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:
July 28, 2016
Paul Street
Politician Speak at the DNC
Jeffrey St. Clair
Night of the Hollow Men: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Renee Parsons
Blame It on the Russians
Herbert Dyer, Jr.
Is it the Cops or the Cameras? Putting Police Brutality in Historical Context
Russell Mokhiber
Dems Dropping the N Word: When in Trouble, Blame Ralph
Howard Lisnoff
The Elephant in the Living Room
Pepe Escobar
The Real Secret of the South China Sea
Ramzy Baroud
Farewell to Yarmouk: A Palestinian Refugee’s Journey from Izmir to Greece
John Laforge
Wild Turkey with H-Bombs: Failed Coup Raise Calls for Denuclearization
Dave Lindorff
Moving Beyond the Sanders Campaign
Jill Richardson
There’s No Such Thing as a “Free Market”
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan Moves Against the Gulen Movement in Turkey
Winslow Myers
Beyond Drift
Edward Martin - Mateo Pimentel
Who Are The Real Pariahs This Election?
Jan Oberg
The Clintons Celebrated, But Likely a Disaster for the Rest of the World
Johnny Gaunt
Brexit: the British Working Class has Just Yawned Awake
Mark Weisbrot
Attacking Trump for the Few Sensible Things He Says is Both Bad Politics and Bad Strategy
Thomas Knapp
Election 2016: Think Three’s a Crowd? Try 2,000
Corrine Fletcher
White Silence is Violence: How to be a White Accomplice
July 27, 2016
Richard Moser
The Party’s Over
M. G. Piety
Smoke and Mirrors in Philadelphia
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Humiliation Games: Notes on the Democratic Convention
Arun Gupta
Bernie Sanders’ Political Revolution Splinters Apart
John Eskow
The Loneliness of the American Leftist
Guillermo R. Gil
A Metaphoric Short Circuit: On Michelle Obama’s Speech at the DNC
Norman Pollack
Sanders, Our Tony Blair: A Defamation of Socialism
Claire Rater, Carol Spiegel and Jim Goodman
Consumers Can Stop the Overuse of Antibiotics on Factory Farms
Guy D. Nave
Make America Great Again?
Sam Husseini
Why Sarah Silverman is a Comedienne
Dave Lindorff
No Crooked Sociopaths in the White House
Dan Bacher
The Hired Gun: Jerry Brown Snags Bruce Babbitt as New Point Man For Delta Tunnels
Peter Lee
Trumputin! And the DNC Leak(s)
David Macaray
Interns Are Exploited and Discriminated Against
Brett Warnke
Storm Clouds Over Philly
Ann Garrison
Rwanda, the Clinton Dynasty, and the Case of Dr. Léopold Munyakazi
Chris Zinda
Snakes of Deseret
July 26, 2016
Andrew Levine
Pillory Hillary Now
Kshama Sawant
A Call to Action: Walk Out from the Democratic National Convention!
Russell Mokhiber
The Rabble Rise Together Against Bernie, Barney, Elizabeth and Hillary
Jeffrey St. Clair
Don’t Cry For Me, DNC: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Angie Beeman
Why Doesn’t Middle America Trust Hillary? She Thinks She’s Better Than Us and We Know It
Paul Street
An Update on the Hate…
Fran Shor
Beyond Trump vs Clinton
Ellen Brown
Japan’s “Helicopter Money” Play: Road to Hyperinflation or Cure for Debt Deflation?
Richard W. Behan
The Banana Republic of America: Democracy Be Damned
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail