detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Thursday, May 03, 2001


: . pu-pu platter finds Common Ground:

What partisanship has torn asunder, let Principles bring back together. From the Left, Christopher Hitchens and from the Right, Andrew Sullivan. The topic: the execution of Timothy McVeigh. Both Hitchens and Sullivan oppose the Death Penalty. But how to end the Death Penalty when the body politic twitches with bloodlust? Hitchens, an unreconstructed Socialist, appeals to the state for more civilized legislative solutions. Sullivan, a queer Conservative predisposed to be leery of the state, calls for a more sensational form of moral suasion. Short-circuit TV for the victims’s relatives alone? Ridiculous, says the ever contrarian Sullivan. Show it all, he suggests. Broadcast the execution for all to see, up to the final death spasm. The effect? Maybe, just maybe, after staring death, quite literally, in the face we would no longer be so cavalier about judging the relative worth of individual human lives.

Hitchens: The McVeigh case makes absolutely no difference at all to the arguments against the death penalty. It is not news that we have depraved people among us; nor is it news that they like to taunt society with their combination of relish and indifference. The number of victims, the heinousness of the offense--these considerations do not and should not weigh in the balance…The case can be put quite simply and intelligibly. It is not possible to be in favor of the death penalty à la carte. The state either claims the right to impose this doom or it does not…Subjective considerations about atrocity and wickedness are what the judicial system exists to prevent, or at the very least to contain…Capital punishment is an either/or proposition, as every law-bound society except the United States has come to realize. The state, even in time of war, may not lawfully kill its prisoners. (And the populace has no business demanding that it should.)

Sullivan: If this brutal form of punishment, abandoned in most civilized countries, is an instrument of intimidation, it makes no sense to hide it from view…Each year, Americans endorse and tolerate dozens of state-sanctioned executions. Each one of the condemned is a human being--breathing, thinking, and feeling until the final moment of terror. A society that accepts this but will not witness it is deeply cowardly. In fact, no moral argument in defense of the death penalty is, to my mind, plausible unless an individual is prepared to witness the death he has endorsed. Being somewhere else when the trigger is pulled is a form of denial, of moral escapism. The taking of a human life is not, after all, a trivial matter. It is the most profound act any human being can commit. To sanction it blithely, to acquiesce in it easily, to endorse it but not confront it, constitutes moral abdication…It is the confrontation with the visual and sensual details of killing that keeps us morally alert…If we cannot face what we do, what possible moral rationale do we have to continue doing it?

A brief history of the Death Penalty craze from Russell Baker: The death penalty was already falling into disuse in the United States when the Supreme Court ended it in 1972. There had been no executions for five years. Death houses were still filled with candidates, but the old zest for sending convicts to the gallows, the chair, and the gas chamber seemed to have waned. State governors, whose duties include the macabre obligation to sign death warrants, were increasingly finding reasons to commute capital sentences to life imprisonment or to grant extended delays of execution…Then something happened. By the middle of the 1970s there was a rising public clamor for capital punishment. Politicians were discovering that pledges to be 'tough on crime' worked like catnip on voters, and who could be 'tougher' than the candidate howling for the death penalty?…Nowadays American devotion to capital punishment is such that only the most foolhardy governor would dare confess that signing a death warrant doesn’t make him sleep better. Periodically congressmen call attention to their 'toughness' by discovering more federal crimes that require capital punishment. Periodically politicians denounce the entire legal system for making it hard to clear out the death houses with dispatch. Recently a Missouri man nominated for a federal judgeship was blocked by his state’s Republican senator, John Ashcroft, because of a 'poor record on the death penalty.'

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