Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

A Fate Worse Than Death

By David G. Young

Washington, DC , January 21, 2003 --  

When Illinois Governor George Ryan granted clemency to 167 death row inmates earlier this month, supporters of the death penalty wailed.1 Fervent in their belief in harsh punishment for the country's worst criminals, America's death penalty supporters denounced what they saw as a miscarriage of justice.

Ryan's Republican credentials allowed him to make the move while avoiding the political backlash that would have greatly hurt the party of a Democratic reformer. Anti-death penalty activists and politicians are accused -- often rightfully so -- of being soft on crime. Many of the same people who oppose the death penalty also oppose "three-strikes" laws, denounce the size of America's prison population, and support squishy-sounding programs to reform convicts rather than punish them.

It is precisely the fact that Ryan does not come from the loony left that makes his action so important. The flaky reasoning and na?ve ancillary beliefs of most death penalty opponents unquestionably hurt their cause. If law-and-order Americans can be convinced of the wisdom of ending the death penalty, it will be by opponents on the right -- not on the left.

To be sure, there are plenty of reasons for right-wing Americans to oppose the death penalty. Chief among them is that harsher alternatives are actually available. Why should the most reprehensible murderers -- who have caused great pain to others -- be allowed a painless end to their lives? Rather than being let off easily, they should be forced to endure punishment for the full-length of their natural lives. While torture and physical abuse are rightfully outlawed in civilized nations, terrible psychological punishments are possible, including long-term solitary confinement as well as forms of sensory deprivation.

Another good reason for the right to oppose the death penalty is distrust of government. American conservatives rightfully do not trust big brother to run the health care system and screen baggage at airports. Why on earth, then, should they entrust the government with the power to kill its own citizens?

It was a similar reasoning that led Ryan to free four death row inmates -- he become convinced that untrustworthy government agents tortured them into their confessions.2 This is an argument that resonates with the right.

Of course, the left has plenty of equally valid reasons for opposing the death penalty. A society that forbids the taking of lives should not punish an evil act by repeating it. And because prosecutors, judges and jurors are humans who can make mistakes, we should never take a convict's life with the existence of even the tiniest, seemingly unreasonable doubt that is present in all cases.

These arguments, however, resonate only with liberals who already oppose the death penalty. Their most extreme arguments actually drive others away from their cause. Lecturing a conservative about the need to give another chance to a convict awaiting execution will only make the conservative want to execute the lecturer, too. Right-wing Americans do not believe in humanistic ideas about the innate goodness of man. They want to see punishment be done, and they want it to be harsh.

The outrage against Ryan's commutations came because people perceived that he handed evil murderers a much more positive fate. If ending the death penalty is ever to be acceptable to conservatives, then the alternative must be a fate worse than death.


1. The Economist, Unplugging Ol' Sparky, January 16, 2003

2. Ibid.