Death Penalty Politics

Article excerpt

The seismic shift in the politics of the death penalty is staggering. Those who have long labored in the vineyards of abolition find themselves suddenly able to talk about the subject in polite company, yet uncertain just how to deal with the headway that's being made. The latter is understandable for two reasons. Some of the newly arriving allies simply smell victory and want to be in for the political rewards. As they have expended no capital in the long struggle, with little understanding of the nuances of the issue, their energy is impressive and possibly of value but likely good only in the short term. Others' newfound interest arises only because public opinion is shifting. Their goal is to undermine and nullify any significant alteration in what is for them an important political tool.

So, to those who have struggled to put an end to the barbarity of state killing in America, a word of advice. Two, actually: Caveat emptor. Many of your new allies are more interested in quick results than true abolition; others are intent only on co-opting the developing momentum and turning it to their advantage.

The first group, more positively intended, includes many well-meaning individuals and organizations, some with long-sought philanthropic dollars to invest in a "good cause." But their commitment too often translates into how-soon-do-I-get-something-to-show-for-my-money, and their company may quickly be a memory. They can certainly be helpful and should be welcomed, but a short attention span and a need for the reassurance of the often superficial analyses of "experts" bode ill for a long marriage.

The others are more problematic. Along with the shocked realization that those left-wingers in the media have caught on and are dangerously close to exposing them, the bad news in the polls and the avalanche of exonerations, new studies and sudden conversions have brought the bloodthirsty up short. Politicians to the core, these heretofore steely-eyed dealers in death suddenly find it necessary to demonstrate their willingness to perhaps take another look at this system they've built (witness Clinton's decision to stay the first federal execution in forty years). Well, "perhaps" is the operative word.

Not all have come over, of course; many are still happy to cast the first stone. But even Jerry Falwell, Christ's personal used-car salesman, opined that Karla Faye Tucker's conversion made her deserving of life, and word has it he even asked mercy for a Black Muslim named Shaka Sankofa, once Gary Graham, dead as of June 22, thanks to George W. …