The end of the Clinton era

Posted: Dec 14, 2000 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- It is the end of the Clinton era, and finally the Boy President has done something I approve of. He left the country. Now if he will just stay in Ireland, I shall be happy and so will the entire country. The Independent Counsel will not have to indict. There will be less resentment in the land, and in Ireland, Bill can discover that "Guinness is good for you." Actually the Boy President did another thing I approve of; though he acted for the wrong reasons, and he only went part way. Last week, he spared the life of the first person scheduled to be executed by the federal government in 37 years, Juan Raul Garza. As I say, Clinton only went part way. He ordered a six-month delay of Garza's execution. He should have spared his life completely and let him remain in the pen for the rest of his life. Garza is a coldblooded murderer, but it is time to suspend capital punishment in America. Clinton also got his reasoning wrong. He favored delaying Garza's execution because studies, most notably a Department of Justice study, have found that minorities are sentenced to death disproportionately. That should surprise no one. Unfortunately, minorities commit a disproportionate number of crimes (usually against other minority members). The crimes are disproportionately more brutal. Naturally a disproportionate number of members of minority groups are convicted of capital offenses. Yet it is time to end capital punishment. The most compelling reason for ending state executions is that, though the state has a right to defend its citizenry, capital punishment merely silences life. It neither dramatizes the horror of crime nor speaks out for life. It was once thought to do both, but not in our brutal society. Capital punishment actually adds to the increasing anger and morbidness of society. America in its entertainment, its public ethics, and its culture is entoiled with death. Capital punishment adds to the death. To be sure a government has a duty to defend its citizens against danger, but that has been accomplished with Garza behind bars. Killing him would merely make him a transient star in our witless celebrity culture. We already have too many unworthy celebrities -- though not transient enough. Moreover, once executed, Garza would have no chance to acknowledge his wrongs. Locked away for the rest of his life, given benefit of clergy, an ample library, plus time for solitary reflection; even a murderer such as Garza might attain contrition for his cruelty. Once executed, he will have no chance to acknowledge his wrongs. Society will have less chance to reflect on such a man's life of crime. The spectacle of a state execution now overshadows the heinousness of a murderer's brutality. And ax grinders for special causes can continue to harangue about how America is racist and the state illegitimate. There was once a time when capital punishment was illustrative of condign retribution, but that day is long gone. In a society that exploits coarseness and violence in its entertainment -- even in its advertisements -- such niceties as retribution are lost. American society offers up vast areas of violence -- admittedly, usually simulated -- for the amusement of sports fans, filmgoers and popular music idiots. Even many television advertisements feature transmogrifications of the average Joe screeching off in some fanciful vehicle or flying through a window in pursuit of some flashy product: a new beer or an invincible deodorant! In its hype and its pervasive materialism, all boomed with an adolescent cynicism, America does encourage a culture not about life and ebullience, but about death and the repugnant. An end to capital punishment would signal a respect for life and an acknowledgement of evil. Garza is a very bad man. A marijuana trafficker, he was convicted of murdering one person and ordering the deaths of two others in 1990 and 1991. He should remain locked away for the rest of his life and unable to kill again. He is now in a position to be celebrated as the victim of racism or elitism. Perhaps the conventional opponents of the death penalty will find something endearing about him. Maybe Norman Mailer will find he is a gifted writer. Such bizarreries are often turned up to make a brute such as Garza seem appealing. There is nothing appealing about them. The death they have caused cannot be undone. Their deaths only add to the death. But in prison, Garza has a chance to atone for his wrong, and by leaving him there for the right reason America has a chance to demonstrate its reverence for freedom and for life.