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Peter Catapano, NYTimes Opinion Page: They Messed With Texas

They Messed With Texas
by Peter  Catapano, September 9, 2011

A funny thing happened at the Republican debate at the Reagan Library in California on Wednesday night, when the evening’s co-moderator Brian Williams asked a question of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. (Not funny ha-ha, funny peculiar.) Let’s go right to the video.

For the text oriented among us, here’s what transpired.

WILLIAMS: Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you…


Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?

PERRY: No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which — when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required.

But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.

WILLIAMS: What do you make of…


What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?

PERRY: I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of — of cases, supportive of capital punishment. When you have committed heinous crimes against our citizens — and it’s a state-by-state issue, but in the state of Texas, our citizens have made that decision, and they made it clear, and they don’t want you to commit those crimes against our citizens. And if you do, you will face the ultimate justice.

For some — in this case, opponents of the death penalty — this was sort of a double whiplash moment, a gasp within a gasp that may have been more confusing than mobilizing. Because which was more disturbing (or heartening, depending on your political view)? Perry’s unbowed defense of the “thoughtful” trial process in Texas and the clear expression of his untroubled mind in the face of possible moral doubt and complexity (i.e., Have I facilitated the death of an innocent human?)? Or the audience applause that bracketed the exchange, the rousing audience cheers for an aggressively applied death penalty? In California, mind you, not Texas.

Let’s look at the applause, the “execution cheer,” if you will. Because any number of analysts might have expected Perry to say what he said, but the cheer was a surprise — a welcome sort for some, but unwelcome for others.

This is the digital age, so let’s begin with an immediate outburst from Andrew Sullivan, who during his live blogging of the debate,wrote:

9.48 pm. A spontaneous round of applause for executing people! And Perry shows no remorse, not even a tiny smidgen of reflection, especially when we know for certain that he signed the death warrant for an innocent man. Here’s why I find it impossible to be a Republican: any crowd that instantly cheers the execution of 234 individuals is a crowd I want to flee, not join. This is the crowd that believes in torture and executions. Can you imagine the torture that Perry would authorize? Thank God he’s doing so poorly tonight.

The next morning, Sullivan’s former colleague, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, seemed somewhat less rattled, though hardly cheerier. “Apparently people were shocked by the applause here,” he wrote. “The only thing that shocked me was that they didn’t form a rumba line. It’s a Republican debate. And it’s America.” He continued:

Perry’s right — most people support the death penalty. It’s the job of those of us who oppose the death penalty to change that.

It’s worth remembering that no Democratic nominee for the presidency in some twenty years, has been against the death penalty. This is still the country where we took kids to see men lynched, and then posed for photos.

We are a lot of things. This is one of them.

Glenn Greenwald at Salon found it unwelcome, too. Actually he found it “creepy and disgusting.” (Greenwald, like Perry, is direct.) In a link-laden broadside, he wrote:

[I]t’s hardly surprising for a country which long considered public hangings a form of entertainment and in which support for the death penalty is mandated orthodoxy for national politicians in both parties.  Still, even for those who believe in the death penalty, it should be a very somber and sober affair for the state, with regimented premeditation, to end the life of a human being no matter the crimes committed.  Wildly cheering the execution of human beings as though one’s favorite football team just scored a touchdown is primitive, twisted and base.

All of that would be true even if the death penalty were perfectly applied and only clearly guilty people were killed.  But in the U.S., the exact opposite is true; see here to read about (and act to stop) a horrific though typical example of a very likely innocent person about to be executed by the State of Georgia.  That Perry in particular likely enabled the execution of an innocent man — as well as numerous other highly disturbing killings, of the young and mentally infirm — makes the cheering all the more repellent.  That the death penalty in America has long been plagued by a serious racial bias makes it worse still.  That this death-cheering comes from a party that relentlessly touts itself as ”pro-life” and derides the other as The Party of Death — and loves to condemn Islam (in contrast to its war-loving self) as a death-glorifying cult — only adds a layer of dark irony.

