Friday, February 02, 2007

Compassionate Europe and the death penalty

I noticed (hat tip: Pajamas Media) that some Europeans may be reconsidering their near-total abolition of the death penalty.

This is surprising news, if true; the recent history of the death penalty in Europe has only gone one way, and that's in the direction of ending it. It's been an incredibly successful post-World War II campaign, understandable in many respects in light of the carnage that the war represented, and the desire to turn away from killing. The UN and international human rights groups led the way in the late 40s and the 50s, and all the nations of Europe save Belarus have followed suit. One cannot become a member of the EU without abolishing capital punishment.

It's another manner by which Europe distinguishes itself from the US--although it should be remembered that the US had its own fling with the European way, abolishing the death penalty (de facto) for a decade from 1967 till 1977 as a result of Furman vs. Georgia's Supreme Court ruling that the practice was arbitrary and capricious, and cruel and unusual. Technically, the death penalty wasn't abolished by the case, but it effectively generated a moratorium while people tried to figure out just exactly what the ruling meant, and how the states should respond to it.

At any rate, the European poll figures are interesting, because--despite the longing of the EU--Europe is certainly far from unitary. As might be expected, Eastern Europe ("new" Europe) leads the way in death penalty support, with 58% of Poles wanting to bring the death penalty back (Poland only came aboard recently, anyway, in 1997), and 56% of Czechs.

But even in France the numbers seem relatively close, and in England public opinion is virtually tied on the subject. England, of course, has a long and colorful history of historically significant beheadings, with the site of many becoming a tourist attraction. And don't forget the bloodthirsty French Revolution.

But those days are gone in Europe--probably never to return, whatever the people might think. The law, once officially changed, is unlikely to ever change back, despite the fact that the obvious alternative to the death penalty--life imprisonment--is rarely enforced in Europe.

I speak here as a person who is not a strong proponent of the death penalty, although I reluctantly favor it in certain cases. For the individual criminal, its application has been capricious and unfair in too many cases. Life imprisonment--if it actually is life with no possibility of parole--is a decent alternative, often more feared by criminals than death.

But I recognize exceptions, even for individual criminals. For example, a New Yorker article a few years back (can't find the cite right now) described a multiple murderer who was also a brilliant escape artist. No prison could safely hold him, and he seemed to be the sort who would kill again: an argument for the death penalty if there ever was one. And I always knew that mass murderers of the political sort, such as Hitler (and now, Saddam) cried out for a punishment that was definitive. Keeping them alive after their particular crimes seemed more of an obscenity than killing them.

Most of Europe does not agree. And it's especially the elites of many European countries who don't always agree with their people.

In Italy and Spain it's true that the people are overwhelmingly against the death penalty, to the tune of 72% and 80%, respectively (and Italy, by the way, was the birthplace of the modern movement to abolish capital punishment). But take a look at some poll figures from Europe concerning Saddam Hussein's execution, widely condemned by the leaders of Europe and the international groups there:

When the German magazine Stern commissioned a poll on whether Saddam should be executed, it found 50 percent of Germans in favor and only 39 percent opposed. A poll conducted last month for Le Monde found that most Americans (82 percent) favored hanging Saddam — as did most Spaniards (51 percent), most Germans (53 percent), most French (58 percent), and most Britons (69 percent).

But the rulers of Europe widely condemned Saddam's execution--not just the form it took, but the fact of it as well.

Here are some more figures:

“Polls show that Europeans and Canadians crave executions almost as much as their American counterparts do,” wrote Joshua Micah Marshall in The New Republic in 2000. “It’s just that their politicians don’t listen to them.”

The figures Marshall goes on to quote (from a 1997 poll) are even more strongly in favor of capital punishment than the figures cited earlier in this post, which showed much softer death penalty support in Europe. But whatever the numbers mean (and we all know about polls and their vagaries), it's pretty clear that even if the people of Europe were clamoring for a death penalty, the law would be unlikely to change to reflect public opinion. The elites wouldn't have it, and they seem to be in control.

Its lack of a death penalty is one of the things that distinguishes Europe today. It is part of Europe's own self-image as an evolved and pacifist culture, leading the way for the world and especially the American cowboys, who are both bloodthirsty and naive. To be the champions of the right to life for even a mass murderer and sadist such as Saddam Hussein is, they believe, the mark of a culture that will lead the world to a better way, where the lion will lie down with the lamb because that lamb's superior moral force is so extraordinarily compelling.

Would that it were so. Nor do I believe the opposite--that executing someone such as Saddam will dissuade future power-grabbing mass murderers from lusting after the reigns of whatever chaotic and failed countries they can get their hands on. No, I'm afraid that nothing but the proper Constitutional safeguards, and an informed and aware populace, are likely to be sufficient to stop those with such lofty ambitions.

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