Political Animal


September 18, 2011 9:50 AM The death penalty disconnect

By Steve Benen

For the first time in a long while, capital punishment is the focus of considerable political attention. The Supreme Court’s intervention in the Duane Edward Buck case, the impending death of Troy Davis, and a Republican debate audience cheering the fact that Rick Perry has executed 234 people has put the death penalty in the spotlight.

Given this, Dahlia Lithwick had a terrific piece the other day, noting that the right’s skepticism about government seems to have a special carve-out for death sentences.

Either you believe in government or you don’t.

The current field of Republican contenders for president are hard at work to prove they don’t. The best government, they insist, will leave you alone to repair your own ruptured kidney while your neighbors bring you casseroles and cigarettes. In recent weeks, leading Republicans have made plain they don’t believe in government-run health care (lo, even unto death). They don’t believe in inoculating children again HPV (lo, even unto death). They don’t believe in government-run disaster relief (ditto, re death), the minimum wage, Social Security, or the Federal Reserve. There is nothing, it seems — from protecting civil rights to safeguarding the environment — that big government bureaucracies can’t foul up.

But there is one exception: killing people. These same Republicans who are dubious of government’s ability to do anything right have an apparently bottomless faith in the capital-justice system. Everything is broken in America, they claim — except the machinery of death.

A couple of weeks ago, at a debate for the Republican presidential candidates, Brian Williams noted that Rick Perry signed off on the executions of 234 people, more than any other governor in modern times. The moderator asked, “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?”

Perry responded, “No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all.”

My beef was with the kind of questions Perry is willing to ask himself. The governor balks when presented with evidence on evolution, abstinence education, and climate change, but embraces without question the notion that everyone he’s killed in Texas was 100% guilty. The scientific process, he apparently believes, is unreliable, while the state criminal justice system is infallible.

But Dahlia’s point takes this a step further. The problem isn’t just in the kind of evidence and expertise Perry — and Republicans in general — are prepared to consider; the problem also extends to their willingness to selectively put their faith in government. The state is not to be trusted when it comes to almost anything, but when the issue is a process in which the American government will kill American citizens, the right has no doubt that government bureaucrats know exactly what they’re doing.

If you question the ability of the government to give families access to affordable health care, that’s just good sense. If you question the ability of the government to determine whether an American should be executed, that’s just liberal claptrap.

Dahlia concluded, “If you believe, as do the GOP presidential frontrunners, that government bureaucracies lead inexorably to error, cover-up, and waste, then there is no better place to start looking than the capital punishment system, which sentences and executes defendants in ways that are sloppy, racist, and corrupt. At any rate, a government bureaucracy that oversees education or health care deserves a far higher degree of regard — and far less sneering scrutiny — than a government bureaucracy that administers careless death.”

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • DAY on September 18, 2011 9:57 AM:

    in re government:

    Republicans see it as an Old Testament God.
    Democrats see it as a New Testament Jesus.

  • SteveT on September 18, 2011 10:03 AM:

    Republicans will argue that there is a big difference between "we the people" juries and the soulless government "bureaucracy".

    But as usual, they would be lying.

    Republicans DON'T trust juries. A big part of their "tort reform" agenda is limiting the penalties that juries can impose on corporations. (The rest of Republican "tort reform" is preventing ordinary people from filing lawsuits in the first place.)

  • martin on September 18, 2011 10:08 AM:

    he state is not to be trusted when it comes to almost anything, but when the issue is a process in which the American government will kill American citizens

    And foreign citizens. They have unlimited faith in the US Gov't to bomb any solution into existence, as long as the person in charge is willing to do so without a second thought.

    And though it is part of the death system, they also have an almost unlimited faith in the police, until they actually have to deal with them.

  • c u n d gulag on September 18, 2011 10:15 AM:

    Republicans believe that the only time government is of any use at all is when it's killing poeple - via either war or the death penalty.

    And it's expecially of use if those people aren't white.

