Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

The Death Penalty Around the World

In this second installment, I am still mapping the geography of capital punishment before turning to arguments about it.  Looking at the U.S., we saw 15 states (plus the District of Columbia) without the death penalty and 35 states (plus the federal government and the U.S. military) with the death penalty.  But several of those states seemed poised to eliminate it: In 2010, Connecticut passed repeal, but it was vetoed by the governor.  The same thing had happened to New Hampshire in 2000 and a threat by the governor to veto it led to repeal failing in the 2010 NH senate after passing the house.  Colorado came within 2 senate votes of passing repeal.  Illinois’ legislature has passed repeal and waits to see if the governor will sign it. Repeal movements are getting stronger in states as diverse as Nebraska, South Dakota, Oregon, Washington State, and even Kentucky and Tennessee.  So, how does this compare to the situation globally?

As shown in this nice color-coded map, there are 139 nations which have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.  Of that number:  95 nations (including the entire European Union, Canada, Mexico, much of Central and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and much of the Southern Cone of Africa) have abolished the death penalty for all crimes.  Many of these have gone further and changed their constitutions to make certain that a crime wave cannot easily restore the death penalty.  Another 9 countries (Bolivia, Brazil, the Cook Islands, El Salvador, Israel, Fiji, Kyrgystan (!), Latvia, and Peru) have eliminated the death penalty for ordinary crimes (i.e., reserving it for war crimes or political assassinations or murders in the military).  An additional 35 countries have the death penalty on the books, but have not executed anyone in over 10 years and have not sought the death penalty for longer. (Death penalty opponents still work to get this “practical” abolitionist countries to go further and eliminate the penalty from the books.)

That leaves only 58 countries where the death penalty is retained in both law and ordinary practice. 

Five (5) countries account for the vast majority of executions yearly.  Those five nations are China ( 470 executions in 2007, 1,718 excutions in 2008, and thousands in 2009); Iran (317 in ’07, 346 in ’08, and 120+ in ’09); Saudi Arabia (143 in ’07, 102 in ’08, and 69+ in ’09); Pakistan (135 in ’07; 36 in ’08; 120 in ’09) (Pakistan sometimes trades off with Iraq, the Sudan, or Syria), and the United States (42 in ’07, ’37 in ’08, and 52 in ’09). The United States should look in shame at being regularly listed alongside the world’s greatest abusers of human rights!

The other trend to note globally is that the direction and momentum is toward abolition.  Since 1976 (the year that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gregg v. Georgia that states with re-written capital punishment laws that are “fair” and not “arbitrary in application” could resume executions), 81 nations have abolished the death penalty–and the pace is increasing.  As an American, I find it embarrassing that my country has a more ruthless punishment than Turkey (abolished in ’04), Kyrgystan, Argentina, Chile, Cambodia, or Bosnia-Herzogovina!  Hong Kong won the right to remain death-penalty free even after being returned to China in 1997!

This isolation hurts the U.S. in fighting crime and terrorism since abolitionist countries usually will not extradite accused criminals to countries that retain the death penalty unless they have assurances that the person will not be executed.  On December 10, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly voted for a global moratorium on executions (109 “yes” votes, 41 “no” votes, 35 abstentions, and 7 absences).

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January 31, 2011 Posted by | blog series, capital punishment, ethics, human rights, U.S. politics, violence | 1 Comment

Winning the Future or Building the Future? Which Image is Most Helpful for a Progressive Agenda?

George Lakoff, the communications expert who uses  brain studies to help progressives better sell progressive politics, has a column reinforcing what I said about Obama’s attempt to use center-right language to move the center back from the left.  Lakoff notes that for his first two years in office, Obama, with sizeable Democratic majorities in Congress, was all about policy and refused to sell those policies with any kind of image or narrative.  Now he has a narrative image: competition.  Lakeoff notes that the slogan “winning the future” looks to be helpful in splitting business conservative off from rabid, far-right, “Tea Party” types.  But “winning,” fits with either a war or a sporting competition and several things that progressives care deeply about don’t easily fit into either narrative.  Lakoff also has helpful suggestions for the way the Obama team can fit many of those progressive concerns into the “winning the future” competition narrative.

As I said in my earlier post, I think those of us who are U.S. progressives and liberals should try to help Obama move the center back from the right.  Bob Cornwall, who has been a more thorough Obama partisan than I am, reminded me privately that U.S. politics is always determined by who wins the center.  But, as I emphasized, it makes a difference whether one is winning the center by Clinton-style watching where the right moves the center and then moving there or trying to move the center back from the right. 

Obama is trying the right strategy, but I wonder if “winning the future” is the right narrative image to do this.  Lakoff is right that Obama had been neglecting the necessity of selling his policies–he let the right define him–a mistake made by Jimmy Carter to disastrous results in 1980.  But Obama had been toying over the last 2 years with a different metaphor: “A New Foundation.”  That’s not the metaphor of a war (which can be used for progressive ends, as with LBJ’s”War on Poverty”), but of construction.  What if Obama, or progressives independent of him, talk not of “winning the future,” but of building the future?”  That fits with the desire for investment in infrastructure, education, innovation and green energy, but it also allows more concern for the common good.  “Winning,” competitions can reinforce rightwing social Darwinist narratives of “ruthless tooth and claw” competition, which doesn’t do much for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, universal healthcare, ending the Afghanistan war, etc.  (Yes, Lakoff shows how Social Security can be defended in Obama’s image as something already earned by competitors and other ways of defending progressive programs in the competition narrative, but some of it is forced and can be easily hijacked by conservatives.)   “Building the Future,” allows us to see society not as a fierce competition, but as a web of connection or as a home (images which help bring back concern for the environment).  It also helps us forge a foreign policy that is more about cooperation than competition.

January 31, 2011 Posted by | political philosophy, U.S. politics | Leave a comment