So I was reading this week-old op-ed by Vince Beiser in the Strib, about the arc the Death Penalty has had in this country over the past forty or so years.
Beiser notes that the Death Penalty withered away on its own, for a while; indeed, in 1968 there were no executions in the US. The Supreme Court stopped executions in 1972.
But just a few years later, the nation began an astonishing about-face. The Supreme Court reopened the door to capital punishment in 1976, launching an era in which the country didn’t just bring back the death penalty, it feverishly embraced it…What happened? By the mid-1970s, much of middle America was deeply uneasy about how the very fabric of society seemed to be unraveling. Drug use and crime were rising; minorities, women and homosexuals were demanding more power and respect. And the mighty United States was humiliated, first in Vietnam and later by Iranian hostage-takers.
In this milieu, politicians increasingly learned that crime could pay — for them.
Shocking – a political expedient being embraced by petty politicians.
And yet, starting a few years later, the United States took some political prozac, got out of its national funk and, today, 25 years later, are doing pretty well; compared to the rot and malaise of the 70’s, the misery of the pre-Reagan years I remember growing up, we’re doing fantastic. And crime – media hype aside – dropped.
Today, however, the nation is again losing its enthusiasm for capital punishment…Although about two-thirds of all Americans still support capital punishment in principle, that number is considerably lower than what it was just five years ago. In practice, we’re ever more reluctant to impose it. That’s largely because of the more than 100 men and women who have been freed from death row in recent years, thanks to DNA testing and other advances. That shocking proof of the system’s fallibility also has made juries, judges, prosecutors and politicians much more wary about pushing for the ultimate punishment.
Correlation does not equal causation, of course – but it’s interesting to note that peaks in capital punishment seem to be associated with troughs in national self-image, and vice versa. During the Depression, Death Rows were humming; during the long post WWII boom, they slowed way down and, 23 years after the war as the US was on the way to the moon, stopped. During the aftermath of Watergate, stagflation, Iran and the other detritus of the Carter meltdown, it boomed again. And now – troubled as we are, but still generally in a good national mood (compared with the nadir we endured 30 years ago) – it seems to be going out of fashion.
The ingredients for a resurgence seem to be out there, though:
According to Amnesty International, 133 countries have abolished the death penalty. Last month, the United Nations voted for a worldwide moratorium on capital punishment.
And since we have a depressingly-likely shot at getting an overly UN-influenced government in place in Washington in November, the national self-image will peak and start back toward the trough by mid-2009.