The botched Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett has called our continued use of the death penalty in this country back into question. In many ways, the death penalty is an abhorrent attempt to sate an irrational cultural bloodlust, rooted in vengeance and barbarism and detached from data.That is the opening of Eye-for-an-Eye Incivility
, the first of Blow's New York Times columns to appear in his new slot on Monday mornings (where he joins Paul Krugman on the op ed page). It is of course occasioned by the botched execution in Oklahoma, to which he refers, but it is in fact focused on the issue of the death penalty in general.
Let me make clear before I continue: it took me a while, but I finally reached the conclusion that I could no longer support the death penalty. I explained my reasoning here in piece titled ... no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death, borrowing my title from a dissenting opinion by Justice William Brennan. I will not recapitulate my thinking, which is thoroughly expressed in that piece.
I realize that some will continue to justify at least some executions. For them perhaps nothing anyone can offer will change their minds, which saddens me. Some are already convinced, and the only purpose Blow's article may therefore serve is to provide some ammunition when they engage in discussions with those whose minds are not yet made up.
Blow offers a number of facts, well-sourced, to consider.
Let me cite just a few before delving a bit more deeply into the power of his opinions.
Our continued use of the death penalty does not put us in good company. According to a 2014 report from Amnesty International, “only nine countries have continuously executed in each of the past five years — Bangladesh, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, U.S.A. and Yemen.”And then there is this chart from Time Magazine which graphs every single US execution since 1700, from which we learn that
America has executed 15,717 people since 1700, most of them hanged. The peak year for executions was 1935 with nearly 200 people put to death, mostly by electrocution. In 2014, 20 people have been put to death, all by lethal injection.Please keep reading.
I am less concerned with the cost of capital sentences. Blow quotes research by Professer Jeffrey Fagin that the average capital sentence costs in the range of $2.5 million to $5 million as compared to less than $1 million for a sentence of life without parole. I worry that when we reduce what should be moral arguments to financial ones, we devalue the lives of those who are less well off - that is in fact the reasoning for determining the awards in wrongful death suits. I would suffer a far greater penalty for causing the wrongful death of a Bill Gates than of a homeless, mentally ill street person.
After recounting some of the problems with the botched Oklahoma execution, Blow asks
How does a death like this pass constitutional muster, with our guarantee against “cruel and unusual punishment,” even for a person convicted of administering cruel and unusual punishment?He follows by quoting the words of the President describing some of the problems with our application of the death penalty. Perhaps it is irrelevant, and would not fit the thrust of this column, but I wonder if Blow might not consider taking those words of the President and ask why he does not apply similar reasoning to the summary executions / assassinations by drone? Why does not he at least challenge the President, who still accepts application of the death penalty in some circumstances?
Allow me to offer just a few more snips.
In introducing the aforementioned chart from Time Blow writes
Unfortunately, the death penalty is part of this country’s blood memory, a memory we are having a hard time shaking.this country's blood memory - perhaps it should be blood lust? After all, the list of legal executions does not include hundred of lynchings, primarily of minorities of one sort or another. It is almost certainly a blood lust that connects with our crazed gun culture, including the increasing rationalization of the the unrestricted use of violent force - almost always by firearm - in situations that to most rationale minds is not necessary, and again, is almost an occasion of a white male applying the deadly force of the firearm against someone who can be considered "other" - of color, of foreign origin. . . .
As I often in my posts here rely upon the words of others to make a point, so does Blow. He warns that even our attempts to address problems with the application of the death penalty raises questions, and then again quotes Professor Fagan, who in part says
"... we wonder whether such necessary and admirable efforts to avoid error and the horror of the execution of the innocent won’t — after many hundreds of millions of dollars of trying — burden the country with a death penalty that will be ineffective, unreasonably expensive and politically corrosive to the broader search for justice.”Of course, that presumes that we have an interest in the broader search for justice. One might well offer many exemplars that would indicate otherwise:
That is of course far too much to cover effectively in one op ed.
Which after all is about the death penalty.
So allow me to return to Blow.
I think this is a powerful column.
Had I any doubt, I would merely return to his final words, which appear immediately after the quote from Fagan you have just read:
We are standing on the graves of the executed, and it is not a morally elevated position.Perhaps words attributed to Gandhi (although no exact source has ever been found) are here applicable:
An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind
I believe in our continued use of capital punishment we are at the least demonstrating a horrible moral blindness, and at worst creating a situation which allows others to rationalize the increasing escalation of violence, whether under color of law or other justification.
Our continued reliance upon the death penalty is an example of the worst of American Exceptionalism, and is for me something that makes me ashamed of my country.
What about you?
- the sloppy prosecution that allowed George Zimmerman to walk
- the refusal to bring prosecutions against Wall Street firms and individuals that almost brought down the world's economic system
- the refusal to prosecute people in the CIA for gross violations of US and international law
- the continued practice of the national administration in using the state secrets doctrine to prevent cases that could stop various abuses of the intelligence apparatus
- the prosecution of whistleblowers