Saturday, January 22, 2011

The US Death Penalty: A European Perspective

Watching America's death penalty moves from a half year into my stay in Europe has been interesting. As Erik Eckholm and Katie Zezima report in Saturday's NYTimes, the ability of US states to get the drugs for their lethal injection cocktails has been hampered by the complete resistance of any and almost every European country. European Community treaties not only forbid any member states from using a death penalty, they commit them to working to eliminate the death penalty internationally. In the latest instance, the American company that produces sodium theopental does so in Italy, which will not allow it to export drugs for execution purposes. Even the country governed by Silvio Berlusconi, arguably George Bush's best friend in Europe next to Tony Blair (but unlike Tony, still in power for a few more minutes at least) won't give us our death drugs.

It is not that any one obstacle like this will halt the death penalty in the US, but drip by drip they are a reminder that strong opposition to America's use of capital punishment is a uniform and accepted value by virtually all players in the European political spectrum. You will not find conservative European leaders (outside perhaps the racist fringe parties and perhaps not all of them) who will back the US on capital punishment. Even leaders, who unlike Silvio Berlusconi, have political capital to spare, like David Cameron in the UK and Angela Merkel in Germany, are not going to waste it supporting America's execution habit. While many of their constituents continue to say they would like to have death penalty available, they do not hold their leaders even a tiny bit accountable for not giving them one.

Many Americans assume that Europeans couldn't possibly understand our death penalty needs. They may assume that European societies are low violence, relatively homogenous racially, and generally pacifists when it comes to punishing criminals. This picture is as badly out of date as the parallel assumption that the US has a more successful economy for average people. In fact violence remains low by US standards (remember most of Europe does not tolerate private gun ownership beyond hunting weapons and then with strict licensing), but fear of violent crime is a powerful feature of politics in all of the major European countries, much of it fueled by the loss of homogeneity and anxiety about immigration. Nor our Europeans any longer to be counted as "soft on crime." They do not use imprisonment nearly as indiscriminately (another reason their economies may be doing better) but they are increasingly punishing violent crime with long sentences and demanding better police efforts to solve and prevent violence. What they appreciate, even the ones that wouldn't mind having a death penalty, is that capital punishment would contribute next to nothing to protecting them from violent crime and would cost a lot of capital (Euros or Pounds) that nobody wants to pay more taxes for.

That idea is also just beginning to spread across the United States.

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