Upon discovering that Saddam Hussein's henchmen maintained a brutal prison for the children of the disloyal, one of my colleagues in the national press expressed a predictable loathing:
"I was stunned," she wrote with a stylish rhetorical flourish. "What kind of regime locks up and tortures children?"
Now that's a good question. Because juvenile detention facilities in the U.S. were recently found by federal investigators to show a "pattern of egregious conditions." Violations of incarcerated children's rights included physical abuse, excessive use of discipline, overcrowded and unsafe conditions, inadequate educational, medical and mental health services.
Just as the Americans were announcing that the liberation of Iraq would be followed by "steadfast commitment . . . to advance internationally agreed human rights principles worldwide," the U.S. was for the fourth time in 12 months preparing to participate in a practice that Amnesty International denounces as "indecent and illegal."
The U.S. has the barbarous distinction of having executed more people for crimes committed as children than any other country -- and that during a period when 40 more nations were abolishing the death penalty entirely, bringing the global total to 111. When it comes to the execution of juvenile offenders, it seems the U.S. is a rogue state in the international community.
Last year, even among the bloody dictatorships it identifies as the "axis of evil," the U.S. was the only country known to have executed juvenile offenders. And it executed its first juvenile offender for 2003 on April 3.
Some of those executed committed dreadful crimes. But almost universally, the international community rejects the execution of juvenile offenders -- and that includes the U.S. ploy of sentencing child criminals to death and then warehousing them until they age enough to be killed. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights describes this as a violation of moral law from which no country can exempt itself.
Today, there are more than 80 inmates in the U.S. who were sentenced to death while they were still minors and now await some grisly form of execution.
Among those on death row are an illiterate with an IQ of 69; another who believes people can't see him when his eyes are closed; and a former mental patient previously committed to a mental hospital for paranoid schizophrenia who required sedation during the trial to suppress hallucinations.
Among those already executed are a man with the intellectual capacities of a 12-year-old who acted while under the domination of other adults and one who, after confessing to a murder, crawled into the lap of his interrogator hoping for a cuddle.
What's more, although violent crimes by juveniles have been falling in the U.S., excessive numbers of children still go to jail. Over the last decade, Amnesty International points out, 40 states enacted legislation making it easier for children to be tried as adults and 42 states held children in adult jails while awaiting trial.
Although every major international human rights treaty expressly prohibits execution for crimes committed by individuals before the age of 18, the U.S.-based National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty reports scores of people who committed crimes while legally children have been electrocuted, gassed or killed by lethal injection in the U.S. in the last 30 years.
As recently as 1996, prosecutors in the state of Mississippi sought the death penalty for offenders as young as 13. Some have had the death penalty imposed for crimes committed when they were as young as 10. The coalition points out that one 14-year-old black child executed in South Carolina was so small that his mask fell off while he was being electrocuted.
In case you hadn't guessed already, I am opposed to capital punishment under any circumstances. I have been in the abolitionist camp since reading the eyewitness description of the execution of Socrates.
The Greek philosopher actually accepted the argument that the state had the right to execute him. He abided by the law and accepted its decision. Thus the greatest thinker of his age, an honored veteran whose only crime was to ask troubling questions, executed himself at the state's direction by drinking poison. He refused to beg mercy from his persecutors or to flee, although both options were available.
Consider Socrates' decision in the context of Jesus Christ, another individual who accepted the authorities' right to order his execution -- and who publicly absolved them of their judicial sin. Of course, the righteous executioners cared nothing for that. What was to be forgiven? Christ had his trial, drew the death penalty and that was that.
The justification for killing the famous two remains the same justification used for killing any criminals -- for only in hindsight was their innocence determined. Should the accidental killing of one innocent person in the name of justice today be considered less of a moral crime than those inherent in the legal executions of Christ, or Socrates?
For me, the honorable way in which these individuals faced their executions at the hands of insufferably righteous fools casts into eternal doubt and dishonor the argument that execution can ever be the state's proper prerogative. In that context, executing people for crimes committed as children seems particularly odious and indefensible.
Just as there are no half measures in an execution, there's no gray zone in the death penalty debate. Like it or not, those who believe that killing people is an appropriate judicial process choose to ally themselves with those who approved the death penalty for Socrates, Christ and with those who conducted "legal" executions in Iraq. Likewise, those who brutalize juvenile offenders in the U.S. place themselves on the same side as those who do so in Iraq.
For me, the ethically impoverished eye-for-an-eye principle cannot be reconciled with civilized attempts to make the world a better, more humane place. The state, which is valuable only as a collective aspiration toward what is best in human conduct, has no place behaving in a primitive, vengeful fashion, torturing people by keeping them on death row for decades and then snuffing out their lives as casually as one turns out the light.
Yet last September, one dismayed Texas judge chose his words carefully in criticizing the state judicial system of which he'd been a part for more than 30 years. He used the "a spirit of vengeance" to describe the court's treatment of mentally ill offenders.
The month before that, four U.S. Supreme Court justices said that the American practice of executing juvenile offenders is "shameful." They said "executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society."
We all might do well to think about that notion of decency amid the jingoistic clamor to condemn Iraq's evil regime. By all means, let us have no illusions about Saddam. But let's harbor none about ourselves, either.
© Copyright 2003 Vancouver Sun