Saturday, July 04, 2009

July 4, 2009

Across America today, on Independence Day, there will be traditional fireworks, parades, summer fun for children in swimming pools and at ballgames, and a pervasive national outpouring of patriotism, reflected in both flag displays and the singing of the national anthem at countless events.

There are also almost 3,300 individuals who will not be any part of these festivities; they are mostly forgotten, despised and reviled....
they are America's condemned.

They sit on death rows in 34 states, as well as in a military prison in Kansas and a fedeal facility in Indiana. Most are overwhelmingly guilty of vile, heinous, outrageous and terrible crimes. Many are mentally ill, even profoundly mentally ill, and a good number are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Collectively, they are, in part, responsible for a great deal of anger, hurt, pain and rage in our society.

They face death by firing squad, hanging, electrocution, cyanide gas, and lethal injection (there are more methods of legitimate state-sanctioned execution in the the USA than in any other country in the world).

As this nation is trying to emerge from the worst global financial crisis in 70 years, it remains in desperate need of trying to find, uphold and defend its moral soul. We are a long way from accomplishing this important national task.

Most of America's political and judicial leaders, both male and female, in both major parties, remain committed to upholding the ideology and practice of human extermination. As long as any nation in the world, inclduing the USA, retain and practice the barbarism of killing people in the name of the law, they can never be free. If people support, or are indifferent to the liquidataion of condemned individuals, how can we be surprised that other horrors, such as torture, hate crimes, and crimes against women, continue at such an alarming pace.

To be sure, some advances in the abolition of the US death penalty have been achieved in the last decade: America has stopped executing its juvenile and mentally retarded offenders; New Jersey and New Mexico have legislatively ended the death penalty, and other states have, in recent years, come close to doing the same. Over 130 innocent people have been released from America's death rows to date, and more will emerge to the free world in the years ahead.

But this "progress" has come at a frustratingly, agonizinly slow pace. Of the 1168 individuals put to death in America since executions resumed in 1977, 736 have occurred since 1998, including 200 just in Texas alone since Rick Perry became governor in 2001. There is no immediate end in sight to this horror.

There will undoubtedly be the traditional praise and self-congratulatory editorials and op-eds in our newspapers today, from coast to coast, from our major cities to our small communities, reminding us of how lucky we are to live in such a great nation. And in many ways, that sentiment is correct.

But it is a fallacy to believe that assessment when considering what is happening in this country regarding the issue of the death penalty. It is time to face the truth, admit national pain, and come to grips with the fact that on this issue, 233 years after the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed (and 402 years after the British first settled here), we are a national disgrace and failure. We remain wedded to the love of violence, and to the preposterous idea that some people in our society (and even around the world), can be classified as "lesser" or "other" humans, 'deserving' to be stripped of their human dignity, caged like animals for years, physically and psychologically tortured and terrorized, and then ultimately liquidated in the name of the law.

On this day, when so much celebrating in America will occur, I hope and trust that people will take a hard look at the sobering realities of this nation and its nightmare of the death penalty. Now is the time for all people of conscience, everywhere, to re-dedicate themselves with renewed fervor to end this terrible scourge, so that America may join the ranks of most nations in the world that have long since recognized the links between advancing human progress with ending the death penalty.

When the US does abolish the death penalty, it will then, and only then, have reasons to be proud and celebrate itself.

Rick Halperin
Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Amnesty International USA

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