That whole “perfectly applied” thing — the goal of which requires the person being put to death to actually be guilty — also troubled others. Marie Diamond at Think Progress Justice undertakes a thorough debunking of the idea that everyone executed in Texas in the past decade or so was guilty:

[D]uring Perry’s tenure as governor, DNA evidence hasexonerated at least 41 people convicted in Texas, Scott Horton writes in Harper’s. According to the Innocence Project, “more people have been freed through DNA testing in Texas than in any other state in the country, and these exonerations have revealed deep flaws in the state’s criminal justice system.” Some 85 percent of wrongful convictions in Texas, or 35 of the 41 cases, are due to mistaken eyewitness identifications.

Those exonerations include Cornelius Dupree, who had already spent 30 years in prison for rape, robbery, and abduction when DNA evidence proved unequivocally that he was not the man who had committed those crime. Tim Cole, the brother of Texas Sen. Rodney Ellis (D), was posthumously pardoned a decade after he died in prison when DNA evidence proved his innocence. The total failure of the Texas courts to protect these innocent individuals reveal a system plagued by racial injusticesprocedural flaws, and a clemency review process that’s nothing but a rubber stamp on executions.

Leading the country in wrongful convictions probably should give Perry a moment’s pause about the reliability of a criminal justice process he described last night as “thoughtful.” …

And he may well have already executed an innocent man. The case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for the arson deaths of his three daughters and maintained his innocence until his dying day, will likelycontinue to haunt Perry throughout the campaign. Several scientists and forensics experts have questioned the evidence that led to Willingham’s conviction, but Perry“squashed” an official probe into his execution.

(Here is an interactive graphic of executions under Governor Perry, from the Texas Tribune.)

Taking another tack, political animal Steve Benen at Washington Monthly notes the apparent inconsistency in Perry’s much-discussed attitude towards science:

[W]e’re learning quite a bit about how Rick Perry thinks. Scientists tell him, after rigorous, peer-reviewed, international research that global warming is real, and Perry responds, “I don’t care.” A deeply flawed judicial process puts potentially-innocent Americans on death row, and Perry responds, “Let’s get the killin’ started.”

The governor balks when presented with evidence on evolution, abstinence education, and climate change, but embraces without question the notion that everyone he’s killed in Texas was 100 percent guilty. The scientific process, he apparently believes, is unreliable, while the state criminal justice system is infallible.

Intellectually, morally, and politically, this isn’t just wrong; it’s scary. The fact that Republicans in the audience found this worthy of hearty applause points to a party that’s bankrupt in more ways than one.

Of course, as Coates pointed out, this is America, and thus Perry’s stance was praised by some as proof (not scientific) that the governor was truly sympatico with the average American death penalty supporter.

An interesting opinion of this sort was aired by James Taranto at The Wall Street Journal. Taranto reaches way back to the year 2000 to a New Republic piece by Josh Marshall, which explained every other civilized country’s ban on the death penalty as political “elitism” — the populace in most countries support the death penalty, but their politicians forbid it. In other words, the political systems in these other countries are “morally superior” but “less democratic,” Marshall wrote. “[I]n Europe and Canada elites have exercised a kind of noblesse oblige. They’ve chosen a more civilized and humane political order over a fully popular and participatory one. It’s a perfectly defensible position — but it might not go over that well on ‘Crossfire.’ ”

(“Crossfire” was cancelled in 2005, but you get the picture, right?)

Eleven years on, Taranto elaborates, explaining the audience applause as rooted in a sort of patriotism:

It seems to us that the crowd’s enthusiasm last night was less sanguinary than defiant. The applause and the responses to it reflect a generations-old mutual contempt between the liberal elite and the large majority of the population, which supports the death penalty.

There are, of course, reasonable arguments against the death penalty. But opponents are too resentful at their inability to steamroll over public opinion as if this were Europe or Canada to argue their case effectively. One of their most ludicrous tropes is to liken the U.S. to authoritarian regimes that also practice capital punishment. In reality, as Marshall showed, America still has the death penalty because it is less authoritarian than Europe. Thus whenever someone makes that argument, we feel a tinge of patriotic pride. We believe a similar sentiment lay behind last night’s applause.

