The return of federal executions

“Anyone who has witnessed the steady rise of Trump, with the thumbs-up, thumbs-down swagger of an omnipotent Roman emperor,” knew this day was coming.  Attorney General William Barr has just announced the end of the Justice Department’s unofficial, 16-year-long moratorium on executing federal prisoners. The department plans to put five inmates to death in December and January. Barr selected the first candidates carefully, to blunt the complaints of critics: three of the five inmates are white, and “each committed one of the most heinous crimes one could imagine, the murder of children”.

But that doesn’t change the fact that capital punishment has been proved to be racially discriminatory and can lead to the innocent being executed. In recent decades, 166 death row inmates have been exonerated by DNA testing or other evidence. Most developed nations abandoned this barbaric practice long ago, and even the US states that carry out the bulk of executions in America have “sharply reduced” their use of the death penalty in recent years. So why bring back federal executions now? As is so often the case with our Caligula-like president, “the cruelty is the point”. It thrills his base.  (Will Bunch, The Philadelphia Inquirer, re- published in The Week, 10 August 2019)

This is a moral and philosophical issue.  Surely there has been quite enough discussion and research about the death penalty over many years. Revenge killing-by-society is immoral, and, in some Southern States, often with suspected racial overtones. It is also useless as a deterrent.  Murderers don’t not murder because they might  be executed for it; it never occurs to them that they will be caught, and, in any case, murders are typically carried out in a moment of rage, or by people who are mentally deranged. All too frequently the accused turn out to be simple-minded, inarticulate, but innocent.  But these objections carry no weight, it appears, with the self-described christian followers of Trump, who get riled up about abortion but are happy to see adults executed, even when innocent. But then who now expects consistency?

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