Pro-death penalty Democrats depress me

Even speaking as a political junkie who loves talking politics, I absolutely hate debating the death penalty.  Sure, I can marshal the logic and empirical evidence that proves, in my judgment, beyond any fair debate that capital punishment is bad policy: It doesn’t deter crime, it’s horrendously expensive, it’s applied in a racially discriminatory fashion, innocent people have been sent to death row in shocking numbers and on and on.

But that’s all background noise.  And few people give a damn about it, because in the end the death penalty, at least as it’s practiced in this country today, isn’t about logic or empiricism, or even about what’s good policy; it’s about revenge — bloody, Old Testament style vengeance.  And we don’t even try to hide it anymore.

I guess that’s why I hate debating capital punishment so much; it always degenerates into something terribly depressing.  Within 10 seconds, at the outside, your pro-capital punishment opponent will resort to something similar to Bernard Shaw’s totally inappropriate, but very damaging, question to Michael Dukakis during a 1988 presidential debate, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis (his wife) were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

How can reason survive, let alone prosper, at this pathetic level of discourse: It always degenerates into something like what follows:

“If somebody murders one of my children I want him to die.”

“Of course, we would all feel that way about our loved ones, but that doesn’t mean it’s good . . .”

“So you’re saying that some bastard who would do that to my kids deserves to live?  Is that what you’re saying, you son of a bitch?”

My, wasn’t that productive.  But that’s nearly always what happens, to one degree or another.  And what makes me especially depressed, as someone who feels profoundly at the gut level that it is morally wrong for the state to kill people, is how much this love of death has become a bipartisan affair.

Democrats long ago discovered that favoring capital punishment was politically expedient.  Not all have taken the easy road, but too many have.  And there’s something ugly about that.  Take Bill and Hilary Clinton, both death penalty advocates, but both also smart enough to know, first, that it doesn’t produce any social good, and, second, that it’s applied in an arbitrary, inconsistent and discriminatory way.  Still, they choose the expedient path. 

And while it didn’t keep me from voting for Bill twice, and it won’t keep me from voting for Hilary if, against my personal desires, she ends up with the nomination, I have to admit that it makes me think a little less of both of them as leaders and as human beings.

But it isn’t just the Democratic leadership that discourages me on this issue; it’s also much of the rank and file.  I sometimes visit the hugely popular (and quite well run) discussion boards at the Democratic Underground, although I almost never post there myself.  But I’ve learned to stay away from the death penalty threads, because inevitably they degenerate in pretty much the same way as in the example I set out above.  “I only regret that I can’t do it to him myself”; “Great, the bastard deserved to fry”; “I can’t believe you’re taking the side of that sick animal.”  Sentiments like this probably represent a minority at DU, but it seems to be a sizable one.

There have been some hopeful signs on capital punishment in recent years, but clearly we’re still a long way from turning the corner and joining most of the rest of the industrialized world in abolishing the practice.

And for those of you who favor the death penalty, fine, you’re entitled to your opinion.  I just don’t want to argue with you about it.  Life’s too short, and to quote that great American, Barbara Bush, “So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”

The future belongs to the abolitionists, I still believe that.  But this more humane future sometimes feels unfathomably far away.  And right or wrong, the fact that so many of my political allies are on the other side, makes me more than a little sad. 

5 Responses to “Pro-death penalty Democrats depress me”

  1. Bloodstayne Says:

    A New Jersey Policy Perspectives report concluded that the state’s death penalty has cost taxpayers $253 million since 1983, a figure that is over and above the costs that would have been incurred had the state utilized a sentence of life without parole instead of death. The study examined the costs of death penalty cases to prosecutor offices, public defender offices, courts, and correctional facilities. The report’s authors said that the cost estimate is “very conservative” because other significant costs uniquely associated with the death penalty were not available. “From a strictly financial perspective, it is hard to reach a conclusion other than this: New Jersey taxpayers over the last 23 years have paid more than a quarter billion dollars on a capital punishment system that has executed no one,” the report concluded. Since 1982, there have been 197 capital trials in New Jersey and 60 death sentences, of which 50 were reversed. There have been no executions, and 10 men are housed on the state’s death row. Michael Murphy, former Morris County prosecutor, remarked: “If you were to ask me how $11 million a year could best protect the people of New Jersey, I would tell you by giving the law enforcement community more resources. I’m not interested in hypotheticals or abstractions, I want the tools for law enforcement to do their job, and $11 million can buy a lot of tools.” (See Newsday, Nov. 21, 2005; also Press Release, New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Nov. 21, 2005). Read the Executive Summary. Read the full report. Read the NJADP Press Release.

  2. billii Says:

    In my opinion, you only have to witness one execution, as I did many years ago when I was a felony prosecutor, to know that there has to be a better way.

  3. Chuck Says:


    I remember reading the same statistics when I was taking a Sociology course in 1967. Coupled with that, the stats on the wrongly accused & those proven innocent after they’ve been executed leads me to believe there is no such thing as a “just” death penalty.

    Steve is right, it’s just plain revenge.

  4. alwayshope Says:

    I don’t argue about it either and I’m not conflicted. Killing is just wrong. If I had a gun in my hand, and someone threatened a loved one, I just know that I would shoot them in the leg. If that didn’t work, well I tried.
    If they sent me to war, same thing. If someone made me go humting, I would shoot myself in the leg. Don’t we see enough death every day? I don’t argue about it because I see no way to justify it, nor to convince anyone else that it is just morally wrong. Maybe we should have everyone who believes in the death penalty take a turn at the switch or the needle. Let’s start with Hillary. Okay, Hill, go ahead, just stick that needle in and plunge girl. It’ll all be over in a minute and you won’t feel a thing. That or you’ll realize that maybe that feels a little wrong, somehow. Kill and become the killer, torture and become the terrorist. It’s just a no-brainer.
    I don’t know why our society has become so mean and violent, but I do know that “the fish rots from the head down”.
    Hey, I guess I DO argue about the death penalty. hmm

  5. spotty.leopard Says:

    I totally agree with you, Steve, & I hope for the day when the death “penalty” is abolished once & for all. It is an abomination, and cheapens all of us who put up with it. It is revenge, pure & simple (& quite often “revenge” taken on a person who had nothing at all to do with the act supposedly being avenged.)

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.