A Threat to Liberty
"About the issue of capital punishment: I would say, in principle, morally, I approve of capital punishment, in cases of first degree murder. That is, if someone by conscious, deliberate intention has murdered someone, he does morally deserve to forfeit his own life. But the issue of objective proof enters here, and I think a good argument could be made -- and I would be inclined to agree with it -- that precisely because errors in proof and evidence are always possible, capital punishment should be outlawed: not out of moral consideration for the murderer, but precisely in order to protect the possible, rare instance of an innocent man being convicted, on the principle that it is better to sentence nine actual murderers to life imprisonment, rather than execute one innocent man." - Ayn Rand
A jury in 2002 refused to impose the death penalty on Andrea Yates, the infamous Houston Texas mother who methodically drowned her five children in the family bathtub. It was the right decision not to put her to death, but in all the media madness surrounding the decision one heard every imaginable reason to spare her but the best one.
Nowhere was the media frenzy more intense than in Yate's hometown of Houston. While the trial made the front pages of most newspapers around the country, few could compare with the screaming headlines that appeared daily in the Houston Chronicle. I was visiting at the time in a middle-class neighborhood right next to the Clear Lake area where the Yates family lived. My cousin works at NASA, as did Russell Yates and thousands of others in Houston, which likes to call itself in its promotional campaigns, "Space City." To the rest of the country the Yates tragedy was about that weird woman down in Texas who did that unspeakable thing, but in Houston it was a hometown story about a hometown girl. That gave the coverage a personal quality which only made it all the more melodramatic.
I was walking downtown near the courthouse on the day when Yates was sentenced to prison rather than to death, and the street was so clogged with media personnel and broadcasting technology that it was almost impassable. In Houston, the Yates case was not just a nighmarish abstraction conveyed through the mass media, but an actual physical presence.
Yet for all of that intimacy with the case, the local media coverage in most ways parroted the national commentary and coverage, including the death penalty stage of the trial. Everyone asked all of the predictable questions: Is mental illness a sufficient excuse? Was the husband in some ways negligent? Conservatives predictably declared the case to be the ultimate example of the collapse of family values. Liberals just as predictably blamed society. Most of the public sentiment fell somewhere in the middle, disgusted and saddened simultaneously. Yet for all the questions and all the chatter about Yate's fate, most of it missed the point.
There is no question that there are situations where it is difficult to argue against the death penalty. In fact in some cases the behavior of the criminal is so despicable that even execution seems too kind. The serial killer Ted Bundy (above) was convicted for killing (among others) a 15-year-old girl whose body was found with dozens of cigarette burns all over her body. The autopsy revealed that she had been alive when those burns had been inflicted. The death penalty for a monster like Bundy? That seems far too compassionate; it feels more like justice to torture him first!
Yet it still remains inappropriate to execute people, even when it is fiends like Ted Bundy. The primary reason is that capital punishment is incompatible with a free society. Supposedly in a free society it is the people that are in charge. The government should act only in the role of the servant of the citizens, existing primarily to preserve their rights - foremost of which is the right to live. Have you ever heard of a servant who had the right to kill the people they are serving? If our government is truly our servant, then it shouldn't have the right to kill us either.
In other words, in a free society the government should purposely be kept small and weak, the better to leave its citizens alone to enjoy their lives free of the interference of undue government authority. A free people should not allow the death penalty for the simple reason that no government acting genuinely as a servant of the people should be allowed to have that kind of power.
Liberals, despite being the ones who usually campaign most stridently against the death penalty, generally don't like to use that argument. Liberals tend to like government power so they can impose their agenda of control over people's income and social behavior in behalf of what liberals consider the greater good. An anti-death penalty argument based on the principle of freedom from Big Government undermines the rest of their agenda, which requires the government to be fat and powerful. For that reason they argue against the death penalty primarily on the grounds of compassion, insisting that it is simply too cruel to put someone to death. Opinion polls show that this argument for compassion has little public support, which is no surprise. Any argument against the death penalty that is based upon pity for murderers will not only fail, but deserves to.
As for conservatives, who generally support the death penalty, they seem strangely blind to their own logical inconsistencies. Conservatives usually have no problem recognizing government overreaching in other matters, yet when government tries to assume the greatest power that that any government can claim to have, the power to kill its own citizens, they are oddly unable to see the glaring inconsistency of supporting the death penalty and their otherwise pro-freedom philosophy.
It was right that Andrea Yates was spared, not because we felt sorry for her, or because she was mentally ill, or because her husband was a shmuck or her minister a creep or because society was somehow to blame. She should not have been killed for the one reason that no one seemed to state, here in Houston or anywhere else.
That reason, and the only reason necessary, is that free societies as a matter of principle do not grant to their governments the power to kill their citizens, no matter what they do or why they do it. In all the millions of words written and said regarding the death penalty in the Yates case, how unfortunate that so few ever suggested anything like that. If they had, then the senseless deaths of those children would at least have had the virtue of sparking a real debate over an essential issue. Alas the coverage, in Houston and everywhere else, never seemed to rise above the level of just another ugly public drama, with the media merely rehashing all of the predictable bromides. So although Yate's life was spared, an important opportunity for public enlightenment on the proper role of government was lost.
While we're talking about Texas, here's some old pics of me in the City of Devine, located in Texas near San Antonio, in 2001. This is me in front of the Chamber of Commerce.
Here I am in front of the local internet provider.
The editor of The Devine News poses with my Dad, my Uncle John and myself.
The ageless Tom Jones played Northampton the other night. Jim Neill took this photo showing all the ladies undies that were thrown on stage.
Jim brought a pair to throw on stage, but Tom Jones seemed mysteriously reluctant to accept them.
Tony Pierce saw Amherst's Dinosaur Jr. perform in Los Angeles Wednesday night and thought the sound quality sucked:
you know what i like? rock concerts
you know what else i like? being able to hear the singer sing at rock concerts.
you know what i didnt hear last night at the Dinosaur Jr. show? J Mascis' beautiful singing.
being that this is the second show in two years at the Troubadour where the vocals were clearly missing from the dinosaur mix, it would lead me to believe that either the band doesnt want the crowd to hear the singing - or that the sound engineer was overwhelmed with the literal wall of sound produced by a trio of Marshall amps placed behind the gray haired rock god.
funny thing happened on the way to thinking that the band didnt want J's vocals to be heard: the two songs sung by the bassist Lou Barlow
couldnt hear him neither.
fortunately beers were cheap and inspired the crowd to get over the fact that the show had turned into a rock band karaoke night and the last four songs of the set included some spirited moshing and crowd surfing.
let it be known that i will gladly get the new dinosaur record that came out yesterday but i probably will pass if they ever play the troubadour again.