Death, Dissent and Diplomacy: The U.S. Death Penalty as an Obstacle to Foreign Relations

Article excerpt

"This is barbaric and unworthy of a state based on the rule of law."1

INTRODUCTION: A HERITAGE OF PROTEST

Widely believed to be the innocent victims of an unfair trial, two foreign nationals facing execution in the United States had captured the attention of the world. Rallies in their support attracted huge crowds in London and Paris, in Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, Bombay and Tokyo. Petitions for mercy flooded the governor's office, signed by half a million people worldwide. The Italian head of state, former Nobel prize winners, and the Vatican joined in the global appeal for clemency, all to no avail. The world watched as the final days ticked away, transfixed by the last-minute battle to obtain a new trial amid a mounting storm of domestic and international protest. Citing procedural default and deference to state law, the appellate courts refused to intervene.

The news that Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti had died in the Massachusetts electric chair sent hundreds of thousands of protesters pouring into the streets of cities on six continents. Tanks and troops cordoned off the United States Embassy in Paris to protect it from rioters; in Geneva, demonstrators roamed the city destroying everything American, even attacking theaters showing Hollywood films.2 Around the world, hundreds were injured or arrested in demonstrations that degenerated into riots. An editorial cartoon on the front page of one French newspaper portrayed the Statue of Liberty holding an electric chair aloft, while another showed Uncle Sam trying to remove bloodstains from the American flag.3

For millions of people at home and abroad, the Sacco-Vanzetti case had come to embody the perceived political failings of the United States: preaching freedom and democracy while indelibly stained by racism, class oppression and injustice. And for an entire generation of progressive writers, artists, and activists, those unstoppable executions in August of 1927 confirmed a growing sense of America as a reactionary power that had abandoned its founding principles. Writing fifty years later, novelist Katherine Anne Porter still saw "this event in Boston as one of the most portentous in the long death of the civilization made by Europeans in the Western world."4

Other death penalty cases in the United States would trigger outbursts of protest in the decades that followed; like Sacco and Vanzetti, most were emblematic of the radical politics of a turbulent era. After the International Labor Defense (the legal arm of the American Communist Party) intervened in Alabama to challenge the unfair death sentences imposed on a group of Black teenagers, the Scottsboro Trials of the 1930s became global symbols of American racism. The Rosenberg spy case generated a clemency campaign that galvanized millions of left-wing activists across Europe, with support from international celebrities like Albert Einstein, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Diego Rivera. One case gained prominence through the eloquence and publicity skills of the prisoner himself; when deathrow author Caryl Chessman faced execution in 1960, a support group presented California lawmakers with a clemency petition containing two million signatures gathered around the world.5 After Chessman's highly publicized death in the gas chamber, crowds attacked U.S. embassies in Lisbon, Stockholm, Montevideo, and dozens of other cities across Europe and South America.6

Thus, on one level, international opposition to the death penalty in America is nothing new. But much has changed since two otherwise obscure anarchists were executed in Massachusetts a lifetime ago, not least of all global perceptions of the death penalty itself. What began largely as politically motivated demonstrations against selected executions has evolved into something more complex and much more significant to the conduct of the United States' foreign relations. Today's demonstrators are united, not by ideology, but by a human rights ethos that sees all executions as equally repugnant, from beheadings in Saudi Arabia to lethal injections in Texas. …