  • DRF on September 18, 2011 10:15 AM:

    I'm tired of reading snarky posts like this every time a Republican speaks in favor of some kind of government action. Claiming that it's hypocritical for those who oppose any government to support government action seriously misunderstands the political philosophy of the Republican candidates for President.

    In the first place, most of the ire of the GOP candidates is directed at actions of the Federal government, as encroaching on actions that should be dealt with at the state level. Whether one agrees with this viewpoint with respect to specific issues, these recent executions and impending executions are the result of the operation of the state judicial systems, not the Federal government's.

    Second, none of the candidates, including Ron Paul, oppose all government action. They all subscribe to a much more limited view of the proper sphere for government action and particularly Federal government action, but none of them would disagree that one of the core functions of government is law enforcement and the administration of justice.

    Finally, I doubt that any of the candidates would argue that the court system is infallible. But whether it has operated accurately in any given instance isn't necessarily a conservative vs. liberal issue.

    So let's forget about the snark, let's stop attacking straw men. There are plenty of real issues on which to legitimately attack Perry, Romney, Bachmann and the rest.

  • James on September 18, 2011 10:21 AM:

    It isn't that they have "faith" in the death penalty process. It is because they are utterly indifferent, sociopathically indifferent, to anyone other than themselves and their tribe -- whether a miscarriage of justice, poverty, illness, whatever. It's no aberration that one of them admired the "balls" of executing an innocent man. They would do it themselves -- they WANT to do it themselves. It excites them.

    In fact, I find it very easy to visualize, if/when these people get into power, purges and brutal suppression the likes of which we see in totalitarian societies.

  • SteveT on September 18, 2011 10:25 AM:

    "Straw men"?!?

    "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" -- St. Ronald

    You're right, none of the candidates, including Ron Paul oppose any government action. They just oppose any government action that doesn't help THEM, their cronies or their corporate masters.

    And it is just revolting to see people cheering executions. It's just one more example of Republicans taking us back to the 19th century -- when families picnicked at spectator sports like battles and executions.

  • JEA on September 18, 2011 10:29 AM:

    Squawk all you want about the death penalty. And abortion. I've noticed the public at large really doesn't care all that much if one of those 234 were innocent.

    Neither is going to be an important election issue next year.

    Here's a thought for a progressive strategy: try to focus, just once, on issues that will win an election instead of unpopular ideological issues.

  • walt on September 18, 2011 10:56 AM:

    In fairness, it's not just the death penalty. There's the military, too, which we must always trust and whose expenditures can only be raised.

    The rule of thumb here is authoritarianism where if something is inherently anti-democratic, it's good. If it pulls a caboose with socialist payoffs, that's okay too. Say VA health care, military pensions, etc.

    Don't get caught by ad-hoc Republican principles. These principles have to be understood in the context of the sociopath exercising them against "liberals". This isn't and has never been about "small government", a ridiculous "principle" Republicans pay lip service too. It's about their tribe of white authoritarians ruling. Nothing more, nothing less.

  • Al B Tross on September 18, 2011 10:57 AM:

    Even more evidence we are dealing with Authoritarian personalities.
    Another of the more bizarre facets to the Authoritarian personality is it's need to control, and eliminate, that which causes it fear. We see this in the scapegoating of minority groups, or anyone they deem a threat.

    The part which should be of most concern is when this uncontrollable desire for punishment takes the next step, the desire and need to KILL your opposition. The black/white Machevellian world in which the Authoritarian mind lives demands this. "You are with me or I will kill you, because you scare me". To them, it is their RIGHT to kill you, as you are impinging upon their personal sovereignty
    Reason? Logic? How many times have we observed and commented on the Rights unwillingness to see the hypocrisy of their own policy or action? They can no more control these emotions within themselves than a skunk can change it's stripes.
    They will lash out, they will kill, and enjoy it, given the proper stimulation.


  • Josef K on September 18, 2011 11:10 AM:

    Given the freakshow the Republican Party has become, from top to bottom, they can change the caucus's motto to:

    "Talk is cheap, nothing we say should be considered a factual statement, and the only thing more worthless than our promises is a voter's life."

