Published on Thursday, April 6, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
Europeans Baffled by US Support of Death Penalty
by Carol J Williams
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and China are among the few countries that still invoke the death penalty to punish those deemed of no further social value.
Especially in this U.S. election year, when the pace of executions has accelerated and even liberal candidates fear to criticize what Europeans see as a policy of "kill to win," disgust with the Americans' eye-for-an-eye approach is not only growing but moving from ethical upbraids to economic interventions.
But the more strident protests have mostly given rise to greater frustration, as those morally opposed to the taking of life as a form of state punishment find their actions are not only ineffective but often counterproductive.
When a women's group in Sweden last fall called for a boycott of California wines in protest of the state's corrections and execution policies, the show of outrage was headline news in Stockholm but only hardened Sacramento's resolve to prevent the transfer of a Swedish prisoner to her homeland. Swedes gave up the attack on their country's $770 million in trade with the Golden State because it was undermining bilateral negotiations, says Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Monica Lundquist.
In Italy, a campaign by the Benetton fashion empire featuring condemned U.S. murderers on advertising billboards cost the company a lucrative marketing deal with 400 stores of Sears, Roebuck & Co. Sears, the Italian company's biggest foothold in the U.S. market, canceled its retail agreement with Benetton after weeping relatives of victims of the profiled death-row inmates picketed stores in New York and Houston.
German intellectuals convinced that racism underlies the death sentence against former Black Panthers activist Mumia Abu-Jamal in Pennsylvania have been urging--to no avail--German businesses such as the Haribo candy company that makes Gummi Bears to pull their investments out of the state.
French and German opponents of capital punishment, which is outlawed throughout the 41 countries in the Council of Europe, have sought to exert pressure with fund-raising drives to finance appeals for condemned prisoners and with petitions demanding an end to what they deem a barbaric practice.
In this university town in northwestern Germany, politicians and academics have joined forces to mobilize churches and human rights groups to come up with more effective measures for convincing U.S. citizens that they shalt not kill.
"This is baffling for us. While countries like Russia and Turkey are agreeing to abolish the death penalty, the United States, which has always claimed to stand for democracy, freedom and morality, still refuses to do so," says Klaus Langmann, a Muenster University mathematics professor and co-founder of Amnesty International in Germany. Russia and Turkey, widely criticized for their human rights records, have agreed to cease executions in return for inclusion in European alliances.
Ruprecht Polenz, a conservative who represents Muenster in the federal parliament in Berlin, attributes the ideological gulf between the United States and Western Europe on capital punishment to their dramatically different histories over the past century.
"Our views have been shaped by the experience of the Third Reich, when the potential for abuse was so horribly apparent in the state's right to decide matters of life and death," says the Christian Democrat, who sits on the foreign policy committee of the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament.
German distress over U.S. executions hit a high point last year when two German-born brothers, Karl and Walter LaGrand, were put to death for a 1982 murder in Arizona. Three other Germans also await execution in Arizona and Florida, but the cause here transcends national interests. In Germany, as throughout Europe, groups dedicated to fighting racism and injustice have made household names of condemned Americans such as Andrea Hicks Jackson, who is awaiting execution in Florida, and Abu-Jamal, both convicted in the slayings of police officers.
When U.S. presidential candidate Gov. George W. Bush of Texas refused to stay the execution of 31-year-old Odell Barnes in early March--the 122nd execution he authorized since becoming governor--European anger soared. Influential leaders from Pope John Paul II to French President Jacques Chirac had urged Bush to cease what many of their followers see as a campaign tactic to cast himself as tough on crime.
"This is one of the most disturbing aspects of legalized executions: the potential for misuse, this kill-to-win strategy that has every candidate too afraid of losing votes to speak out on humanitarian grounds," says Swiss sociologist Margrit Sprecher.
Sprecher, who spent months interviewing condemned inmates in Huntsville, Texas, for a book published in German last year, "Living and Dying on Death Row," ties the strong support among Americans for capital punishment--more than 70% by most measures--to their concept of victims' rights and indulgence of revenge.
Italians have turned to efforts at positive reinforcement in their campaign against the death penalty, bolstered by both the overwhelming adherence to Catholicism and a deep distrust of the state. Rome lights up the Colosseum for 48 hours each time an execution is commuted or postponed anywhere in the world. Only two of the dozen illuminations over the past three months have been in celebration of U.S. actions--one a stay of execution in North Carolina and the other for Illinois' decision to suspend the death penalty pending review of numerous suspect convictions.
Although popular revulsion escalates in Europe with each U.S. execution, politicians across the spectrum contend that their instruments for affecting American public opinion are few and mostly ineffective.
"We have to agree to disagree. There's nothing else on the table," says Gert Weisskirchen, foreign policy spokesman for legislators from German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party.
Greens legislator Claudia Roth, who chairs the human rights and humanitarian support committee of the Bundestag, says she is proud of the democratic evolution of her country to a point where the majority of Germans define the death penalty as abhorrent.
"I spoke with a woman whose son had been murdered, and she told me she wanted to see his killer die, that she wanted revenge, but that she was later glad the law prevented her from succumbing to those crude instincts," Roth recalls. "I think we are better people when we give every person the chance to redeem himself."
Conservatives such as Karl Lamers, foreign policy point man for the Christian Democratic Union, say they see little short-term hope of persuading the U.S. to abolish the death penalty despite the embarrassing, dictatorial company that Americans are forced to keep on the subject.
"The United States is the spiritual father of Europe. Its forces defended us for decades against the Russian threat. There's only so far we can go in criticizing the country that brought us back into the democratic fold after 1945," Lamers says. "But for a country with the cultural credentials of the United States, this is behavior that the rest of the civilized world considers inappropriate."
Staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Rome contributed to this report.
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times