Capital Punishment: Death Becomes the Easy Answer

By Richard Cohen Copyright Washington Post Writers Group | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), March 28, 1996 | Go to article overview

Capital Punishment: Death Becomes the Easy Answer


Richard Cohen Copyright Washington Post Writers Group, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


We have developed in the United States a culture of death," said Cardinal John O'Connor, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York in his Sunday sermon. "Death becomes the quick fix. Death becomes the easy answer."

Yes to his first two thoughts. A quibble to the last. If death is the easy answer, then what is the question?

It cannot be, "What is a deterrent?" Even proponents of capital punishment concede that is not the case. It cannot be "What is justice?" since the occasional mistake, no matter how rare, amounts to an unforgivable miscarriage of justice. It cannot be "What will affect crime in general?" since New York City is celebrating a wholesale decrease in crime - all this without a single execution.

So what is the question? It has to be this: "Should the state be in the revenge business?" The governor of New York, George Pataki, must feel strongly that the answer is yes. Not only did he campaign on restoring the death penalty, but last week he reached down from Albany and removed the Bronx district attorney from the murder case of an ex-convict accused of killing a policeman. The DA, Robert T. Johnson, is an opponent of capital punishment.

It was this move that prompted O'Connor's remarks. His homily was in fact delivered before hundreds of police officers attending the annual Mass for the Holy Name Society. The cops reportedly listened to the cardinal with both respect and attention, but few if any of them changed their minds. A cop had been killed, and his killer should die. There is a neatness about that formulation that is, I concede, appealing. It suggests closure.

In fact, it is to my mind the only argument that can be made in favor of capital punishment. The death penalty is an abomination, but so too are most of those put to death. They are an awful bunch of sociopaths, and they will not be missed. For all of that, though, it's just as hard not to conclude that we kill those we cannot cure. They are sickies all - evil, sure - but that is just a word we use for awful behavior we cannot begin to understand.

But in expressing his opposition to capital punishment, O'Connor has put his finger on something. There is something very strange and hideous about the insistent calls of politicians to either restore the death penalty or to invoke it with more and more frequency. …

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