God’s Gift to Humanity?

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In his recent State of the Union address, President George W. Bush — with a straight face and with no apparent attempt at irony — referred to the United States of America as “God’s gift to humanity.” There are, of course, plenty of reasons to dispute such a statement. While the majority of those reasons relate to America’s colonialist foreign policy (currently on display in the pending war on Iraq), I’m going to suggest that Mr. Bush turn his attention inward (or perhaps toward a mirror) before making such a bold assertion. How can the U.S. be “God’s gift to humanity” when it continues to apply the death penalty, the ultimate abuse of human rights?

Bluntly put, by clinging to the death penalty, the United States is turning itself into an international pariah. Since the United States reinstated the death penalty in 1977, an average of two additional countries per year has abolished the death penalty, while the United States has executed over 800 people (300 of them in Texas, and over half of those under Bush’s watch). A majority of countries in the world have progressed to the point where they no longer apply the death penalty, either in law or in practice. Even China is now discussing an end to the death penalty.

A couple of times each week, I get an e-mail appeal from Amnesty International, asking me to send a letter to the governor of Texas, or Virginia, or Oklahoma, or any of the other death penalty states. I take the time to write and mail the letter because I firmly believe that every one of us has a responsibility to stand up and be counted when we know something is fundamentally wrong. But, frankly, I’d really like to stop writing those letters. I look forward to the day when the United States finally fulfills Mahatma Gandhi’s famous prescription for western civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.”

In spite of prevailing American public opinion in favour of the death penalty, there is hope. Mexico has taken the U.S. to the International Court of Justice, seeking to enforce the provisions of the Geneva Convention when one of their citizens is charged with a capital offense. Maryland’s Attorney General has called for the abolition of the death penalty in that state. And, Wisconsin Senator Russell Feingold has introduced two bills — the Federal Death Penalty Act, which would abolish the federal death penalty, and the National Death Penalty Moratorium Act, which would place a moratorium on executions by the federal government and encourage the states to do the same while a national commission reviews the fairness of the administration of the death penalty.

In 2000, then Illinois Governor George Ryan declared such a moratorium on executions after evidence was uncovered proving that at least seventeen death row inmates were actually innocent — including one who was just forty-eight hours from being executed. Ryan, a staunch proponent of the death penalty when he came into office, then appointed a commission to look into the cases of those who had been sentenced to death. On January 11, in one of his last acts in office he commuted the death sentences of all 167 death row inmates to life imprisonment and pardoned four people who had been proven innocent. In doing so, he incurred the wrath of pundits, prosecutors and advocates for crime victims, but he deserves to be commended for his courage.

In announcing his decision, Ryan indicated that “the legislature couldn’t reform it. Lawmakers won’t repeal it. But I will not stand for it. I must act&. I sought this office, and even in my final days of holding it I cannot shrink from the obligations to justice and fairness that it demands. There have been many nights where my staff and I have been deprived of sleep in order to conduct our exhaustive review of the system. But I can tell you this: I will sleep well tonight knowing I made the right decision.”

By any standards, George Ryan is a severely flawed hero (he did not run for re-election due to several ethics investigations), but he is a hero nevertheless. But, as Seattle Times columnist Neal Peirce points out, “history doesn’t necessarily select saints to move us forward.” Opponents of the death penalty from around the world have started a campaign to have Ryan awarded with the next Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. If he wins, he would join recent American winners Jody Williams (whowon it in 1997 for her work in the campaign against land mines) and Jimmy Carter (who won last year for his work on building peace in the Middle East and elsewhere). Isn’t it interesting — not to mention disturbing — that Americans get considered for the pre-eminent international peace prize only when they oppose key policies of their government?

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