Saturday, September 10, 2011

Applauding Death at the GOP Debate

There were many reasons for those of us interested in social justice to despair during the Republican debate on September 7, 2011. I never thought I would hear Social Security described as a "Ponzi Scheme." I hardly know how to explain why we are nominating one party's candidate for leader of the free world from among a pool of prospects at least half of whom don't believe in evolution and minimize or dismiss the effect of global warming. It says something, although I'm not sure what, that in a field of eight the two most "moderate" in their views are Mormons, usually not bastions of political moderation. But the thing that really set me back was something not mentioned much. ABC news reported it this way:
Texas Governor Rick Perry apparently loses no sleep over authorizing 234 executions in more than a decade as Texas governor. Perry has authorized more executions than any governor in the history of the United States. He said at a Republican presidential debate Wednesday that he has never worried that the state of Texas has executed an innocent man. “I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place,” Perry said.  “When someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States if that’s required.”
Okay, I'm an opponent of the death penalty, so I listened to Perry and was appalled by his cavalier attitude, but I'm familiar with his swagger and bravado and I expected it. But I was not prepared for what happened next:
When NBC’s Brian Williams asked Perry the question about the death penalty and pointed to the 234 executions – even before Perry answered – the Republican debate crowd erupted in applause for the governor’s actions. Perry pointed to the applause as indicating a vast majority of Americans supports capital punishment. The most recent execution authorized by Perry in Texas was in July.
I think even Brian Williams was taken back and perhaps that is why he pushed the candidate for his feelings about the applause. Perry showed not a lick of concern that innocent people might be executed, even though there is considerable evidence, amounting at least to reasonable doubt, that innocents are numbered among Perry's 234 death warrants. Instead we got a Texas style "you hurt a Texan you pay the ultimate price." It was not clear what would happen if the crime happened to a Frenchman visiting Texas.

Here is what frightens me. We're living in a very volatile climate these days. Many of our civil liberties have been undercut, purportedly in the cause of homeland security. Economic woes are exacerbated by a dangerously low trust in our culture's institutions, particularly government and big business. The ground is dry, the air is hot. It's no time to be playing with matches.

Politicians like Perry appeal to the worst of our fears as a pathway to their own ambitions. He won't be elected president. Eventually his mouth will catch up to his charm. But before that happens he can do a lot of damage to the fabric of our society. We need leaders with heart, not heartless leaders. We need those who understand our fears and calm them with words and actions, rather than exploit them with phony rhetoric.

The capital punishment issue is a very difficult one. Virtually all of those who face execution are guilty of the crime--not all, but most. They are not particularly nice people but the issue is not really about them. It is about us. Killing in the name of the state is barbaric, totally ineffective, and outrageously costly. And perhaps worst of all--it cheapens us, taps those inner demons within us. In the hands of he-who-would-be-president Mr. Perry, it is justice we got when he sent 234 men and women to their death. But it did nothing of the kind.

We stand alone as the only country in the Western world who still uses the death penalty. We should be booing, not applauding.