Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Reconciling the Heart with the Head

Today's 5-4 ruling that rejects the death penalty for child rapists shows the clear divide not just on the Supreme Court, but in American society in large. If we needed any further example of how polarized we are in this country, decisions such as these are more than eager to point it out. If we needed a means to gauge how we have evolved over the centuries, this easily provides it.

This decision also makes a strong case for the need to elect Barack Obama in November. A McCain Presidency would swing the balance of the court ever more resolutely towards the right and undermine reform measures passed by what will likely still be a Democratic-controlled Congress. The majority of American society still favors the procedure, but our appointed and elected gatekeepers have asserted they know better than the rest of us and made the decisions for ourselves. This authoritarian impulse one either embraces as a necessary means of control or rails against as running contrary to the popular will.

Cases such as these test the very premise of the capital punishment divide. They are a direct challenge to death penalty opponents. You don't favor executing adults who kill other adults in cold blood, they argue, but what about adults who rape children, the most defenseless among us? Let's see how committed you are to this premise.

And I, as a recent convert against the practice, find myself with no small degree of ambivalence. There's a part of me who cries for blood justice when I read about offenses like these. Deep within the American psyche is an overwhelming desire to inflict directly proportional punishment upon the perpetrators of one of the most inexcusable crimes one can commit. There's a kind of understood life-for-a-life logic that even a young child can easily comprehend.

Similarly, abortion rights have been severely parsed and in doing so had each individual plank isolated from the whole as a means of calling into question every building block of a much larger established precedent. The scope of Roe v. Wade has been chipped away at over the years, and if conservatives had their way, each subsequent legal challenge will totally emasculate the practice until it is full of so many restrictions and limiting caveats that it is rendered practically worthless.

But back to the death penalty: having grown up in a solidly red state where scorn is openly heaped upon those who would be cowardly enough to not send convicted murderers of human beings of any age to our sanitized gallows, I have to reconcile my heart with my head. Doing so is never an easy task and old habits and convictions do not easily go to their grave.

Those who oppose the Death Penalty often characterize their position on a simple premise: to speak out against the practice is to advance a cause that pushes the human race forwards--it is a triumph of civilized impulse, by which humans step away from the Dark Ages and into a much more rational, reasoned viewpoint. Indeed, I feel the same way, but in saying so, I understand the kind of self-satisfied vantage point provided by those who still staunchly support the death penalty. It makes sense in some kind of primal way.

Those who would oppose war often find their ranks swollen with devoted adherents, that is, of course, until any preemptive attack a la Pearl Harbor or 11 September 2001 transpires. In the immediate aftermath, the clamoring for blood and the desire to even the score overshadows even the most noble intentions.

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