Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Europe's death-penalty élitism

Basically … Europe doesn't have the death penalty because its political systems are less democratic, or at least more insulated from populist impulses, than the U.S. government. And elites know it. Referring to France, a recent article in the UNESCO Courier noted that "action by courageous political leaders has been needed to overcome local public opinion that has remained mostly in favour of the death penalty." When a 1997 poll showed that 49 percent of Swedes wanted the death penalty reinstated, the country's justice minister told a reporter: "They don't really want the death penalty; they are objecting to the increasing violence. I see this as a call to politicians and the justice system to do more." An American attorney general--or any American politician, for that matter--could never get away with such condescension toward the public, at least not for attribution.
Thus writes Joshua Micah Marshall in an article that gives insight on everything from Germany's and Italy's postwar constitutions to the centripetal pressure created by European integration through differences between European parliamentary government and the American separation-of-powers system (thanks to Kosmopolit).
You seldom hear conservatives note, disapprovingly, that "America is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn't have X." It's not hard to figure out why, since X usually involves European (or Canadian or Japanese) big government. But liberals sometimes imagine that America's peculiar lack of, say, nationalized health care, tough gun control, decent child care, widespread mass transport, or substantial arts funding is a sign of political underdevelopment. And so they bemoan America's uniqueness.

Particularly on the death penalty, and particularly now. The old taunt--"The only other industrialized country with the death penalty is South Africa" (recently amended to include "and now even they've abolished it")--has been hurled with particular force in recent weeks. The flood of capital punishment horror stories, combined with partial or full recantations by conservative luminaries George Will and Pat Robertson, has left anti-death-penalty liberals more convinced than ever that, on this issue at least, American political culture is inferior to its counterparts across the Atlantic.

If only it were that simple. It's true that all of America's G-7 partners, save Japan, have abolished capital punishment, but the reason isn't, as death-penalty opponents usually assume, that their populations eschew vengeance. In fact, opinion polls show that Europeans and Canadians crave executions almost as much as their American counterparts do. It's just that their politicians don't listen to them. In other words, if these countries' political cultures are morally superior to America's, it's because they're less democratic.

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