Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only ask one time of year, but when we do, we mean it. Without your support we can’t continue to bring you the very best material, day-in and day-out. CounterPunch is one of the last common spaces on the Internet. Help make sure it stays that way.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Obama and the Death Penalty

by LILIANA SEGURA

What a difference a general election makes.

Hours after the Supreme Court handed down a ruling banning the death penalty for the rape of a child, Democratic candidate Barack Obama found his inner Scalia and declared it a miscarriage of justice.

“I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes,” he told reporters at a press conference in Chicago. This is true. Despite the assumptions of some of his admirers, for at least as long as he has held political ambitions, Barack Obama has positioned himself as a supporter of state-sanctioned murder.

There’s no question the sexual assault of a child is a monstrous thing, the kind of utterly indefensible crime that can test the resolve of anyone who opposes the death penalty on moral grounds. Indeed, it is the sort of offense death penalty supporters reach for in arguing for the “ultimate sanction.” For a political candidate, it’s a particularly easy position to take. What kind of a person would attack you for saying a child rapist deserves to die?

In fact, in the recent history of the death penalty, calling for the execution of a person who commits a crime other than murder is a radical stance. Nobody has been executed for such an offense in the United States in over 40 years. Until yesterday, only two people out of more than 3,200 prisoners on death row faced execution for a crime in which the victim did not die. Affirming the death penalty for child rape would not only have potentially placed thousands more people on death row — as Justice Anthony Kennedy noted yesterday, there were 5,792 rapes of children under 12 in 2005 alone — it would have vastly broadened the net for capital crimes, a trend that would quickly become a slippery slope. Nevertheless, “I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime,” Obama said yesterday, “and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that that does not violate our Constitution.” Never mind cruel and unusual punishment. (And yes, that is Obama embracing the conservative mantle of states’ rights.)

Obama’s defenders may argue, as they do about his other recent shifts to the right, that he had to take this position in order to strengthen his candidacy. No, he didn’t. The Democrats may continue to operate in a world in which opposition to the death penalty equals political death, a world shaped by that famous 1988 Dukakis moment, in which the Democratic presidential candidate was hapless when challenged to state that he would support the killing of a man who raped his wife. But times have changed. While the Democrats have embraced the death penalty, public support for it has dwindled — especially in recent years. The regular exonerations of innocent prisoners in this country (218 and counting), persistent evidence of rampant racial and economic bias, and botched executions nationwide have led people — and juries — more and more, to reject the death penalty. Chalk it up, as the Supreme Court likes to, to our “evolving standards of decency.”

Unfortunately, presidential candidates have their own evolving standards of decency and, too often, they are a race to the bottom. Obama, who spoke eloquently in favor of the court’s decision granting habeas corpus to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, has now aligned himself with the same aggressively conservative justices who would have had them remain in legal limbo. Worse, he aligns himself with the belligerent Antonin Scalia, whose enthusiasm for the death penalty is so irrepressible, one would expect he’d administer the lethal chemicals himself if he could.

Informed voters will see Obama’s move for what it is: an opportunistic embrace of a sharply right-wing stance to shed the (dubious) stigma of being “the most liberal senator” in the Congress. In a week that saw him backpedal on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and on free trade, his supporters may see this as just another move rightward in his path toward the White House. But this is more than that. This is a reactionary stance that betrays those who would be his natural base of support, not to mention those communities that are actually affected by the death penalty. The fact that Obama was speaking at a press conference in Chicago is especially painful. It is a city that, as we speak, is handing subpoenas to police officers who tortured African American men on the South Side into giving confessions for crimes that they didn’t commit — men who ended up on death row. Obama, famously, was an organizer on the South Side of Chicago in this era. He knows how the death penalty system really works. He’s just choosing to ignore it for the sake of cheap political points. How much he will actually gain from his pro-death penalty proclamation is unclear. Is it more than he stands to lose?

It is a sad day when a candidate who so many genuinely saw as bringing “change we can believe in” takes a politically motivated and intellectually dishonest stance in a matter of life and death. Obama risks alienating those who gave him his rise to the top, by betraying the very ideas that attracted them to him in the first place.

LILIANA SEGURA is a Staff Writer and Associate Editor at AlterNet, where this piece originally appeared. She can be reached at:
liliana@alternet.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
James McEnteer
Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool
Norman Pollack
The Great Debate: Proto-Fascism vs. the Real Thing
Michael Winship
The Tracks of John Boehner’s Tears
John Steppling
Fear Level Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending?
James Russell
Beyond Debate: Interview Styles of the Rich and Famous
September 26, 2016
Diana Johnstone
The Hillary Clinton Presidency has Already Begun as Lame Ducks Promote Her War
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Against Russia
Dave Lindorff
Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort
Robert Crawford
The Political Rhetoric of Perpetual War
Howard Lisnoff
The Case of One Homeless Person
Michael Howard
The New York Times Endorses Hillary, Scorns the World
Russell Mokhiber
Wells Fargo and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival
Chad Nelson
The Crime of Going Vegan: the Latest Attack on Angela Davis
Colin Todhunter
A System of Food Production for Human Need, Not Corporate Greed
Brian Cloughley
The United States Wants to Put Russia in a Corner
Guillermo R. Gil
The Clevenger Effect: Exposing Racism in Pro Sports
David Swanson
Turn the Pentagon into a Hospital
Ralph Nader
Are You Ready for Democracy?
Chris Martenson
Hell to Pay
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Debate Night: Undecided is Everything, Advantage Trump
Frank X Murphy
Power & Struggle: the Detroit Literacy Case
Chris Knight
The Tom and Noam Show: a Review of Tom Wolfe’s “The Kingdom of Speech”
Weekend Edition
September 23, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
The Meaning of the Trump Surge
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: More Pricks Than Kicks
Mike Whitney
Oh, Say Can You See the Carnage? Why Stand for a Country That Can Gun You Down in Cold Blood?
Chris Welzenbach
The Diminution of Chris Hayes
Vincent Emanuele
The Riots Will Continue
Rob Urie
A Scam Too Far
Pepe Escobar
Les Deplorables
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes, Obfuscation and Propaganda in Syria
Timothy Braatz
The Quarterback and the Propaganda
Sheldon Richman
Obama Rewards Israel’s Bad Behavior
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail