The 'Axis of Evil' and the Death Penalty

Aired February, 2002

KUFM Radio Commentary, Montana Public Radio

Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), University of Montana

A couple of weeks ago I returned from Europe with Deni Elliott, the director of the Practical Ethics Center at the University of Montana. We gave lectures to students in Sweden about media ethics. One of the issues that caught the interest of the students and faculty members in attendance was the question of whether executions in the US should be televised. It is my opinion that state sponsored killing, whether through military action or execution, is the business of the American public. Capital punishment happens in the United States because of the will of the people. Federal executions should be televised nationally as part of network news programs. States that execute prisoners should do so under the scrutiny of local news outlets. And, people should watch.

Suddenly, one of the Swedish faculty members forcefully said, "I would never be a citizen of a country that had the death penalty."

The professor's comment led us all on a general discussion concerned with the true nature of terrorism and evil as defined by governmental leaders and as reported by the news media. In his first State of the Union address, George W. Bush identified Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an "axis of evil."

Capital punishment gives our country our own membership in an axis of evil. The US is a member of a select group of nations around the world-those in which the death penalty is permitted. For along with Bush's axis of evil-Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, we are in sympathy on this issue with such bright lights of human rights as Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Kuwait, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, and 78 other countries. By the way, 73 countries have outlawed the death penalty for any crime.

From 1977 until 2001, 710 executions were carried out in this country within the 38 states it is still legal: 545 by lethal injection, 149 by electrocution, 11 by poison gas, three by hanging, and two with a firing squad. Why does this slaughter behind the high walls of maximum security prisons continue?

Does the death penalty deter crime? Nope. The average number of homicides per 100,000 of population is about the same in states that have or don't have the death penalty.

Are innocent persons ever executed? Sure. For the first 85 years of the 20th century, at least 350 people were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death-23 of them were executed. In 2000 the governor of Illinois called for a moratorium of the death penalty in his state after 13 death row inmates were released who were wrongly convicted.

Is the death penalty racist? No doubt. The African American population is about 13 percent in the US. The percentage of African Americans executed is about 53 percent.

Is killing someone more expensive than housing that person for life? Yes. In Texas, for example, the average cost to taxpayers for a trial and subsequent appeals is $2.3 million. A life sentence costs about $750,000 per inmate or 33 percent less.

Are those who were under 18 years of age at the time of their crime ever executed? I'm afraid so. Since 1990 Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iran have executed eight persons who committed their crimes as juveniles. The US has executed 15 since 1990-eight in Texas alone.

Finally, are the severely mentally ill ever executed? You bet. In Texas, for example, four persons with IQs of less than 70 were killed.

And what if Osama bin Laden is captured alive, brought back to this country, tried, convicted, and hung before an international television audience? Will that extreme act even remotely compensate the victims and their families and friends for the pain and suffering incurred by the attacks on 9-11? Of course not. Closure is an artificial psycho babble quick fix. You don't ever get over the sudden loss of a loved one. I should know. My father was murdered. Four shots in the chest with a 22-caliber pistol. Believe me. Attending an execution and seeing another murder would not make up for my life-long loss.

The only conclusion an ethically aware person can make is that we're living with publicly approved evil right here in this country. And as Coretta Scott King said, "As one whose husband and mother-in-law have both been the victims of assassination, I stand firmly opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses. An evil is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of human life. Morality is never upheld by legalized murder."

Unlike the professor from Sweden, I enjoy and treasure being a citizen of this country. And I will continue to do so until well past the day my fellow citizens realize that belonging to an "axis of evil" by supporting the death penalty and executing a person in the name of the state is as evil as killing in the name of Osama.

Sources for additional information can be found at:
The Death Penalty Worldwide
Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
Death Penalty Information