The Ugliness of Cheering for Capital Punishment

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I said here last night that the California GOP audience cheering the announcement that Texas has executed 234 condemned murderers under Rick Perry was a vile, repulsive thing.

Even when I was for capital punishment, I believed this.

Justice may require execution, but we should never rejoice in taking the life of another human being. At best, capital punishment is a necessary evil. I quit believing in capital punishment when I became convinced that the state is not trustworthy to use this power responsibly.

It happened about 10 years ago, when it emerged that a forensic scientist in Oklahoma whose testimony had been key to many convictions, including capital convictions, was actually quite incompetent. I lost track of the story, so I don't know if any of the prisoners executed thanks in part to her testimony were later exonerated. Even if they hadn't been, the fact that men were sent to their death based on the expert testimony of an incompetent scientist is chilling.

In Texas, the capital punishment regime is deeply flawed.

If you are a conservative inclined to trust Rick Perry's remarks about its soundness, I invite you to read the New Yorker's long report about the Cameron Todd Willingham case. When this became a controversy in Texas, Perry went out of his way to block an official inquiry into the facts. I don't believe this hurt him, either. People have a strong need to believe in capital punishment, and they will accept anything that allows them to support it with an untroubled conscience.

I understand why people believe in capital punishment.

Personally, I believe that if you take a life cold-bloodedly, you should have to forfeit your life. But I do not believe that the government is capable of delivering the ultimate punishment in a fair, accurate manner, 100 percent of the time. I agree with the teaching of the Catholic Church, which doesn't flat-out condemn capital punishment, but says that if society can protect itself by bloodless means, then it should do that rather than opt for execution.

It is worth contemplating why it is that conservatives who believe the government is incompetent in most areas of its agency are willing to assent credulously to its unerring competence when it comes to exercising the ultimate power over its citizenry: killing them.

Rod Dreher is a Senior Editor for the American Conservative. There he operates a daily blog, from which this piece has been adapted.

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