Published on Friday, December 5, 2003 by the Boston Globe
America's Eager Executioners
by H.D.S. Greenway
WHY IS America so eager to put people to death?
Attorney General John Ashcroft's advocacy of capital punishment is second to none. He took the unusual step of taking the Washington area sniper suspects away from Maryland and sent them to Virginia simply because Virginia was more likely to execute them. And in Arkansas a paranoid schizophrenic prisoner on death row is being force-fed antipsychotic medication just to make him sane enough to execute.
China leads the world when it comes to executions, but the United States is either third or fourth after Iran and possibly Saudi Arabia. The United States leads the world in executing child offenders, however, and stands alongside Somalia as the only countries refusing to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Children, which bars child executions.
In most of Europe, the death penalty has gone into historical oblivion along with the rack, the iron maiden, and other medieval methods of dispatching people. Europeans look with horror at America's predilection for capital punishment, just as many Americans look upon stoning a woman to death for adultery in the Third World. Americans think nothing of criticizing other cultures and other societies for asking women to wear veils without a backward glance to those millions around the world who find capital punishment a lot more repugnant.
No country applying for membership in the European Union can hope to join if it has a death penalty. Legal executions are no longer considered acceptable as civilized behavior. The European Union and the 45-nation Council of Europe have called for an end to capital punishment under any circumstances worldwide. Amnesty International says 111 countries have given up the death penalty "in law or in practice."
So what? John Ashcroft might say. Europeans are from Venus and Americans from Mars. Who cares what Europeans think? The United States is the most powerful country ever known to man. Why can't it do what it wants? Terrorists deserve nothing less anyway.
Yet when it comes to terrorism, there is a direct and adverse link between the death penalty and our national security. Harvard's Jessica Stern, a student of terrorism, writes that "our insistence on applying the death penalty to international terrorists is causing us multiple problems. . . . Because of its opposition to the death penalty, the European Parliament has prohibited extraditions of terrorists to the United States for trial without commitment to waive capital punishment."
She points out that even Britain, our closest ally, "has put the United States on notice that British soldiers will not turn bin Laden over to the United States if they manage to capture him unless the death penalty is waived."
Karl Kaiser, director emeritus of the German Council on Foreign Relations, told me that although the Germans work very closely with Americans combating terrorism, their hands are tied when it comes to extradition because of America's insistence on death. "But this is an American problem, not a European problem," said Kaiser.
The result is that Al Qaeda operatives are treated in haphazard ways. Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, Stern points out, stands accused of seeking nuclear weapons for Al Qaeda. Yet he will not face the death penalty because the Germans insisted on a death waiver before they would hand him over. While Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, a relatively low-ranking jihadi involved in the Tanzania Embassy bombing, faced the death penalty, a New York jury sensibly decided to sentence him to life in prison without parole.
Europe has been described as the jumping-off place for Islamic terrorists bent on infiltrating and harming the United States. European cities are ringed by Muslim slums where clerics preach violence to the impressionable. Many of the 9/11 bombers spent time in Europe before they entered the United States.
Americans badly need Europe's full cooperation in helping to foil terrorists and bring them to justice. But the death penalty stands in the way.
I asked Magnus Ranstorp, head of St. Andrews University's Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, if he thought capital punishment was hurting America's war on terror. "Without question," he said. The argument that the death penalty deters crime doesn't apply to terrorists who seek death. "As a matter of fact, it does the opposite," he said. "It creates martyrs."
"You have to measure justice with effectiveness," he continued, "and justice is served by life in prison without parole."
If capital punishment is actually hurting the United States in the war on terror, it ought to be abandoned for no other reason than enlightened self-interest. But try telling that to John Ashcroft.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.