August 7, 1999
George W. Bush has presided over an execution in Texas almost every two weeks since his election. Why isn't that a campaign issue?
By Christopher Hitchens
In rather the same way as new movies are now "reviewed" in terms of their first weekend gross, new candidates have become subject to evaluation by the dimensions of their "war chest." This silly archaic expression defines other equally vapid terms like "credibility" and "electability" and "name recognition," which become subliminally attached to it.
In many cases, the crude cash-flow measure is as useful in deciding on a politician as it is in making a choice at the multiplex; you might as well see the worthless movie that everyone else has seen, or express an interest in the unbearably light "front runner," so as not to be left out of the national "conversation."
The hidden costs, alas, include a complete erosion of the critical faculties. I am as enthralled as the next person by the sheaves of money assembled for George Walker Bush. (What did he do to be shorn at birth of his Herbert?) But I'm even more fascinated by the fact that, as I write, he is about to sign his 93rd death warrant. There was an execution on the day of his inauguration as governor of Texas, which I don't count, and there has been one every two and a half weeks or so ever since.
Part of a governor's job is to review capital cases. The staggering pace of executions in Texas means that Bush has either a) been doing little else but reviewing death sentences or b) been signing death warrants as fast as they can be put in front of him.
This may also be helping him gain some of that much needed "foreign policy experience" about which the pundits have made the occasional frown. State officials from the Philippines and Guatemala have been touring lethal chambers in the United States as part of their research into improved methods, and according to Amnesty International a Filipino official was allowed to watch a killing in Texas in 1997. One of the things that Bush could have done better on is choosing the best boxing gear.
The thorny question of race -- always such a minefield for the aspiring Republican candidate -- also gets a workout by this means. Many people remember the case of Karla Faye Tucker, the born-again pickax-murderess who showed -- at least by the standard of Christian fundamentalism -- signs of having been rehabilitated. Gov. Bush snuffed her in February of last year, over the protests of Pat Robertson and others.
But had he commuted her sentence, he would have been faced with executing a black woman, Erica Sheppard, who was next in line on the female death row and had foregone her appeal. Spare a photogenic white girl and then kill a defiant black one? Better to do away with both and avoid the row altogether. (Sheppard has since recovered her determination to appeal, and recently took part in a protest against the strip-searching of female inmates in front of male guards, another distinguishing feature of the Texas criminal justice system.)
Then there's the aspect that touches "communities of faith," or whatever you choose to call them. Gov. Bush has proposed that the social safety net be maintained by religious charities, and he hopes to make these points of light his auxiliaries in ending such welfare as we still know. It's the battiest soup-kitchen scheme since Theodore Roosevelt discussed handing over American social welfare to the Salvation Army.
But it runs up against a potentially interesting conflict: at least 28 major religious groups in this country have declared against capital punishment. Might not now be the time to ask them if they will agree to ladle charity on behalf of a man who conducts photo-op and opinion-poll executions?
Some Lone Star State cases for your perusal: An openly homosexual named Calvin Burdine was sentenced to death after being given a court-appointed lawyer who referred to gay men as "queers" and "fairies," and who fell asleep during the trial. In 1998, two Texas defendants were executed for crimes committed when they were 17. (That same year, of the 70 juveniles on death row in the United States, Texas was holding 26.)
Then there's the case of Joseph Cannon and Robert Carter, who suffered head injuries in infancy, had been subject to lurid physical abuse later, and tested at an abysmal level for mental retardation. Texas killed them anyway, violating the accepted international standard that prohibits the death penalty for the underage, as well as the presumption that it is wrong to slay the mentally ill or incompetent.
You probably don't want to know how perfunctory was the presentation of the state's evidence, how 10th-rate was the performance of the court-appointed defense, and how wretched was the end. (The humane "lethal injection" needle blew out of Joseph Cannon's arm as the "procedure" began: The witnesses were hurried from the room and then brought back to view a second and more conclusive try.)
Perhaps you wonder if capital punishment is unevenly applied, as respects race and class, in the state of Texas. Wonder no longer: Just read the Amnesty International report "Killing With Prejudice" (322 Eighth Avenue, NY, NY 10001. $6) Finally, the man who is awaiting execution as I write -- Larry Robison -- is a paranoid schizophrenic who, along with his family, asked repeatedly for treatment of his unstable condition before cracking up. The state which failed him in the first instance is now stepping in, at vast expense, to warehouse him on death row and to snuff him on the taxpayers' dime.
Yet most people can still mention only two things about George Walker Bush -- his extreme opulence and his commitment to "compassionate conservatism." This is the story, and the media are sticking to it. Every time I get on the radio or TV, I mention his assembly-line execution policy, and every time I do so I get treated as if I had developed Tourette's syndrome in church. Let that go, and on to the next question.
Yet Bush's addiction to the death cult actually touches every important aspect of what could be described as his "politics." Unfortunately, the commitment of President Clinton, Al Gore and Bill Bradley to the same pro-death penalty politics prevents it from surfacing as the issue it deserves to be.