The death penalty disconnect

For the first time in a long while, capital punishment is the focus of considerable political attention. The Supreme Court’s intervention in the Duane Edward Buck case, the impending death of Troy Davis, and a Republican debate audience cheering the fact that Rick Perry has executed 234 people has put the death penalty in the spotlight.

Given this, Dahlia Lithwick had a terrific piece the other day, noting that the right’s skepticism about government seems to have a special carve-out for death sentences.

Either you believe in government or you don’t.

The current field of Republican contenders for president are hard at work to prove they don’t. The best government, they insist, will leave you alone to repair your own ruptured kidney while your neighbors bring you casseroles and cigarettes. In recent weeks, leading Republicans have made plain they don’t believe in government-run health care (lo, even unto death). They don’t believe in inoculating children again HPV (lo, even unto death). They don’t believe in government-run disaster relief (ditto, re death), the minimum wage, Social Security, or the Federal Reserve. There is nothing, it seems — from protecting civil rights to safeguarding the environment — that big government bureaucracies can’t foul up.

But there is one exception: killing people. These same Republicans who are dubious of government’s ability to do anything right have an apparently bottomless faith in the capital-justice system. Everything is broken in America, they claim — except the machinery of death.

A couple of weeks ago, at a debate for the Republican presidential candidates, Brian Williams noted that Rick Perry signed off on the executions of 234 people, more than any other governor in modern times. The moderator asked, “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?”

Perry responded, “No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all.”

My beef was with the kind of questions Perry is willing to ask himself. The governor balks when presented with evidence on evolution, abstinence education, and climate change, but embraces without question the notion that everyone he’s killed in Texas was 100% guilty. The scientific process, he apparently believes, is unreliable, while the state criminal justice system is infallible.

But Dahlia’s point takes this a step further. The problem isn’t just in the kind of evidence and expertise Perry — and Republicans in general — are prepared to consider; the problem also extends to their willingness to selectively put their faith in government. The state is not to be trusted when it comes to almost anything, but when the issue is a process in which the American government will kill American citizens, the right has no doubt that government bureaucrats know exactly what they’re doing.

If you question the ability of the government to give families access to affordable health care, that’s just good sense. If you question the ability of the government to determine whether an American should be executed, that’s just liberal claptrap.

Dahlia concluded, “If you believe, as do the GOP presidential frontrunners, that government bureaucracies lead inexorably to error, cover-up, and waste, then there is no better place to start looking than the capital punishment system, which sentences and executes defendants in ways that are sloppy, racist, and corrupt. At any rate, a government bureaucracy that oversees education or health care deserves a far higher degree of regard — and far less sneering scrutiny — than a government bureaucracy that administers careless death.”