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Month: October 2005

why the death penalty is wrong

why the death penalty is wrong

The death penalty is wrong because it serves no moral or practical purpose.

1) The death penalty is not an effective deterrent. Jeffrey Fagan, Columbia Law School professor, offers this testimony:

Recent studies claiming that executions reduce murders have fueled the revival of deterrence as a rationale to expand the use of capital punishment. Such strong claims are not unusual in either the social or natural sciences, but like nearly all claims of strong causal effects from any social or legal intervention, the claims of deterrence fall apart under close scrutiny. These new studies are fraught with technical and conceptual errors … These studies fail to reach the demanding standards of social science to make such strong claims, standards such as replication and basic comparisons with other scenarios. Some simple examples and contrasts, including a careful analysis of the experience in New York State compared to others, lead to a rejection of the idea that either death sentences or executions deter murder.

2) The death penalty does not do justice, if justice is understood as upholding and encouraging lawfulness and as improving the moral and civic character of a society as a whole. The death penalty debases a society, encourages the belief in violence as an appropriate tool for solving social problems, and appeals to the perhaps understandable, but abhorrent and indefensible, desire for revenge.

3) The use of the death penalty in the “best” of circumstances is subject to the horrifying risk of executing innocent people and the unconscionable reality of unequal application. And in the “worst” of circumstances? In the hands of unethical and self-serving political leadership, the death penalty is a tool of oppression and outright injustice.

I am saddened — and angry — that Iowa legislators are once more trying to reintroduce the death penalty into the Iowa criminal code after an absence of forty years. They exploit our feelings of anger and horror and helplessness at a very public and heinous act of violence to advance their political agenda, while careful analysis and moral leadership go out the window. Again and again, Iowa’s lawmakers have said “No!” to the reintroduction of the death penalty, even in the face of other terrible acts of violence. I do hope and pray that a comparable commitment to real justice will once more prevail.

a time and a place for torture?

a time and a place for torture?

The debate over the McCain amendment continues. The amendment, attached to a defense appropriations bill, bans the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by any agent of the United States government against any person anywhere in the world. The White House, led by vice-president Dick Cheney, continues to lobby against the amendment, asking that its language be changed to exempt the CIA from its provisions.

I cannot in any way fathom how making allowances for torture — used by covert agents against suspected terrorists “if the president determines that such operations are vital to the protection of the United States or its citizens from terrorist attack” — helps us win the war on terror or insure our safety or make the world a better place. It is a classic instance of “winning the battle” and “losing the war!”

The White House insists that they “do not condone torture, nor would [the president] ever authorize the use of torture,” and yet they clearly want to make allowance for the use of “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treament” when they deem it necessary. I fail to to see how this is not condoning torture!

Our nation is founded on the principles of the innate equality of all human beings and the universal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Any use of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment for any purpose absolutely violates those principles. Such behavior can only be justified by judging a person “less than human” and therefore not entitled to basic “human” rights. We protect ourselves at the cost of sacrificing our national soul and make ludicrous any claim to be an exemplary champion of human rights.

When the end justifies the means, eventually anything goes. And when the test is a subjective judgment of a few folks in positions of power, the risks of the abuse of power are enormous. Our system of government was expressly designed to mitigate such abuses of power.

I am hopeful that saner, wiser, and more humane hearts and minds will prevail. I am hopeful that we will uphold the principles that have made our nation a beacon of light and truth among nations. I am hopeful that evil will not win … the evil that lies too in our own hearts.

the good people of iowa

the good people of iowa

I’ll admit it. I’m a sentimentalist. I’ve been known to get teary-eyed at the end of a good movie … or sometimes even in the middle!

On the other hand, I’m no fan of reality television in any form, and I’m no fan of contrived and very public demonstrations of charity. (As Jesus put it: When you give something to a needy person, do not make a big show of it, as the hypocrites do in the houses of worship and on the streets. They do it so that people will praise them …)

So when I sat down the other night with my wife to watch Three Wishes with Amy Grant, I did so with some pretty low expectations and a healthy dose of skepticism. But I liked the show … and there were a few tears.

The format of the show is this: Amy and her crew descend on a town, set up a tent, and invite the townspeople to come and share their wishes. The hour-long show documents the efforts of Amy and company to grant three of these wishes. In this particular show, they rebuilt a dairy barn for a young couple who had lost their barn to a fire; they arranged to have the college loan debt of a young Iowa State graduate cancelled; and they staged a graduation ceremony for a young woman who had been severely disabled in an automobile accident just days before her original high school graduation.

I liked it … not because I was so impressed with the great generosity of Amy and her friends, and not so much because I shared the joy of these three people, these three families, who had the good fortune to get what they wanted. What stayed with me, what impressed me, was the good people of Lemars, Iowa, the town featured in this week’s episode. I was impressed by the deep loyalty and commitment to family, the courage of a young woman who had no family, the sincere affection and readiness to help of folks — young and old alike — for a neighbor in need. I was reminded of what has kept me here in Iowa for eleven years — the people.

