The charitable thing, naturally, is to assume Illinois Gov.
George Ryan's sincerity. If the outgoing governor tells us he will "sleep
well tonight," having commuted the sentences of all 167 inmates on death
row, who are we, his countrymen, to say he wouldn't? The question, possibly,
is why should he have slept well?
One hundred sixty-seven convicted murderers spared, by
gubernatorial decree, the fate they dealt to their victims! Gov. Ryan
invites us to consider what a wide, grand act of mercy he has committed.
The quality of that mercy deserves to come in for close
scrutiny -- notwithstanding how hard it is to hear over the hosannas of the
anti-death penalty crowd.
What goes on here? Officially, indignation goes on. Massive
intervention in the face of grievous error goes on. Thirteen death-row
inmates, during Ryan's term as governor, were exonerated and set free. What
outsider is to say that none of the 167 whose sentences Ryan commuted had
likewise been unjustly accused and sentenced? It very well might have been
so. If so, the governor had to do something.
What he chose to do was grossly illogical: the reverse of the
legendary old Chinese procedure, which was to whack off the heads of all
possible suspects in order to be sure of getting the right culprit.
Ryan, to save another possibly innocent party from execution
(though no innocent party is known to have died lately at the Illinois
executioner's hands), yanked scores of the patently guilty off death row.
"Our capital system," he explained, "is haunted by the demon of
human error: error in determining guilt and error in determining who among
the guilty deserves to die." Well, right. The world is filled with error. It
is how things are. Politicians err. Generals err. Boy, do businessmen
err! -- as Bernie Ebbers and Ken Lay might remind us in an unguarded moment,
with their lawyers away at the water cooler.
All the same, Gov. George Ryan has come out against error. His
stand involves intellectual contortion. The governor, who as a legislator
voted for Illinois' present death penalty law, says, in effect, nobody
deserves to die for anything -- got that? -- no matter how bad or awful or
heinous the offense. That would include the Washington-area snipers. It
would include John Wilkes Booth and Osama bin Laden. As we're always
noticing, there's no zealot like a convert.
But why are we having this perverse conversation in the first
place? Would it be because something really is out of whack with an
assumption thousands of years old -- to wit, that death is the indicated
penalty for murderers? Or would it be because something in our moral makeup
has come unstuck? If so, what would that thing be?
It might be the capacity for acknowledging evil -- and for
punishing evil in an appropriate way. That could account for the daintiness
that exists in much of society regarding capital punishment, a k a, in those
circles, "state-sanctioned murder."
DNA technology has aided criminal justice authorities in
cleaning up past errors, such as those committed in Illinois. But
error-horror isn't at the heart of the capital punishment debate.
Adversaries of the death penalty are happy for any excuse to discredit the
historic notion of a life for a life. A sense of proportion just isn't their
What frustrates them, in their inability to eradicate the death
penalty, is the larger public's inability to see what they are talking
about. Polls show seven out of 10 Americans in favor of capital punishment.
How dare they? Don't they know about Error? What they might just know about,
and their opponents not, is moral symmetry.
The families of the victims of those whose sentences Gov. Ryan
commuted know about moral symmetry. A loved one has died; the murderer lives
on. What the victim no longer has -- life -- the killer hugs to himself.
Gov. Ryan and his claque should expect this conversation to go on and on. It
isn't about error. It's about justice.