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Listen to the People

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President Bush’s decision to declare dead the Kyoto Climate Change Protocol produced at least one unintended result: the environment trumped the death penalty as Exhibit A in the European indictment of American values and policies. Alas, the publicity surrounding this week’s planned execution of Timothy McVeigh — including the fact that upward of 75% of Americans want to see him put to death — is likely to return capital punishment to the top of Europe’s complaint. In American support for the death penalty, some Europeans see compelling evidence that our societies are growing apart. There is just one problem with this analysis: it is wrong. If anything, American and European views on the death penalty are converging.

As President Clinton’s senior adviser for European affairs, listening to denunciations of the death penalty was a regular feature of my job. I was on the receiving end of letter-writing campaigns, diplomatic demarches and questions from journalists about this or that capital case. Towns in Italy and France deployed delegations to the U.S. to lobby members of Congress and state governors for pardons. In the run-up to the November U.S. election, French Education Minister Jack Lang branded George W. Bush a “serial assassin” for presiding over dozens of executions in Texas.

In my meetings with Europeans, I would point out that some 100 other countries at least nominally permit executions, including large democracies like India and Japan. International law allows the death penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court has held it constitutional. The 38 U.S. states that have adopted it did so through a democratic process. These arguments failed to sway my European interlocutors. The death penalty, they argued, has no place in a civilized society.

But if you peel away the layers of emotion and rhetoric, some surprising facts emerge. As it happens, I do not support the death penalty — and neither do nearly 40% of Americans, up from about 25% just four years ago. Lack of support jumps to 50% when surveys pose life imprisonment without the possibility of parole as the alternative. Last year, Illinois declared a moratorium on applying the death penalty. Since then, municipalities across the country have passed resolutions calling on their states to follow suit. Even in Texas, support for capital punishment has dropped to its lowest level in three decades — 68%, down from 86% in 1994. Notes Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: “Rising opposition to the death penalty has been one of the few liberal social trends in recent years.”

This shift is the product of highly publicized reversals in capital cases — many after the application of sophisticated dna technology — and evidence that the death penalty is applied disproportionately to minorities. Nearly two-thirds of Americans favor a temporary halt to executions while steps are taken to ensure that the system works fairly. Declining enthusiasm for the death penalty also reflects the sharp drop in violent crime in America, now at a 23-year low. Far from embracing the death penalty, Americans are debating it.

Across the Atlantic, it turns out that Europeans support capital punishment in numbers similar to Americans. Since France abolished the death penalty in 1981, support for its reinstitution has hovered around 50%. In Italy, where capital punishment was prohibited by the post-World War II constitution, an equal percentage favor its revival. In Britain, between two-thirds and three-quarters of the populace support capital punishment. Farther east, 60% of Central Europeans back the death penalty. Their voice will be ignored because the European Union requires aspiring members to prohibit capital punishment. Significant majorities in France, Germany and Britain say that, in any event, the death penalty is an internal matter — their governments should not exert pressure on the U.S. to abolish it.

The death penalty does not reflect a divide between the European and American peoples. It may reveal differences between our political cultures. “Europeans crave executions almost as much as their American counterparts,” writes Joshua Micah Marshall, an editor of the American Prospect magazine. “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 is because they are less democratic.” That may strike some as an unfair indictment of Europe’s political class. But so is using the death penalty to impeach American society — and to decry a values gap between the U.S. and Europe that does not in fact exist.

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