Once again, there’s a false equivalency going on

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.

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  • http://ymarsakar.blogspot.com/ Ymarsakar

    Hardly any other civilized place does this [the death penalty] anymore.

    That is because any civilized place would already be bowing down in surrender to the barbarian Aryans already, people. Barbarians kill barbarians, as simple as that. No effete city boy can go slaughter those that seek to kill him with the same ruthlessness as a trained warrior can and could. Without the United States military protection sphere, Islam would already be in control of Europe’s government.

    One of the clever little things the courts and judges did, was to make the death penalty so expensive and long, in Cali for example, that people tend to start favoring life because the costs of the appeals are so high. In effect, what people are doing is giving those who get life, LESS due process simply because DP cases get higher priority. And besides, the DP then becomes Life in Prison for 25 years without parole THEN death, which is not exactly consistent with the sentencing.

    Since I support the DP not for what it does, but for what it means in the societal sense, I’d be happy to get rid of California’s 25 year waiting line and adopt Oklahoma’s 1 year waiting line for McBain or whoever his name was. Dead, don’t care.

    It’s just bad logic. If you don’t want the DP because innocents might be executed, after being given 50X due process as mandated by the Constitution in depriving people of life and liberty, then why isn’t judge’s arguments that punishment is not appropriate also fitting? The judge doesn’t want dirt on his hands, citizens don’t want it either, they’re content with putting innocent people to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, which is in fact more inhumane than death itself as I consider it. Legally, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, why life over death is equivalent to no punishment over punishment. But I’m not a lawyer, I don’t study law, I study people and their psychology, their motivations, trials, and joys. And people, are not the law. They do not behave as the law. What is logical and legal for the law, is not logical or legal for people when they act.

    When people don’t initiate the DP, it is because they are tired of something. Eventually they will be so tired, they won’t punish criminals at all. Why do people feel such a miasma of guilt that they are sentencing innocents possibly to death? The whole point of the justice system is to distance the individual from the punishment and the verdict. Have we gone back to tribal days where the village elder decided the fates of everyone and everything, must we now take care that we don’t arbitrarily summon death to someone’s doors?

    If people don’t trust themselves to initiate death or life, then they should not bother and trust the Constitution to do it. I’ve heard people argue that they are against state sanctioned killing. Then they are against the Constitution, when it said that no one may be deprived of life or liberty without due process. Nobody said they’d guarantee no innocents would be harmed in the process. An impossible, an utopian standad, a PC War on Terror standard. useless. I think what they are really against is guilt, they feel guilt if they supported the DP and someone innocent died. A human phenomenon, not a legal one. There are ways around guilt, although Hollywood hasn’t discovered it yet.

    Again, it is that perfect standard. No mistakes can be made, if there are any kind of messiness, then we have to spend quadrillions of dollars and time on fixing it, which hobbles the system. This is as true in war as it is in peace.

    If we could get rid of the DP without destroying the virtues that make up the American people and sustains future law and order, then I could be convinced to get rid of the DP. Considering what I know about human nature, however, that’s not likely to happen any time soon.

  • http://soccerdad.baltiblogs.com soccer dad

    Yes there is a difference.
    BTW, in Baltimore County there’s a state’s attorney Sandra O’Connor (who is retiring) who scrupulously followed the death penalty statutes and has seen to the execution of a number of murderers. (So death penalty opponents now talk of the geographical bias in the application of the death penalty in Maryland.)
    I recently heard one of her assistants on the radio saying that the credible threat of the death penalty helped the prosecutors dispose of one recent case. The murderers pleaded guilty because they feared for their lives.

  • jg

    I agree with Y. The attack on the nature of America’s law continues, and, as BW points out, Quindlen’s is simply another bad argument that is part of the assault. Let’s be clear: Our law does not exist to protect the criminals. But that has become the only issue. Not society, not the unprotected, not the innocent. Not right and wrong, not the good. Those rights are non-rights in today’s (hey, Quindlen!): ‘culture of death.’

    Yep, death glorified: not in our courts– never on Death Row– but in our streets.

    Check YOUR local newspaper each morning; read the list of senseless violence; imagine what is not reported.

    Odd isn’t it that stupid, insane murder is so much a part of our everyday existence? It has become ‘entertainment,’ (remember Larry King asking a serial murder, “how does it feel?”). Hollywood sells violence. What violent crime has not become a main feature in the MSM over the last years? (Peterson, Yates..)

    Depraved pop music, perverted video games, school shootings, suicide, wrecked young lives–that’s our youth culture. Ms Quindlen’s kind and caring Leftist America has brought forth a monster. I agree that she and her fellows promote a barbarism that rivals those whom she here despises: Iran, China; etc.

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  • JJ

    I would also venture to say that we do not, in fact, have a death penalty in this country. There were 17,000 murders in 2004 (last year for which I have stats) and how many executions? Under 50.

    That is not a “death penalty.” That’s a weird, uniquely American, form of lottery.

    Which of course provides ammunition for the argument: “the death penalty doesn’t deter.” Well – how would you know? It’s never been tried.

    An actual death penalty would mean that if you commit murder, there will be an inevitable consequence: your execution. Our current system – if it is a system – based on 2004 numbers; means that if you commit a murder you have a .00294% of actually paying for the crime with your life.

    That may be many things, but one thing it is not is a “death penalty.”

    And I also have to say I am one of those people who doesn’t much give a damn what the rest of the world thinks, about much of anything. Maybe I’ve spent too much time living abroad. We buy from them and support their economies; for the last hundred years we’ve protected them; we’re doing what we can to protect them right now; we feed them and rebuild them when they need it, as in the wake of two world wars and events like the 2004 tsunami; we’re pretty goddam good to them generally – but we don’t need to listen to them. Only rarely do most of them have anything intelligent, or even intelligible, to say. (If that strikes you as harsh I can only suggest you visit the UN on any day.)

    America is unique in many ways the rest of them only vaguely comprehend. It doesn’t bother me, as it evidently does Anna Quindlen, that they don’t get this one either.

  • Kevin

    Great article Soccer Dad–thanks for the link!

  • mamapajamas

    Another point… from the Taranto article: “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.”

    That isn’t all. There is inherent bigotry built in to that theory, as well. There is a “What do you expect from those people?” elitism in place in this POV. It doesn’t matter whether “those” people are a minority, working class, welfare class, or any other group… it is the elites saying that they can be excused because it isn’t possible for them to behave as civilized as their “betters”. This, of course, is the absolute definition of bigotry.

    Sorry, whatever elitists happen to be out there… I expect people of all sorts to have enough sense to not murder people.

  • Dodgy

    JJ your arrogance is breath taking. It’s that sort of attitude which makes the US such a traget of hate.

  • http://ymarsakar.blogspot.com/ Ymarsakar

    Then bow down to your superiors and slake their thirst for praise and flattery.

    People in positions of leadership are described as arrogant because they give commands and people follow them, things happen. Other people are said to be humble because they try and tell people things, and nobody pays them any attention. Here is my perspective on things.

    Arrogant people are people who try to force their opinions on other people through force and social superiority, rather than meritorious conduct. Humble people are those who realize that there are people better and superior than they, and that it is best to learn from the elders in order to become better.

    Your arrogance is not my arrogance, but yours.