Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Uses of Snowden: Perception of the Death Penalty in the World at Large

This is the second of three essays on how Ed Snowden has been very helpful in bringing matters to our attention outside of the area which he intended, e.g. surveillance.  In this part we discuss the issue of how the death penalty is perceived in the world, something brought up because of Snowden's applications for amnesty in which he mentioned his concerns about being tortured or executed should he return to the United States.

Ah, the death penalty. What could be more American? An eye for an eye! Hang the bastard. String em up. Hang em high! A necktie party. A rough frontier justice. "And may God have mercy on your soul.... you may proceed", said the preacher.

There are regional differences of course. My favorite is Texas' "Justifiable Homicide" laws. In Texas you can get away with murder if you can convince a jury that 'he needed killing'.  

"You remember Jack. He was always drunk. Never did a day's honest work in his life. When he ran over Sam's dog, I had enough and I shot the good-for-nothing sonofabitch until he was dead".

So all is well and good, after all cultural diversity works many ways. Some countries have spicier food, we have the death penalty. Each to his own, I say.

What could be more American than a good hangin'?

But the world is filled with a bunch of damn foreigners. Damn it, its true, I have seen them myself. And many of them look on in horror at our death penalty, seeing it as barbaric, as "cruel and unusual punishment" and drawing far too many conclusions from the trivial and irrelevant detail that it is only the poor people who get executed while the rich go free. Oh yes, and that there *may* be a correlation, some say, between race and wealth and therefore of who gets the axe and who does not. Of course this isn't true! P'shaw I say! Certainly not in Florida!

How do I know that much of the world does not share our appreciation of the death penalty? Well it is due to that savior of modern man, that icon of all that is moral and pretentious in America, everyone's favorite martyr and photographic opportunity, Ed Snowden.

Yes, you see, in order to apply for amnesty in various countries it is useful, perhaps even required, that you articulate the case that if you were returned to the country you were trying to flee from, that you would be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. For example, you might be tortured or put to death. So Ed made that case and many countries responded well to the argument.

Because, you see, the fact is that this country is now famous for torturing people. Yes, we can thank the illegal Bush administration for that. But its not all Bush's fault, imho, because you see when Obama came in he refused to have members of the Bush administration tried for their crimes. Had he done so, then he would have made the clear statement that American's found torture to be unacceptable. But he didn't and instead made the point that people of one Presidential Administration can commit any crime against humanity and get off.

On top of that, famously there was one way to get shot in America, legally that is, and that was to commit what was called "treason" back in the day. But since one can easily use that word, and people do, they went to the trouble of defining it. Article 3, Section 3, Clause 1 of the US Constitution defines treason as giving "aid and comfort" to the enemy during time of war. And war is defined as being declared formally by Congress, none of this namby pamby "police action" or "humanitarian mission" stuff back then. Therefore, someone who may or may not be considered to have given "aid and comfort" during a time when Congress has not declared war could not be considered for treason. On paper, that is.

In fact, you can try anyone for anything and leave it up to the courts to decide.

Which is why, when Snowden got international sympathy for the fact that if he returned to the US he might be tried for treason and shot, the US Department of Justice went out of its way to say that they would not seek the death penalty.

They would not have done so had not the argument that we are a cruel and murderous country rang true in the eyes of people of the world. Two thirds of the countries of the world have outlawed the death penalty (which is different of course from whether or not their government kills people, oh by the way). The USA is the number 5th country in the world for executions, coming in after China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen. Now that is a list right there to give one pause and wonder just what is going on.

I was not aware of how we were seen in this area by many people of the world until it was Snowden who brought it to my attention.  Well, I knew a little about it I guess, but hadn't given the issue much thought.

Is there a possible way out of this dilemma?  A solution that lets us keep our death penalty, so important to so many Americans, yet avoids the onus that accompanies "stringing someone up"?

I believe that there is.   What if we amended the law so that only the rich would be at jeopardy to being sent to "Ol' Sparkey" (the electric chair) for their crimes?  Its only fair after all, they are the only ones who can afford the legal system in this country; a poor man or woman certainly can not.

I think that world opinion would respond to this change and recognize that we had significantly made progress on the issue of the death penalty and furthermore that we were taking a very progressive step on the issue of the very wealthy people in a world filled with unbelievable poverty.

I hope that all good Americans will join me in calling for the death penalty for the rich.

Thank you.


1, "Old Sparky" -- The Electric Chair

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