    And to DRF at 10:15am: this is not a 'snarky post' on the subject. Its an uncomfortable reality the current Republican party has embraced a vision that can only be described as purely sociopathic. The federal government could 'devolve' every responsibility it currently takes down to every statehouse in the country, and the Republican governors and legislatures would demand those responsibiliies get taken up by municipalities alone.

    The only exception to all this: the federal government stays in the business of executing those convicted by the Courts. And as we've seen over the last 250 years, the Courts can be as error-prone and arbitrary as any instution.

    Its a sick mess of a political party, and one that shouldn't be allowed any more power than it already has.

  • Grumpy on September 18, 2011 11:15 AM:

    The question can be turned around just as easily: if liberals are so sure the government can't apply the death penalty fairly, why do they trust government for everything else? Phrased that way, the question becomes ridiculous. Now explain why it isn't ridiculous the other way 'round.

  • lichnor on September 18, 2011 11:24 AM:

    Republican's don't think "Government" is the problem, they think the "Federal Government" is the problem.

    Republican's have no problem letting State government do all sorts of things.

  • Al B Tross on September 18, 2011 11:26 AM:

    Nice flip Grumpy!!

    I would have to say , "everything else" doesn't necessarily put folks to death, only the death penalty does that.
    As far as trusting the Government, I would assert that the Left does not, as why we want transparency in Government function, to keep an eye on anyone with a lot of power. The Right seems never to question their leaders, the Lefts' motto is "Question Authority".
    I would also add that it is the Lefts' contemplation, the moment of reflection, that separates them from the Right.

  • Speed on September 18, 2011 11:32 AM:

    The Right also has an almost religious faith in the Military, let's not forget. Soldiers and cops; the only two public employees conservatives love.

  • MNRD on September 18, 2011 11:42 AM:

    The Republicans know perfectly well that the criminal justice system is fallible. They are simply willing to kill a certain number of innocent persons in order to be able to execute persons who are guilty of horrendous crimes. In other words, they essentially view the executions of innocent persons as "collateral damage". I understand the instinct to want to put psychopathic monsters to death. What I don't understand is the enthusiasm for allowing the state to put innocent persons to death. We can set an innocent person free who is in prison, but we can't bring an innocent person back to life once that person has been executed.

  • FRP on September 18, 2011 11:43 AM:

    Some of the preserved pictures of the picnic atmosphere enjoyed at KKK lynchings , parties , barbeque's , has impacted in the current sophisticated tee peeur sense of a world view , which is simply supporting a comfortable defensible triumph . There is no bias here , just kill 'em all . A view which all , aside the piddling mews from the tormented , tortured , mutilated , murdered , being actual , destroyed victims , the newly dead stars of a reality show . Entertainment that preceding bottom feeding cheepo television by several decades . The polish on an impossibly impeccable record of progenitors mirroring our own ages Bloody Billy Kristol's . The perfected reverse Midas touch of everything they seek , ruined along with every poisoned word uttered in a contempt that revolves around the rejection of our principles and virtues , the constitutional back bone of America . The virtue of real victims , not the present day wide bottomed variety of fainting couch touts , but of a minority opinion and presence snuffed one at a time , forever out of sight , forever improved in a twisted balance of fear being considered equal to life .

  • Grumpy on September 18, 2011 12:10 PM:

    Relating this post to the previous one...
    "Dahlia" versus "Brooks." Is Lithwick a personal acquaintance whereas Brooks is not? Otherwise it looks like a gender-based double standard. A very common one.

  • TCinLA on September 18, 2011 12:29 PM:

    It's not just the death penalty, it's anything to do with death. Republicans believe in the War on Terror. They believe in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (as long as it's not them or their kid who's there, just the working class morons stupid enough to "vote their values" and support Republicans so their kid can find a job - a job killing people)

    And if you point out to them that the death penalty doesn't work, that it costs 5 times as much as life without parole, and is breaking their state's budget, they'll tell you it doesn't matter, the death penalty is "right." And if you tell them that the idiot wars have bankrupted us, they'll tell you that those wars were "right." Why is all that "right"? Because they believe it is, they just know it has to be because it must be.

