I'm no huge fan of the death penalty. I think the risks of convicting the wrong man are pretty darn high. There's also no doubt that, at certain times and in certain places, African-American men have disproportionately borne the risk of getting the death penalty. It's also a very expensive proposition, because those convicted aren't simply marched behind a building and shot. Instead, they spend years and years and years running various appeals from court to court, while they're housed in special, costly units, at the public's expense. It's these years and years, though, that I want to talk about, because they're very important when we consider the American death penalty.
Anna Quindlen, writing at Newsweak, points out again that America is in company with Saudi Arabia, China and Iran when it comes to the death penalty:
Hardly any other civilized place does this [the death penalty] anymore. In the past three decades, the number of nations that have abolished the death penalty has risen from 16 to 86. Last year four countries accounted for nearly all executions worldwide: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
As my Irish grandmother used to say, you're known by the company you keep.
Underlying Quindlen's conclusion is the assumption that the death penalty in America is identical to that in the other countries. The fact is, however, that it is not. The United States has a little thing foreign to those countries: Due Process. This means, for example, that young Iranian girls are not dragged before hostile village elders, given no counsel, and hanged for acts "incompatible with chastity." And unlike reports from China, I haven't heard any stories of prisoners being taken off unexpectedly and killed so that their organs can be harvested. We're also not stoning to death women who were raped, a not uncommon practice in Saudi Arabia and other Sharia controlled countries.
Instead, for the most part, we reserve the death penalty for people such as Tookie Williams and Richard Alan Davis — men who have murderous histories, and who have been given opportunity after opportunity, through both our judicial and political systems, to avoid the death penalty.
To pretend that there is no difference between the two systems is to fall into the moral equivalency trap that bedevils all arguments from the Left. James Taranto explaineds this peculiar equivalency quite elegantly by examining the hackneyed "cycle of violence" phrase that shows up on the Left every time Al Qaeda blames the U.S. for another of its barbaric acts:
This rhetoric about "cycles" appears to reflect a theory of moral equivalence, but in fact it is something else. After all, if the two sides were morally equivalent, one could apply this reasoning in reverse–excusing, for example, the alleged massacre at Haditha on the ground that it was "provoked" by a bombing that killed a U.S. serviceman–and hey, violence begets violence.
But America's critics never make this argument, and its defenders seldom do. That is because it is understood that America knows better. If it is true that U.S. Marines murdered civilians in cold blood at Haditha, the other side's brutality does not excuse it. Only the enemy's evil acts are thought to be explained away by ours.
Implicit in the "cycle" theory, then, is the premise that the enemy is innocent–not in the sense of having done nothing wrong, but in the sense of not knowing any better. The enemy lacks the knowledge of good and evil–or, to put it in theological terms, he is free of original sin.
America ought to hold itself to a high moral standard, of course, but blaming the other side's depraved acts on our own (real and imagined) moral imperfections is a dangerous form of vanity.
Quindlen is perfectly entitled to challenge the American death penalty. As I noted, I have a few problems with it myself. However, if she's going to do so, let her doing it honestly, by taking the American death penalty on its own terms. To try to lump America in with China, Iran and Saudi Araba is disingenuous demagoguery. That Quindlen is playing little rhetorical games is made evident by the fact that, after setting up this false equivalency, she then shoves into the back end of her column some of the more substantive challenges to America's death penalty. These arguments deserve consideration and it's a shoddy tactic to bolster them with cheap and irrelevant accusations.