Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Nobody Thinks the Death Penalty Is a Good Idea (Or Is Willing to Say So Outright)

Posted By on Tue, Jan 5, 2010 at 12:35 PM

eddie-adams-execution.jpg
The American Law Institute, whose 1962 Model Penal Code guided the legal and ethical language in support of capital punishment in America following its reinstitution, after a brief moratorium, in the 70s, has disavowed its previous work in support of the death penalty:

A study commissioned by the institute said that decades of experience had proved that the system could not reconcile the twin goals of individualized decisions about who should be executed and systemic fairness. It added that capital punishment was plagued by racial disparities; was enormously expensive even as many defense lawyers were underpaid and some were incompetent; risked executing innocent people; and was undermined by the politics that come with judicial elections.

Basically, this group of a few thousand lawyers, judges and scholars has concluded capital punishment cannot be administered in a constitutionally acceptable way in America. Which is true, objectively true, and nice to hear from people who damn well ought to know as much. But.

Just like David Grann's important recent New Yorker article about Texas's execution of an innocent man, the ALI's decision, predicated on problems of application, goes short of suggesting that there's anything inherently barbaric about a society granting itself the power of vengeance against its own citizens—the problem, to hear these guys say it, is simply that we're not very good at administering Old Testament justice. And if the system is broken, well, the system can be fixed, right?

Americans, as individuals and as a culture, like very much the idea of causing pain to others, especially when we know in our hearts, right where the cholesterol deposits are, that we are the righteous party. So it's a fairly quixotic undertaking to suggest that we're wrong to want this. But that's exactly what's required.

Pragmatic progressivism—we might execute an innocent man! health care reform is all about keeping costs down!—is a good way to achieve short-term gains. But only for a little while: following November's landslide, look how quickly a large percentage of this country has made itself forget that what we witnessed over the course of this decade was an entire worldview conclusively imploding. All it takes is somebody new and reassuring to tell people that they were right to think what they thought all along.

The only way to achieve lasting and meaningful progress in the way a society thinks and acts is to offer it a new way to think about its actions. To present a credible moral framework, for current and especially for future generations to test drive when they're shopping for an opinion about capital punishment, health care, whatever. Brief moments of compassion, for that poor innocent guy in Texas, or that one gay guy you know, will languish without adequate nourishment.

Plus, never standing on principle means the other side gets to act like they have a monopoly on morality.

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