A British television producer called me this week asking if I could discuss the Timothy McVeigh controversy for a live morning news program. I agreed, which was dumb because British "morning" news programs are on at 1:30 a.m. here.
Regardless, while she was pre-interviewing me, the producer asked, "Do you think you could explain to a British audience why America doesn't follow the United Kingdom's example and ban capital punishment?"
"Sure," I said. "We don't care what you think."
Now that's not exact. But the average American not only doesn't (ital) care (end ital) what Britain thinks of us, he also has no idea (ital) what (end ital) Britain and the rest of the world thinks of us.
So it may come as a shock that the McVeigh execution is sparking a new round of anti-Americanism across the pond, particularly on the issue of capital punishment.
"Nothing - not the abrogation of the Kyoto protocol, not the unilateralist rededication of defense policy to the goal of an anti-missile shield, not the return of Cold War rhetoric on China, Russia and North Korea - will come close to the symbolism of the (McVeigh) execution," noted the London Financial Times' Gerard Baker. "The spectacle ... will neatly capture everything the European political elite despises about Bush's America."
The British newsmagazine The Economist recently asked, "Will Mr. McVeigh's execution really prove that America is an oddball?
Anti-American protests and editorials are a fixture throughout Western Europe. Last year, European ambassadors in Washington gave the State Department a diplomatic decree of their "concern about the increasing number of persons sentenced to death in the United States." And Belgian novelist Pierre Mertens recently told Time, "It is a tragic paradox that the deluxe country among the democracies resorts to this kind of barbarity."
But here's the irony: America kills its worst citizens (why mince words?) precisely because it is more democratic than any of the nations where people care what Belgian novelists say.
Joshua Micah Marshall, a liberal writing in New Republic, persuasively made this point last year. Marshall noted that public-opinion surveys throughout Europe and Canada consistently show that the public in the allegedly "more enlightened" countries favors the death penalty almost as much as we barbaric Americans do.
In Britain, home of Amnesty International, between two-thirds and three-quarters of the public wants to reinstate the death penalty, Marshall notes. In Italy, Europe's anti-capital-punishment trail-blazer, half the voters want the death penalty returned.
And in France, it took nearly 20 years after the abolition of capital punishment there for a majority of the French to say they don't want it back. There are still more people in France who want the death penalty reinstated than there are people who bathe every day.
"There is barely a country in Europe," writes Marshall, "where the death penalty was abolished in response to public opinion rather than in spite of it."
"In other words," Marshall concludes, "if these countries' political cultures are morally superior to America's, it's because they're less democratic."
This goes to the heart of the difference between Europe and the United States. In Britain, conservatives publicly embrace the "Welfare State" to a degree that would make a British Tory look like an American liberal Democrat. And while there's religious freedom now, the previous lack of religious tolerance launched America.
By contrast, America is a vast, continental nation with a hugely diverse population. We permit a starling amount of individual self-government, i.e. personal freedom. Meanwhile, in exchange for personal freedom, our citizens are held to a higher level of personal responsibility.
In the realm of economics, this encourages more risk-takers and hence more success stories and sob stories, in the form of bankruptcies, for example. When it comes to religion, people can do whatever they want.
And in that sphere we call law and order, Americans have rights to self-protection, i.e. guns, that horrify Europeans. But those rights also come with responsibilities, and one of them is the distinct - though incredibly rare - possibility you might get the chair if you murder someone.
How much freedom vs. security we should have has been a central fault line in American politics since the founding.
American liberals look to Europe for inspiration and want more security. American conservatives look to Europe for nice vacations and little else. And, most average Americans (as well as millions of would-be immigrants from around the world) are somewhere in the middle but still see the American experiment as a bargain.
So what if this experiment scares Europeans? (ital) Vive le difference. (end ital)