The Hannibal Lecter Republicans
January 4, 2007
The past six years have left us with plenty of questions about the true nature of conservatism, such as: Is conservatism a real political philosophy, or has it always been nothing more than a tax-scam for the wealthy?
But for me, one of the biggest questions about right-wingers is this: Why are so many conservatives, who claim to be champions of individual liberty against the tyrannical power of the state, downright eager to give the state the essentially unchecked power to kill?
Furthermore, why do these self-anointed guardians of morality continue to champion this immoral power, capital punishment, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the death penalty is abused with appalling frequency? Why do these wingers keep baying for blood even when DNA evidence has exposed horrifying numbers of wrongful convictions?
This week’s report from a panel recommending that New Jersey abolish the death penalty has brought these Hannibal Lecter Republicans out in force. Their arguments reflect very little about the state of modern law enforcement, but speak volumes about what passes for thought in conservative circles.
For example, get a load of Guy Gregg, Republican assemblyman:
Gregg added that if the Democrat-controlled Legislature adopts the commission’s recommendations, “they will be eliminating capital punishment for pedophiles who commit heinous acts of violence and murder against our most vulnerable and innocent residents – our children. It also will send a message to cop killers and gang members that they can continue to terrorize and wreak havoc in our communities without just punishment for their crimes.”
The U.S. Supreme Court prohibited capital punishment in 1972. New Jersey reinstated it in 1982 but it has yet to be used on any convicted murderers. That’s because New Jersey, being a civilized area of the country with a respect for human life, treats capital cases with great care. There are separate trials to determine guilt and then gauge the proportionality of the death penalty. The state then gives Death Row inmates the automatic right to appeal directly to the state Supreme Court, which is not shy about throwing back a case when it thinks there’s something fishy about it.
This is all to the good. The last thing New Jersey needs is to gin up a Texas-style death conduit where capital cases are treated with all the attentiveness and human concern of a landscaper tossing twigs into a wood-chipper. But it is expensive to pursue the death penalty. A November 2005 report from New Jersey Public Policy Perspective determined that New Jersey has spent $253.5 million since 1982, or $4.2 million per death sentence, in pursuit of capital punishment. (That figure covers only the cost to state and county government.) It costs considerably less money (about $23,721 less) to maintain a regular prisoner in New Jersey than it does a Death Row inmate, according to the NJPP report.
That’s a lot of money to spend on something that has been shown repeatedly to have no deterrent effect. During my newspaper days, I sat in on a number of murder trials, and not once did I see a criminal mastermind along the lines of the diabolical serial killers fed to us by Hollywood and television. The defendants in the cases were, to a man, profoundly damaged specimens unable to think far enough ahead to worry about consequences. The idea that the death penalty would cause them to rethink anything was ludicrous.
Well then, what about revenge? Shouldn’t the families of the victims at least get the satisfaction of seeing the murderers snuffed out? Why should the killers be allowed to live out their days at taxpayer expense? It is, after all, an article of faith among Bill O’Reilly types that our prisons are simply Club Med annexes with a little extra concrete, where smug convicts pass the time lifting weights and writing appeals.
Anyone who has seen the inside of East Jersey State Prison (to offer one bloodcurdling example) knows this is nonsense. It would give me great satisfaction to know that the killer of one of my relatives would spend his life in such a place, and the “life without parole” sentence being offered as a substitue for the death penalty would ensure exactly that.
Life without parole. Less expensive, more effective as punishment and guaranteed to prevent the horror of allowing the state to execute someone who later turns out to have been innocent. A fine blend of cost-effectiveness and justice, with the added benefit of protecting individual liberties against abuse by the state.
So why can’t conservatives get behind this? Why can’t Republicans find a coherent argument against it, other than to froth and howl about pedophiles and cop-killers rampaging through our streets if the death penalty is eliminated?
I’d like to see a right-winger make a sensible case for continuing the death penalty, I really would. But I’m afraid I’ll have to wait a long time for it — even longer than it’s taken so far for a death sentence to be carried out.