Americans and the death penalty.

Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in Texas under Gov. Rick Perry for murdering his own children, despite ample evidence of his innocence.

Very, very briefly, as I have both paying work and pro bono stuff up the wazoo today (why do these things not happen on opposite days, for instance? The fates can’t do at least that for me?):

There is much talk on my side of the internet about the fact that the audience at last night’s Republican debate cheered Rick Perry’s statements about the death penalty (clip embedded below) — much horror, much disgust, and on one level, I’m absolutely with you all on the horror and the disgust. After all, among the things that Governor/Presidential Wannabe Perry said was that he he has “never struggled with” the idea that he might have overseen the execution of an innocent man (go to the Brian Williams question, at about the 10 second mark) — and given that it appears that he did just that, the horror just grows exponentially.

But here’s the thing: Those cheering people, and God save us, Gov. Perry himself, are not strangers to us. They are not from another planet, or even another country. They are us. They are Americans. And in 2009, 65% of Americans said that they support the death penalty.

Now, I’m of the opinion that a pretty large slice of that 65% wouldn’t be cheering the idea, and would want those in power to be very, very certain about who they’ve decided to execute and why — to, in fact, struggle over it. That’s American, too, to support something without necessarily loving it. That’s how I feel about abortion, for instance, and it’s part of what is potentially great about this country: At our best (which, I will grant you, is sometimes difficult to find) we do not demand simple answers. Democracy makes room for gray areas, and we are a democracy.

But having said that, no matter how many would or would not cheer, no matter how many would or would not be thrilled that a Governor doesn’t struggle or lose sleep over putting people to death — those who cheered last night are a part of my American tribe. Or, to paraphase an American who I really rather loathe: You go to the future with the Americans you have, not the Americans you might want, or wish to have.

If we want to see less mindless cheering and more mindfulness, indeed, if we want to end the death penalty — we need to be part of making that happen. And that means engaging people in conversation, writing letters to the editor, supporting political campaigns and grassroots efforts. It means playing a part — and that part is much, much bigger than simply curling our lip and walking away.


The famous “GOP crowd cheers death penalty” clip (I particularly can’t stand the self-satisfied smile on Perry’s face when the cheering starts):


  1. dmf

     /  September 8, 2011

    we also need to engage local politics with the same intensity that the christianistRight did, texas textbooks and executions don’t just fall from apple trees

    • This. Thisthisthis.

      • dmf

         /  September 8, 2011

        I hate that we are getting our asses kicked at the daily workings of democracy by people who don’t even believe in it and are using it to undermine the very possibilities it provides. who says that we are in post-ironic times…

  2. I happen to be against the death penalty. But it’s a complicated issue, and there are many supporters whom I respect.

    I cannot, however, respect the cheering of hundreds of executions, much less of a man who sanctioned the death of an innocent person. Of the 65% of Americans who support capital punishment, how many are this bloodthirsty about it?

  3. I have only one reason to support the death penalty: when you absolutely positively have a guilty murdering SOB and there is no other way to guarantee that psychopath won’t get loose to kill again. The argument for this is Ted Bundy: this is a guy who escaped jail in Utah and fled to Florida where he continued to rape and kill again. Putting him in jail for life was no guarantee he’d never escape again. And there was nothing there worth redeeming. He had to get strapped in Old Sparky.

    I have a myriad of reasons to despise the death penalty: the most obvious being if we execute an innocent person, we can’t hit a reset button to fix that. We have serious problems in our judicial system where the death penalty is unevenly applied, where the poor or uneducated suffer it more than others who can afford better legal counsel. We have a prosecutorial system that encourages DAs to pursue high-profile verdicts, and nothing’s more high-profile than the death penalty. We have a system where prosecutorial misconduct is rarely if ever punished, and abuses to the system routinely excused away or ignored. And we have situations like here or in Florida where we get these gung-ho governors puffing out their chests thinking their manhoods rely on how many guys on Death Row they execute within a week for some sick book of world records. I despise the politics of the death penalty, that’s for certain.

  4. What can be said, but that there is a vast gulf between those who support the death penalty, who have agonized over their decision to support it, and the sycophantic, “Christian” masses on display at the “debate,” who allowed a crescendo of accolade to damn them in the eyes of a nation and possibly in the eyes of their God. We may wish to find a reasonable accommodation in our beliefs for the idea that some people are beyond redemption, that there can be no turning them from evil’s side, but even there, they represent a life, and taking that life serves no purpose. The guilty must live with the shame and humiliation of their guilt — there is no other way for them to be redeemed. To simply put them out of society’s misery condemns us, for if we believe in life and the soul and forgiveness, how can we countenance murder by our government?

  5. js290

     /  September 9, 2011 (Episode 09, Chapter 10 may be of interest)

    • js290

       /  September 9, 2011

      Oops, skip to #t=1h15m45s of the Ron Paul interview for his thoughts on the death penalty.

  6. dmf

     /  September 9, 2011

    for for fridays and for waking up from the technicolor bubble of the american dream.

    Supermarket in California

    What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for
    I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache
    self-conscious looking at the full moon.
    In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
    into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
    What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families
    shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the
    avocados, babies in the tomatoes!–and you, Garcia Lorca, what
    were you doing down by the watermelons?

    I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,
    poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery
    I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the
    pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
    I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans
    following you, and followed in my imagination by the store
    We strode down the open corridors together in our
    solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen
    delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

    Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in
    an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
    (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
    supermarket and feel absurd.)
    Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The
    trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be

    Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love
    past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
    Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,
    what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and
    you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat
    disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

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