The people of Iowa, like people anywhere, are by no means perfect. They have, as people everywhere do, their own particular, even glaring, flaws. But, on the whole, Iowa people do care deeply about family. They come through for each other in crunch time. And they aren’t shy about expressing affection.

Why? Because they have remained close to the land? Because of the necessary interdependence of an agricultural economy? Because of deeply ingrained ethnic and cultural traditions? Maybe for all these reasons. But I would like to think that at the root of the character of many a good Iowan is a genuine and most practical faith in God. It’s there and it shows …

transforming memory

transforming memory

We are a product of our memories …

I heard someone make that comment a few days ago. It’s true. We do not encounter the present moment with a “clean slate,” but with the blessing and the burden of our memories. Our memories shape the ways we interpret and react to the situations we encounter. And our memories direct our steps. We try to create or find situations that will duplicate our good memories and we try to avoid situations that may duplicate our bad memories.

When we accumulate enough of one or the other, they become solidified, as it were, into a mindset, an outlook, a way of being. Enough good memories encourage us to welcome the future with open arms, expecting more. But enough bad memories make us fear the future and despise the present.

So how do you change a mindset? Are we prisoners of our memories — good or bad?

Memories cannot be altered, but the way they are put together may be. A mindset is not the product of the memories themselves, but of the way we interpret them, the way we retell the stories. That is the key — storytelling. The story is the means of making sense of the memories, of understanding and assimilating their meanings. But we can learn a new story! We can retell our old stories in new ways!

That is what forgiveness is about … not changing the past, but changing the way we feel about it, changing the way we think about it, changing the way we tell its story. I once was lost, but now I’m found! Faith is about learning to see ourselves through the eyes of Jesus, of learning to see ourselves as Jesus sees us, of learning to love ourselves as Jesus loves us.

We cannot change our memories, but they may become good memories as we begin to comprehend the “big picture” of our lives and see the hand of God at work from beginning to end. It’s a good story … with a most happy ending!

a test of national character

a test of national character

Our initial response to the victims of hurricane Katrina was a test of our national character, a test we largely failed. Since then, government agencies and especially non-governmental agencies and groups and single individuals have distinguished themselves by acts of genuine compassion and timely help to dislocated families. But there is much, much yet to do.

Our long term commitment to the rebuilding of the ravaged Gulf coast and to the restoration of livable communities in that same region will also test our national character. Katrina exposed the nightmares within the American dream. Katrina revealed the huge disparities that exist among us with regard to wealth and opportunity and safety and access to health care. What we saw we could not deny … but we are capable of forgetting what we saw.

In a Washington Post column released today E. J. Dionne writes:

It has long been said that Americans have short attention spans, but this is ridiculous: Our bold, urgent, far-reaching, post-Katrina war on poverty lasted maybe a month.

Credit for our ability to reach rapid closure on the poverty issue goes first to a group of congressional conservatives who seized the post-Katrina initiative before advocates of poverty reduction could get their plans off the ground.

As soon as President Bush announced his first spending package for reconstructing New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the Republican Study Committee and other conservatives switched the subject from poverty reduction to how Katrina reconstruction plans might increase the deficit that their own tax-cutting policies helped create.

Unwilling to freeze any of the tax cuts, these conservatives proposed cutting other spending to offset Katrina costs. The headlines focused on the seemingly easy calls on pork-barrel spending. But some of their biggest cuts were in health care programs, including Medicaid, and other spending for the poor …

I was naive enough to hope that after Katrina the left and the right might have useful things to say to each other about how to help the poorest among us. I guess we’ve moved on. You can lay a lot of the blame for this indifference on conservatives. But it will be a default on the part of liberals if the poor disappear again from public view without a fight.

(Read the entire column)

I worry that the focus will be on rebuilding cities instead of on rebuilding lives, that we will make this an opportunity to fashion a new New Orleans, a new Gulf coast, and forget about the problems and the people of the old one.

We cannot forget what we saw. We cannot just “move on” and fail to deal with the social and moral and political liabilities that so magnified Katrina’s capacity to cause human suffering. We must not fail this test of our national character.

it’s about who we are

it’s about who we are

Last Wednesday evening, the United States Senate overwhelming passed an amendment sponsored by John McCain to be attached to a defense spending bill. The amendment specifies that: “No person in the custody or under the effective control of the Department of Defense or under detention in a Department of Defense facility shall be subject to any treatment or technique of interrogation not authorized by and listed in the United States Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation.” It further mandates that: “No individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States Government, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The Bush administration has indicated that it would likely veto the bill since the amendment is “unnecessary and duplicative” and “would limit the president’s ability as commander-in-chief to effectively carry out the war on terrorism.” In other words, extraordinary problems require extraordinary solutions, and we cannot preemptively “bind the hands” of the United States military if we hope to win the war on terrorism.

In fact, the opposite is true. When we “unloose the hands” of our military, we lose the war on terrorism, because we will ourselves have become no different than our enemies. As Senator McCain said about his amendment: “But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are.”