Donald Trump and Bill Barr
Credit: The United States Department of Justice/Wikimedia Commons

Bill Barr is killing Americans but sparing terrorists.

In July the U.S. attorney general directed his Department of Justice to resume the death penalty. Since his directive this summer, he’s used lethal injection to kill five federal Death Row inmates.

Barr executed five murderers, rapists and torturers of children and the elderly. Men who inflicted unimaginable pain and suffering on their victims and surviving families. Barr unapologetically resumed capital punishment after a two-decade hiatus, “bringing justice to the most horrific crimes.” Barr’s tough on crime.

Unless, of course, he’s not.

Barr also decided this summer to skip the death penalty for a pair of foreign ISIS terrorists who clearly qualified for the ultimate punishment. Shockingly, Barr wrote a three-page letter dated Aug. 18 to British Home Secretary Priti Patel to say he won’t seek the death penalty for two terrorists in U.S. military custody in Iraq. The despicable duo, nicknamed “The Beatles” because of their British accents, are accused of kidnapping and beheading several hostages in Syria in 2014, including James Foley, an American journalist.

And Barr’s assurances to Patel went further, saying that even if a death penalty were imposed, “It would not be carried out.” That’s right, he’s both killing Americans and guaranteeing not to kill terrorists. This disparity is offensive and needs to change.

Society is currently debating whether there are two systems of American justice as the 2020 presidential election forces the question: Is there one harshly punitive system for Black America and another less-severe system for the rest of America? That answer may come as early as Nov. 3.

What’s clear now is that there is a two-tier system of American justice. One says the death penalty is OK for criminals inside U.S. territory. The other essentially gives criminals residing outside the United States a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The reason? Countries can’t — and won’t — extradite to America criminals eligible for the death penalty. Sen. Dianne Feinstein recognized this crazy reality in 2003 when she said, “If you steal a car in the U.S., Mexico will return you to face prosecution and punishment. If you kill the driver, Mexico will protect you.” That’s right. The more heinous the crime, the less likely the chance of being extradited to the United States.

As a result, America can’t get its man. In the case of the “Beatles,” the United Kingdom won’t even give evidence unless Barr cries “Uncle.”

Bill Barr currently is in charge of this longstanding and absurd two-tiered system of capital injustice. He freely applies the death penalty to guilty parties at home while, at the same time, guaranteeing that those committing monstrous acts abroad either escape justice or receive greater leniency than criminals at home. It’s perverse.

Civilized countries around the world have stopped capital punishment. Those nations refuse to extradite or provide evidence to places that execute criminals: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, China and the United States.

Our country has to make an important choice. Will it maintain its death penalty, recognizing that the trade-off means some of the world’s most wanted criminals will get away with murder? Or, will the United States give up capital punishment entirely and join the community of nations that condemn the practice and fully collaborate on cross-border justice? America can’t have it both ways.

James Foley’s family has been incredibly understanding of the flawed U.S. legal policy requiring official “assurances” to mete justice. A merciful and spiritually strong Diane Foley told the BBC, “I feel that the death penalty is too easy. It allows them to be martyrs. . . . They really need to face life imprisonment, so they have a chance for redemption themselves.”

America gave Russia assurances that there would be no death penalty if they sent NSA leaker Edward Snowden back home. The United States promised the Mexican government that drug kingpin “El Chapo” Guzman would not be subject to capital punishment. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Brits said if they caught Saudi mass-murdering terrorist Osama bin Laden, he would not have been extradited to the United States. The list of criminals escaping swift — or any — justice continues to grow because of America’s backward approach to capital punishment.

While America may kill its own and spare those on foreign soil, Saudi Arabia just practiced the exact opposite. A Saudi court overturned five death sentences for the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist suffocated and dismembered in Istanbul. In a country that otherwise wholeheartedly embraces the death penalty, Khashoggi’s killers instead received between seven and 20 years in jail. Is it ever possible to apply the death penalty equitably here or anywhere?

America must sync up with most of the world around capital punishment or accept that while some get executed, others will get away with murder.

Equal justice requires us to end capital punishment.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).