Monday, June 25, 2001

I am a conservative, and I hate the death penalty. In fact, I loathe it much like Bill Clinton loathed the military. I believe that it is morally wrong and we should end it forever now.
Having said that, let me explain before my office is stormed and my membership card in the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy is revoked (not to mention, before I get fired for taking a contrary position).
Like many Americans, I watched the constant television coverage that led up to and culminated with the day that Timothy McVeigh was put to sleep by the government. I was struck by the fact that the whole scene was set up by the cable news networks outside of the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., as if the Masters tournament had somehow landed there. As the big days developments unfolded, I could not help but feel that this ending was too good for such an animal and that the government was doing mass-murderer McVeigh a big favor.
I could not help but think that real punishment for McVeigh would entail spending the rest of his life with the mental weight of the carnage and havoc he wrought haunting his every waking hour.
Unlike the victims, survivors and their families, it seemed to me that McVeigh received a pass and a most peaceful one at that. Surviving victims who wanted to see him suffer saw nothing of the sort, and some seemed uncomfortable, a few even unsatisfied, with the proceeding.
For McVeigh seemed unrepentant when his time had come. A real life sentence (read: no parole) in a real prison system would have entailed about 40-plus years alone in a dark cell with nothing but his own conscience. Thats an awfully long time and dare I say a far worse punishment, not to mention a far less expensive one for taxpayers than the one he received last week.
By real prison, I mean this: Cut off the cable television incredibly, the authorities in Terre Haute postponed the routine security lockdown on the eve of the McVeigh execution so that the prisoners could watch the NBA finals.
Get rid of the fitness centers and the law libraries for those sentenced to life. Need exercise? A little rock-busting is always good for the character and the physique. End inmate correspondence with newspapers and the outside world (for those convicted of such severe crimes have no first amendment rights, just as they cannot cast a vote). To put it plainly, cut the country-club treatment in favor of an environment reflective of real punishment, and perhaps conducive to introspection and repentance.
Meanwhile, on the cultural front, Im sure the cable news networks could manage to fish around for stories that are just as neat, yet weigh just a bit lighter on the national psyche.
My fundamental problems with the death penalty began as a result of a personal concern, echoed by people on all sides of the political spectrum, that it was inconsistent for one to be “pro-life” on the one hand and condone government execution on the other. Of course, I have always taken into account those religious leaders, theologians and the like who have pointed out Biblical justification for the practice. But, dare I say, I always retained my concerns.
More recently, thanks principally to discoveries made through advanced DNA technology, the perennial question of a margin of error has been answered in the course of business, the government has sentenced innocent people to death. Of course, that bothered me, just as the very valid argument that it costs the taxpayers substantially more to execute a criminal than it does to incarcerate him or her for life did.
But the real kicker for me in this argument came quite recently, when media coverage of the McVeigh situation was at a fever pitch. I stumbled upon an actual government manual on executions. It is a 50-plus page handbook for bureaucrats that details every move made from about a month before a scheduled execution to 30 minutes after (including detailed post-mortem clean-up procedures). It is cold and antiseptic in nature, and by virtue probably the most morbid thing I have ever laid eyes on. Our tax dollars paid for it.
Think about this: Last week, somewhere in the Terre Haute area, an individual employed by the government woke up, got dressed, perhaps saw his or her children off to school, and headed off to work knowing that the taking of a life was among the days tasks. Not the taking of life in defense of freedom or liberty in the heat of battle, not in the face of further or imminent danger to ones person, home or loved ones, but the simple administration of a lethal injection to a human being strapped to a gurney.
How can a conservative who rejects the culture of death draw much of a distinction between a government employee administering death to an incarcerated individual and an abortionist ending the life of an unborn child? Of course, the unborn are innocent while those sentenced to death are in most cases guilty. Still, a life is a life.
Additionally, if conservatives believe that the role of the federal government should be severely limited, then euthanasia should probably be way off the table as far as were concerned.
If Timothy McVeigh had been forced to rot in prison, perhaps he would have come to truly regret his heinous crime. Perhaps he would have spent the later years of his life on his knees, every day, begging Gods mercy, and the mercy of those whose lives he ruined in Oklahoma City. Perhaps.
Perhaps not. But if we were serious about protecting society and putting madmen away in cells, never to see the light of day again, it would then be entirely appropriate to return the prerogative of life or death to the one and only one to whom it truly belongs.
It may well be that the only thing conservatives can agree upon at this point in time is that the issue may warrant some serious reflection. If thats the case, then I have done my part. Regardless, this is my personal position, and Im sticking to it.

Christian Josi is executive director of the American Conservative Union.

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