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You, me and the death penalty

Will McAuliffe | Tuesday, October 3, 2006

American soldiers come home in body bags from Iraq on a morbidly regular basis. AIDS and civil strife tear apart Africa with ruthless impunity. Fresh lines are being drawn in the sand of the Middle East, dividing Israel and the Arab world. Unbridled violence dominates round-the-clock news and talking heads yell louder than ever at each other about anything that can be categorized as blue or red. So why in this world of mounting tensions, violence and casualties do I champion the abolition of the death penalty in the United States – which only claimed 60 lives in 2005 – over all these other issues?

My simple answer is this: states are killing incarcerated criminals on behalf of its citizens and the executions can stop whenever their respective governors say so. It’s going to take a lot more than a simple phone call to stop Hezbollah from hating Israel (contrary to President Bush’s comments at the Great Eight summit). It will take decades to counter the damage that has been done by poverty, racism, disease and civil wars in Africa, and it will take more than interim election promises by challengers and incumbents alike to solve the quagmire of Iraq. In contrast, all it takes to halt an execution, to stop the killing of an incarcerated person, is a phone call by a governor. That, to me, is what makes this issue constantly relevant: the degree of control and consent over the killing of an individual expressed by the public and state governments. The concept is startling; state governments are taking these people out of cells where they are locked up and killing them as an agent of U.S. citizens. Think about that for a moment. Sixty times last year, a prisoner was taken from their controlled confinement, escorted to the waiting method of execution and killed. For you and for me. The states do this because this is what they think we want to have happen. Therefore, they are enacting our wishes as citizens.

That being said, many of you are already formulating extremely reasonable questions and arguments in response to this line of thought: “Why should we have sympathy for these convicted murderers and rapists? Why is it our responsibility to speak for those who have committed heinous crimes against other human beings?” A good portion of you are likely in support of the death penalty and are internally reciting arguments based on the merits of execution as a legitimate means of delivering justice to those who have so brutally carried out these acts.

I understand.

I’ve had these thoughts many times and have held varying opinions until I really studied the topic and found myself with a steadfast stance against the death penalty. This opinion was grounded in facts and feelings alike, both in abstract morals and beliefs and in concrete statistics and studies. It is through a better understanding of the realities of the system of capital punishment, from trial through to the actual execution, that I arrived at the undeniable conclusion that capital punishment is inherently unjust, immoral and an unwarranted burden on states and their citizens alike.

My goal is not to convert you into a fellow critic of the death-penalty. We know too well that the inevitable, well-crafted response would sway you back in a few short days. My aim is not to throw statistics and numbers into this small space and claim that they speak for themselves. If that worked, this issue would be moot and this space could be filled with articles about fresh unexamined topics such as The Vagina Monologues and overpopulation.

Instead, my intention is to invite all those interested in learning more about the death penalty and refining your beliefs through well-informed conversation to interact with the new campaign on campus: Notre Dame Against State Killing, or simply ND ASK. Its goal is to inform the Notre Dame community of valuable facts and opinions on the topic as well as facilitate continued discussion throughout the school year. Any interested student, faculty or community member is invited to attend any meeting or lecture regardless of your stance. If the statistics, opinions and discussions presented don’t sway you, you are encouraged to attend and explain your views.

I for one am looking forward to a year of educated discussion on the death penalty and the insights, perspectives and possible solutions that will inevitably arise from the Notre Dame community.

Will McAuliffe is a senior Political Science major with a serious love for The Colbert Report and Fox News, Chris Wallace in particular. All letters of support, disdain or otherwise relevant commentary should be forwarded to him at mcauliffe.4@nd.edu. Go Irish.