Are You One of Those People Who Opposes the Death Penalty, Except When the Criminals Are 'Monsters'?

There is no exception to the death penalty, why do we keep saying otherwise?

Hours after Tsarnaev was sentenced to death this Friday, noted concern troll and alleged liberal Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine tweeted out a rather warped, but entirely common, sentiment among moderates and liberals in this country: that the death penalty is terrible and racist and not good but there exist some vague, ad hoc scenario where it’s acceptable:

This is a sentiment even expressed by our President:

Obama feels utmost caution should be taken on the subject of capital punishment, and it should be reserved only for ‘heinous crimes’.

In fact, the US - and more specifically the US left - is alone in the Western world in its support for the death penalty as a means of punishment. It’s an odd moral carve out. Like the left’s embrace of flying death robots to kill “terrorists”, its willingness to overlook the never-ending occupation of Palestine, or its complete lack of political will to end the “war on drugs” once and for all, it not only exists outside the mainstream of Europe’s left - but right of its center. The common thread in all these cases is that those on the wrong end of these injustices typically aren’t the bourgeois white liberals who comprise, to this day, the vast majority of the establishment left in the United States. So we make exception. We make excuses. We say, “yes, but murder’. We say, “yes, but terrorism”. We say - as Chait and other democrats routinely do - "Yes, but this specific evil is just too evil". We insist, above all, it’s not politically viable. To bolster this compromise liberals will typically point to the infamous Dukakis moment at the 1988 Presidential debates as the informal end of the left’s across-the-board opposition to the death penalty. But this moment shouldn’t be seen as a point of shame, or of loss. It should be seen - before the wholesale coup of the Democratic party by PR hacks - as one of the last few times liberals stood for something.

In the 1988 presidential debate, Michael Dukakis was asked what still has to be one of the worst gotcha questions in the history of public debate:

His answer was largely seen by the morally stunted pundit class as “appearing weak” or robotic. His campaign manager Susan Estrich - who certainly wasn’t impartial in trying to find fault other than herself - later said, “It was a question that was very much on the table by that point in the campaign. When he answered by talking policy, I knew we had lost the election.”

While there exists no actual evidence his answer is what caused his loss it’s remained in liberal folklore ever since. One shows weakness on the death penalty - they’re politically toxic. So we gave up on the issue. We avoided the topic. We hedged. Worse, are those who believe it's wrong but remain silent or gesture, like Chait did, towards empathy for state killing in the wake of a popularly considered evil like Tsarnaev. But it’s these times, times when it's unpopular, that it’s most important to come out and make it clear murdering unarmed men in cages, who pose no threat to anyone, is never okay under any circumstance. It’s times like these, in the wake of traumatic event like the Boston Bombings that we should all embrace our inner Dukakis and say, in no uncertain terms, there are no exceptions: state-sanctioned killing is always, categorically wrong.

Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst at FAIR and contributing writer for AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJohnsonNYC.

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