(2 of 3)
Nor does Europe hesitate to pressure the U.S. on this point. Last year alone, the presidency of the E.U. sent then-Governor George W. Bush eight letters pleading for the pardon of death-row inmates in Texas. The E.U. publicly protests each execution that takes place. Last year, E.U. ambassadors in Washington presented the State Department with a memorandum calling for an end to capital punishment and voicing "concern about the increasing number of persons sentenced to death in the United States." Without naming the U.S. specifically, French President Jacques Chirac called for "universal abolition of the death penalty" in a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva last March.
International criticism has increasingly focused on President Bush himself, whose record of presiding over 152 executions during his five years as Texas Governor has given him the nickname of "Mr. Death Penalty" among European opponents of capital punishment. Though the death penalty was not an important issue to U.S. voters last November, it dominated European press coverage of the presidential campaign. "Bush makes no apology for his hideous track record," said an editorial in Britain's Mirror newspaper, as Texas was preparing to execute mentally retarded Johnny Paul Penry. "And, disturbingly, he has mass support from Americans, driven by their out-of-control gun culture and blood lust for retribution." Le Monde editor Jean-Marie Colombani wrote: "The death penalty, along with limits on abortion rights and the sale of firearms, is digging a gulf between America and the Old Continent, a gulf of values and misunderstanding that drives them apart. In this domain, President Bush, more than any of his predecessors, incarnates an America that is more and more distant from Europe."
Washington officials are unmoved by such criticism. "The President believes that the death penalty saves lives and serves as a deterrent to crime," says White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. The State Department offers a more diplomatic but equally firm defense. "We know there is a lot of concern around the world," says an official, "but at this point our nation believes that it is an appropriate punishment for certain crimes if handled under very careful legal procedures. We think that our system stands up to scrutiny because it is constantly under its own scrutiny." Another official notes simply that "it is the will of the people." End of story.
But if they bothered to read their own diplomatic cables, let alone the European press, officials in Washington would know that this issue is doing serious damage to America's image and influence abroad. Writing in the Washington Post last February, former U.S. Ambassador to France Felix Rohatyn issued a dire warning on this point. "[America's] moral leadership is under challenge," he wrote, "because of two issues: the death penalty and violence in our society. During my nearly four years in France, no single issue evoked as much passion and as much protest as executions in the United States ... It would be worth having a dialogue on these difficult subjects with our Atlantic allies not by diplomats but by jurists and parliamentarians and chiefs of police."
The most impassioned protests that Rohatyn alluded to concerned cases in which prisoners appeared to have been condemned on racial grounds, or after unfair trials at which they were badly defended. A number of such cases have generated ad hoc support groups, multilingual websites, fundraising campaigns, and letters or phone calls to U.S. officials by European leaders (also by Pope John Paul II) pleading for clemency. In the case of Odell Barnes, a 31-year-old black man convicted of the rape and murder of his girlfriend, a French support group financed a counter-investigation that turned up serious doubts about his guilt. After Barnes was executed in March 2000, French Education Minister Jack Lang who had flown to Texas to meet with the prisoner charged the U.S. with "assassination." Lang wondered "how Bush can pretend to run for President after committing such a crime."
Timothy McVeigh, however, makes a far less appealing poster boy for the anti-death-penalty campaign. A ne'er-do-well Gulf War veteran fascinated with guns and fanatically opposed to the U.S. government, McVeigh blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 with a fertilizer truck bomb. The blast killed 168 people, including 19 children, and injured 500. McVeigh, 33, who casually referred to the dead kids as "collateral damage," has admitted responsibility for the deed, expressed no remorse and ended the appeals process in order to ensure his execution. If ever a prisoner deserved to die, say death penalty-supporters, surely it is he.
Yet many abolitionists see McVeigh's execution as an important turning point for their crusade. Says Michel Taube, president of the French organization Together Against the Death Penalty: "This is the first federal execution in 38 years, which constitutes a juridical step backward for the U.S. McVeigh is a paradoxical figure the worst domestic terrorist America has ever known, and at the same time an ordinary American, a child of the divorce generation, of the gun culture. This says a lot about American society, its justice and its violence." As for McVeigh's evident guilt and the reprehensible nature of his crime, Taube says that misses the point. "The problem of the death penalty is not just the innocent people who are condemned. We say it is wrong to execute the guilty."
Indeed, many anti-death-penalty activists argue that the lack of extenuating circumstances in McVeigh's case strips the issue down to its essential point: the nature of cap-ital punishment itself. "We see this case as an opportunity to show that we oppose the death penalty in all circumstances," says Piers Bannister of Amnesty International, which will hold a vigil outside the Terre Haute prison on the day of McVeigh's execution. "It's not about him. It's about eradicating a cruel, irrevocable and outdated punishment."