crime rather than impressed us with the evidence in this fact. Horrific crime makes us demand retribution. It overrides our sense of justice and turns us into creatures of vengenance, wanting blood for blood. The death penalty gives us that opportunity.
I know myself and I know that if I were sitting on a jury for an ugly murder and was given an eye for an eye option, the temptation to take it would make it very difficult for me to hand out a fair verdict. Looking at the victim's family, knowing the details--it's a nightmare. Even without the death penalty, it's difficult to get a just conviction. With the death penalty, if some new evidence comes to light exonerating the convicted party, well, he's dead.
Let's make it clear--most opponents of the death penalty aren't overly worried about the fate of the guilty. We worry about the innocent. We worry that participating in an inherently unjust system will turn the innocent into the guilty. That's why we oppose torture. We have no love for those who plan to commit terrorist attacks against us. But we know that torturing and murdering turns the innocent, in this case the young people who are our soliders, into the guilty, people who let blood for what ultimate purpose is lost to the fog.
And that's why not to execute--the finality of death means that those who execute are innocents turned to guilty, having acted with finality upon someone for reasons that turn to ungraspable smoke once the dead have passed.