Opponents of the death penalty may have finally found their “smoking gun” – a case in which an innocent person may have been executed.
Many people have been exonerated while on death row, but the United States has never had a case in which an executed person was later proven innocent. Now, as the New York Times reported earlier this week, St. Louis’s top prosecutor has decided to reopen the case of Larry Griffin, who was executed ten years ago for the murder of a drug dealer. A reappraisal of the evidence has indicated that others may have been responsible for the crime.
The death penalty is the prime example of a public policy based on passion rather than reason. It has been shown time and time again that the death penalty does not deter crime. Rather, it exists in many U.S. states because executing those guilty of heinous crimes fulfils a basic desire – both individual and societal – for revenge.
The thoroughly understandable animal instinct to strike back in kind against someone who has attacked you or your loved ones can be opposed only by reason. Opposition to the death penalty, common among liberals, is sometimes based on emotion or religious convictions. But unlike the pro-death penalty position, it can also be based on reason. In that sense it follows a pattern I have noticed in many domestic issues of the day, namely, that the political differences between “right” and “left” (or “conservative” and “liberal”) often map closely to the human mind’s perpetual internal conflict between instinct and reason.
The Terry Schiavo affair was a case in point. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s “professional” opinion based on viewing a video was – even if we are generous and view Frist sympathetically rather than cynically – an example of emotion trumping reason. In spite of his medical training, Frist, along with many other Americans, had an emotional response to seeing Ms. Schiavo apparently smiling and following an object with her eyes. Reason was represented in this case by the various medical professionals who had actually examined Ms. Schiavo over the course of her vegetative state.
Opposition to gay marriage, a position generally identified with a conservative point of view, makes no rational sense. It’s based either on religious belief or on gut feeling rooted in fear of the unknown or the different. Reason tells us that increasing the pool of people who are allowed to marry should, at best, strengthen the institution of marriage, and at worst, have no effect on married heterosexuals. (To test this statement, try to think of a possible rational basis for a married heterosexual to think that gay marriages could threaten his or her own traditional marriage in any way.)
Fear of the unknown and the different is a ubiquitious and instinctive part of human nature; only reason can overcome it. In this case, as in others, the liberal line is more closely aligned with reason, while the conservative position arises from faith (the opposite of reason) or, at its worst, prejudice and hatred.
To be sure, liberals often cleave to their positions out of passions just as strong as those found on the other side. I am certainly not out to condemn the passions – without them we wouldn’t be human. It would not be possible to strive for social justice, for example, without a mix of idealism (fed by passions) and policymaking based on reason. But the difference I have begun to perceive is that where many social issues are concerned, though both points of view have their attendant passions, only the liberal position can claim reason on its side.
[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]