The other night, the State of Georgia killed Troy Davis for the alleged murder of an off-duty police officer. The execution was controversial because a number of witnesses who testified at Davis’ trial later recanted their statements. What was most interesting to me about that was that prosecutors had no problem accepting their testimony when it implicated Davis, but when those same witnesses later claimed to have been coerced and said that they lied because that was what police and prosecutors wanted, suddenly those same conveyors of truth had become “unreliable.” Likewise, those wearing the black robes of judges came to the same conclusion.
The case itself became a symbol of the state ramrodding through executions even though there could be doubt about the guilt of the convicted, and I join in the disgust and anger that others who have opposed this execution have expressed. However, Davis’ state-sponsored homicide was not the only execution in the USA that night; the New York Times had an Associated Press article about an execution in Texas:
White supremacist gang member Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed Wednesday evening for the infamous dragging death slaying of James Byrd Jr., a black man from East Texas.
There were no vigils and no protests of this government killing, and the headline in the NYT said it all: “White Supremacist Executed for Texas Dragging.” The placing of the two accounts together supposedly highlighted the contrast between the natures of the stories. In one, the state was killing a black man convicted of killing a white cop and there was doubt about the verdict, thus bringing together all of the political issues at once. In the other, we see a vicious, racist killer getting his just desserts in an open-and-shut case.
With Davis, we have a story about issues of racism, the killing of a state agent, and wrongful convictions, all wrapped in the ugly shroud of executions. One cannot put together a case with more political implications, and the response to it was what one would expect. The wounds of past injustices are great and only opened more when the State of Georgia injected poison into the body of Davis, and also injected more venom into our Body Politic. Racism. Cop killing. Wrongful convictions. Executions. There is nothing to add.
Brewer’s state-sponsored homicide brings different emotions. I remember seeing an African-American juror who had voted death to Brewer being interviewed on television afterward, and he said that while he opposed the death penalty, the nature of this case made such punishment justified. To put it another way, the horrific circumstances of the murder of Byrd and its racial and political implications permitted people to do away with their own principles and to support that which they normally would oppose. (To their credit, the family of Byrd asked for clemency for Brewer, while the family of Mark McPhail, the dead officer, supported Davis’ execution.)
He had participated in the murder of a black man, and was identified with groups that openly are racist. His views of others of a different race made it easier for those who say they oppose executions to support his being put to death by state authorities. Like Davis, who allegedly killed a member of a politically-favored group, police officers, Brewer not only had violated the life of someone else, but he had engaged in politically-incorrect behavior. Thus, the government apparatus that seeks to execute went into high gear in order to make sure that these alleged miscreants were to face the full fury of the law.
Before Brewer was to be killed, he declined to make a statement; Davis, about to die, calmly expressed one last time that he did not do what he was about to be killed for allegedly doing. They were different men, different events, yet they are tied together and not just because they were executed on the same date in the same country.
Would Troy Davis have supported the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer? Would Lawrence Russell Brewer have supported the execution of Troy Davis? I don’t know. What I do know is that when it comes to state-sponsored killings, all principles are discarded. People become what they have hated, and supposedly-principled people become the worst of hypocrites.
People who say they are “pro-life” try to justify executions in that same light. John Ashcroft, who lost his U.S. Senate election in 2000 to a dead man, had enraged black voters in his state of Missouri because he single-handedly denied the appointment of a black judge to the federal bench because Ashcroft claimed that the judge “was soft on the death penalty.” Yet, Ashcroft was one of the most staunchly anti-abortion members of Congress and always was feted by “pro-life” groups for his legislative actions.
Likewise, many others who oppose state-sponsored killings of people convicted in the courts believe that taxpayers should be forced to fund the killing of children who are ready to be born, the “partial-birth” abortion in which a medical professional brings out the head of a child from the womb, stabs the back of the head with scissors, bringing death. Like those in the execution chamber, the child is not deemed worthy of staying alive by people in legislative office and by men and women wearing black robes, not to mention the editors of the “Newspaper of Record.”
What I am describing is a Culture of Death, and a state-sponsored Culture of Death at that. In fact, a society cannot degenerate into that awful culture without the prodding and the sponsorship of the State. In the end, the State itself becomes Death.
I don’t know if Troy Davis did what police and prosecutors claimed and what jurors and judges believed, although given what I know about how the courts in the USA work, I have my doubts. On the other hand, no one disputes the perfidy of what Lawrence Russell Brewer did, and it is understandable why jurors were willing to discard their own principles so that they could order his execution.
As I see it, once we give the State the privilege of killing whom it may choose, things are set into motion that are expressly unjust and cannot be reversed. The fact that Brewer took part in a terrible murder no more justifies his execution than the chance – and only the chance – that Davis shot a cop to death justified the State of Georgia killing him. (The officer was off-duty, but the fact that he was employed as a police officer was enough to label Davis a “cop-killer.”)
By giving the State the power to kill others “legally,” we also must realize that the State will kill those whom are politically deemed unfit to live. Plenty of people commit terrible murders for which no one is officially put to death. Only when a killing is deemed politically-incorrect is someone executed, and if politics ultimately is to become the standard of who is to live and who is to die, then we have become people who have passed the Point of No Return.
Following Davis’ execution, the economist Robert Higgs wrote:
Those who compose the state have estranged themselves from their fellows and arrogated to themselves the power of life and death. Heedless of natural law, they are cruelly selective and opportunistic in their obedience even to the “laws” they have made. They have traded their consciences for power and political place, and their souls are as cold as ice. They are, morally, the walking dead.
I would add that other people who support such things also join those who are spiritually dead. That is where state-sponsored killings always lead.
September 23, 2011
William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit his blog.