Will the United States have to choose between its war on terrorism and its addiction to the death penalty? With the Justice Department's indictment of French national Zacarias Moussaoui and the approaching deployment of European troops in Afghanistan, the pursuit of Al Qaeda is colliding head-on with a dispute to which few Americans until now paid any attention: a worldwide legal war against the U.S. death penalty.
It's a serious confrontation. Spain refuses to extradite Al Qaeda suspects if they will face capital charges.
France will go to court against a death sentence for its indicted citizen Moussaoui. Tony Blair's administration has tied itself in knots over how its Afghanistan occupation troops might handle a captured Osama bin Laden. Europe's immovability on the subject of the death penalty, even for World Trade Center conspirators, has left Washington gob smacked. But it shouldn't. The pursuit of Al Qaeda simply has pushed to the boiling point long-simmering disquiet with American capital justice.
Earlier this year, France refused to extradite James Kopp, the alleged murderer of a Buffalo obstetrician. After months of negotiations, the Bush administration promised not to pursue capital charges.
This spring the high courts of both Canada and South Africa ruled that their nations may not extradite suspects to the U.S. if they could face death charges.
All this turmoil reflects a fundamental shift in the global politics of death: To most of our closest allies, execution is now as repugnant as slavery. And the nations retaining capital punishment make for dubious company.
Despite the brutality of the Taliban's soccer stadium execution spectacles, last year it was the U.S., Saudi Arabia, China and Iran that together carried out 90% of the world's executions, according to Amnesty International.
In recent years, U.S. death sentences have proliferated in inverse proportion to the abolition of state-sponsored killing worldwide. In 1981, the U.S. carried out a single execution. That year, only 31 countries had abolished capital punishment.
This year, 66 individuals have been put to death in the U.S., while 107 nations, including all of Europe and countries from Chile to Azerbaijan, are execution-free zones.
This isn't just a matter of elite opposition: In June, more than 60% of voters in Ireland approved a constitutional ban on capital punishment even in wartime.
As the reaction to possible death sentences for Al Qaeda suspects demonstrates, many nations are looking for ways to actively intervene in U.S. capital cases.
Two years ago, the European Union declared capital punishment worldwide its top human rights priority.
In early June, the Council of Europe--which requires death-penalty abolition as a condition of membership--proposed revoking U.S. observer status unless a national death penalty moratorium is imposed within two years.
President Bush has asked for and received worldwide law enforcement cooperation in pursuit of Bin Laden's terror mafia. But transnational justice is not a one-way street.
As the war in Afghanistan winds down, it is clear that American isolation over capital punishment jeopardizes our capacity to bring Al Qaeda suspects to justice in our own courts.
Behind that tension is a fundamental question: whether the United States has more in common with the Taliban's standards of punishment or with the 107 countries that have left the death penalty behind.
Bruce Shapiro is a co-author, with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), of "Legal Lynching: The Death Penalty and America's Future" (New Press, 2001).
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times