There used to be an ideological division of labor in what might be called the terminal issues of American public life. Conservatives were in favor of the death penalty but opposed to abortion. Liberals, conversely, favored abortion but were against the death penalty. This divide is now in process of being bridged. Perhaps this is part of the larger healing process of which much has been written lately, as for instance in connection with the recent lifting of the ban on trade with Vietnam. Perhaps America is finally becoming a more mature nation, its instincts of compassion tempered with realism, its innate toughness fortified by empathy with the victims of injustice. In any case, there is now emerging a new bipartisan consensus in favor of both abortion and the death penalty.
Readers of First Things have not had to complain about lack of coverage of the abortion issue, but they may not have been as aware of the progress on the other issue. A number of prominent politicians represent the new consensus. There is Governor William Weld of Massachusetts, whose credentials as a moderate Republican of possibly presidential timber have been enhanced by his firm pro-choice position and his tenacious efforts to reintroduce capital punishment in the state. On the Democratic side there is former Governor Douglas Wilder of Virginia, who has been hailed as a living example of the civilizing effect that black elected officials are increasingly having on American government. A few months ago, still on Gov. Wilder’s watch, there was a small problem. A prisoner due to be executed was unable to walk. (It should be mentioned that he was also black, so no racial prejudice could be charged.) The state was getting ready to construct a ramp so that this individual could be wheeled right into the death chamber. In the event, this proved to be unnecessary: he felt that being rolled in on a wheelchair was undignified and, somehow, he managed to limp to his execution.
However, without in any way diminishing the achievements of leaders like Weld and Wilder, it is President Clinton himself who embodies the new consensus in the most impressive way. A certain moral high point came in the 1992 electoral campaign when Dan Quayle in one of his speeches questioned Clinton’s good faith in claiming to be tough on crime. George Stephanopoulos indignantly pointed out that, during his period as governor of Arkansas, Clinton had allowed four executions to be carried out. So he did. Actually, he signed the orders for about seventy executions, but most of these, through no fault of his, were not carried out. Even in the enlightened state of Arkansas desperate defense lawyers have recourse to various legal maneuvers to stave off executions-just the sort of frivolous delaying tactics that the Supreme Court, in another show of growing ideological consensus, is now determined to stamp out.
The last person executed under Clinton’s governorship was Rickie Rector. The details of this case were reported in a long story in, of all places, the New Yorker. Rector had participated in a robbery in the course of which he had killed a policeman. He then shot himself in the head in an attempt at suicide, either in an effort to avoid capture or as an act of remorse. He failed to kill himself, but was left severely brain-damaged. He had the mental age of a child of five. As usual, the case made its way through the courts, but in this instance all attempts to avoid the execution of the death sentence failed. Clinton was then out of state on the campaign trail. He returned to Little Rock so as to be in his office while the execution was carried out. Consequently, there is no possibility of denying him due credit for it. According to eyewitness accounts Rector was quite unaware of what was happening to him. When the executioner had difficulty inserting the poison syringe, Rector tried to help him. It had been Rector’s habit in prison to save a portion of his dessert cake for an evening snack. When his cell was cleaned out after the execution, the usual piece of cake was found left behind. He had evidently planned to eat it afterward.
The Rector case raises the interesting question of whether a severely retarded individual should be subject to the death penalty. An argument could be made that it is more humane to execute someone who does not know what is happening than someone who is fully conscious of the proceedings. This question cannot be pursued here. Rather, attention should be drawn to the international dimension of this issue. The United States is the only Western democracy that continues to carry out the death penalty. There had, of course, been an interruption while the Supreme Court pondered whether the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment applied here. Since the wise (and, incidentally, strict-constructionist) decision that it did not, executions have been steadily increasing and in a number of states have become routine. Texas, with the highest number of individuals on death row, has inaugurated a work program just for them-a garment factory. (Assurances have been given that none of its products will be exported to China.) The Clinton crime bill, of course, greatly increases the number of offences punishable by death under federal jurisdiction. Some foreigners, especially Europeans and Latin Americans, have difficulty understanding this. The Spectator of London recently published a cartoon showing an individual being led to an electric chair in front of which a sign said, “Please wait to be seated.” This, of course, was intended as a blatantly anti-American comment, such as one has come to expect from the English right. Yet perhaps there was here also an unconscious acknowledgment of a feature of American exceptionalism-the capacity for compassion and courtesy even when robust measures have to be taken.
There is no reason to fear that the United States will abandon its splendidly isolated practice of capital punishment any time in the near future. There is no constituency for abolition either on the right or the left. However, as more and more people move through America’s death row, two modest proposals may be in order.
The first (Republicans will note with approval) would require no state intervention. It is high time that the several occupations engaged in life termination be given proper professional training. Increasingly now the death penalty is carried out by lethal injection, a procedure that is not only more humane than the earlier methods but is also inherently a medical procedure. The indicated curriculum would plausibly combine paramedical and paralegal training. It would unite in one program the technical personnel dedicated to abortions, executions, and assisted suicides. In addition to the instructors in practical procedures, the faculty could include morticians, bereavement counselors, and medical ethicists. The course would culminate in a diploma in Individualized Exit Facilitation (IEF). One or another Southern state university could certainly be induced to pioneer in this field.
The second proposal would respond to the aforementioned international aspect of this issue. Yet another growing bipartisan consensus concerns the place of human rights in American foreign policy. The United States Information Agency should make a concerted effort to explain the American position on life termination in all its aspects and its relation to fundamental human rights. The Agency for International Development should include individuals with IEF diplomas in its programs in the underdeveloped countries. Most important, the State Department should include the status of IEF laws and practices in its annual report on human rights in the world. This last suggestion would also have a domestic benefit. Year by year, Americans can read the State Department report and be proud. They already know how superior they are to China. It is time to feel superior to Switzerland.
Peter L. Berger is a member of the Editorial Board of First Things and Senior Advisor to the Institute on Religion and Public Life.