(Weirdly, the caption beneath the photo of Perry read simply, “Rick Perry has executive experience.” Italics mine.)

Another oddity of this dust-up was the digital shrapnel that hit Brian Williams for asking the obvious question. Matthew Sheffield at (devoted, in the site’s own words, to “exposure of liberal media bias, insightful analysis, constructive criticism and timely corrections to news media reporting.”) argued that Williams showed a lot of liberal elitist gall for even going there:

As someone who makes his living by trying to appeal, at least in some fashion, to the emotions of crowds, Williams’s inability to understand the audience’s spontaneous outbreak of applause response to his declaration that Texas “has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times” is a classic case of a liberal elitist being unable to compute that his smugly held opinions are not shared by others. It was the media analog of 1988 Democratic presidential nominee’s Michael Dukakis’s anodyne response when asked in a debate about whether he would want a hypothetical murderer of his wife executed.

But perhaps I’m selling Williams’s perspicacity short. One suspects he would likely have understood a similar audience reaction were it to applaud enthusiastically a Democratic candidate’s firm support for abortion legalization. Such a response could equally be perceived as grisly but it seems unlikely that Williams would entertain such a thought.

Ann Althouse also accused Williams of baiting, not unlike a certain CNN anchor at a 1988 Democratic presidential debate:

Williams —skillfully — lures Perry into the realm of emotion. Perhaps he’s looking for a big moment, perhaps something like what happened to Michael Dukakis in the second presidential debate in 1988. Dukakis was against the death penalty, and the question asked by Bernard Shaw invited him to show some passion and fire about crime — what if your wife were raped and murdered? — and Dukakis stayed doggedly on his track, expressing coolly rational rejection of the death penalty.

In last night’s debate, Perry declined the invitation to show passion about death — the death of the convicted murderer — and, like Dukakis, he stayed coolly rational. In Sullivan’s words, he “shows no remorse” or “reflection” — but he did show reflection, reflection about the soundness of the system of justice. He didn’t show remorse. Remorse is what you ask a criminal to show. It was fine for Perry not to be lured into displaying angst over executions. But then I thought it was fine for Dukakis to keep from getting sidetracked by Shaw’s melodramatic hypothetical. All we’re talking about is the public’s response to the candidate and the journalist’s effort to create excitement. The difference is, most Americans support the death penalty, and they don’t need elaborate expressions about the deep significance of death when it’s the death of a convicted murderer.

Certainly, as Sept. 11 approaches, the idea of revenge is in the air, as are questions about it. Is vengeance the way of nations? Was it worth it? What is the difference between revenge and justice? Does violence merely beget violence? Greenwald, in the same post cited above makes the connection to the American cheering that followed the killing of Osama bin Laden. (“In all cases, performing giddy dances over state-produced corpses is odious and wrong.”)

Greenwald also cites Will Bunch at the Philadelphia Daily News, who believes he saw the national sentiment that Perry tapped into. Bunch calls the death penalty cheer “a shocking new low” in American politics. On Thursday he wrote: “[W]ith the 10th anniversary of 9/11 just four days away, everyone’s been looking for a window into America’s post-attack psyche. I think that, sadly, that window just opened wide in Simi Valley last night. I’ve never forgiven my own newspaper, the Daily News, for leading the Sept. 12, 2001, paper with an editorial headlined ‘Blood for blood’ that started out: ‘Revenge. Hold that thought.’ Obviously, we have — for coming up on a decade. The cheering of executions is the hallmark of a sick society one that’s incapable of tackling its real demons and looking for vengeance on whomever happens to be available.”

Given the tension in the air, and the 2012 election hovering, it’s not likely that the warring parties will come together on this or any other issue. But who knows? Maybe we’ll all wake up one morning and see the world differently. It’s happened before.

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