    I have frequently posed Dahlia's question to wingers, like this: "You don't believe the government can do anything right, right?" (head nod) "But you believe every person ever sentenced to death really was guilty, because they were convicted by this same government that can't do anything right, right?" (head nod)

    Further proof that there are two species of hairless biped on the planet: homo sapiens (us) and homo sap (them).

  • busbus on September 18, 2011 1:42 PM:

    All of their cuts of policies that provide protections and supports for American citizens, their need for torte reform, their overwhelming support of the death penalty and their announced plan to amend segments of the Constitution, are their OVENS to be used for their planned HOLOCAUST!

  • Neil B on September 18, 2011 2:05 PM:

    As many have noted, at the core of the "conservative" mindset is really meanness, not a theory of government. BTW, another example: cons don't want government "meddling" (much of it, readjustment of previous collective - what else could they be, to be common ground - agreements about who owns what etc.) in business or what people contract to do, but they think the government has plenty of right and ability to properly adjudicate and enforce those private agreements. I tell anyone, you are a fake libertarian if you believe in a government that enforces private contracts. Since the latter is almost necessary in practice, they are just about all fakes.

  • N.Wells on September 18, 2011 2:33 PM:

    Besides the death penalty and all things military, the right is willing to trust the federal government with proselytzing their brand of religion, policing all suspicious-sounding bedroom activities and with a vast array of other intrusions into the civil rights of anyone who is not "them". It's a noxious combination of religion, authoritarianism / fascism, and dislike of anything different.

  • exlibra on September 18, 2011 5:26 PM:

    Republican's have no problem letting State government do all sorts of things. -- lichnor, @11:24

    *Except* when: a State wants to allow gay marriage. Or, a State introduces more stringent emission controls or other green solutions. Or, a State says the right to die with dignity is OK.

    Then, it's: "Daddy (fed gov), tell them they can't! Stop them! Save us, Daddy!"

    Craptcha is in a full disclosure mood: "Mangler ntrydo" it says of itself, with the "try" part in white, just to make sure one gets the whole :)

  • rick on September 18, 2011 7:58 PM:

    234 executions in 10 years. That's about one execution every two weeks - in Texas alone. The real irony/hypocrisy is that those that cheered so wildly are from the pro-life party.

  • Scamp Dog on September 18, 2011 8:47 PM:

    The purpose of government is to do things TO people, not FOR people. Once you have that down, it's easy to figure out what government actions the Republicans will support.

  • exlibra on September 19, 2011 12:49 AM:

    haloguy on September 18, 2011 9:37 PM:

    Do you like Cougar & younger men? I met my sugar mommy on
    ==::[ Co ugar a @ ( .//0.//M ] :: ==
    It is the first and best dating site for Cougars and Young Men.It offers the matchmaking service for charming and mature women who like young men as well as attractive and young men who meet rich and older women. And it's totally free for all member.

    Please remind me... what's the purpose of Craptcha? "$125 depinis". De penis used to be a lot cheaper than that.

  • Nancy Irving on September 19, 2011 5:22 AM:

    Both you and Dahlia are missing something here.

    For conservatives, execution of the innocent is a feature, not a bug.

    Because what, after all, is our criminal "justice" system for? It exists to keep down "those people"--the non-white poor.

    Police (and conservatives) are fond of intoning that "if you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to be afraid of." This must be as big a joke to them as it is to the black and brown residents of poor neighborhoods.

    If the law did not touch the innocent, the innocent would not fear the law.

    Only when the law can as easily single out the innocent as the guilty, will a whole population live in fear.

    And they must live in fear: that is the point of the exercise.

    Ironically, then, every time the Innocence Project exonerates another death-row inmate, every poor black and brown man trembles, even amidst the rejoicing.

    Because for every innocent exonerated, how many are executed?

    And tomorrow, will it be me?