Doing the Right Thing in Illinois

Human Rights

"Capital punishment is our society's recognition of the sanctity of human life." -- Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT)

Death penalty opponents are euphoric -- as they well should be -- over this past weekend's decision by outgoing Republican Illinois Gov. George Ryan to commute the death sentences of all 164 men on his state's death row. It was a landmark gesture in the history of capital punishment in America -- far outstripping the past standard for decency in a governor, the 22 sentences commuted by Oklahoma Gov. Lee Cruce in 1915.

But beyond the death penalty, Ryan's act raises a bigger question. He moved only two days before he leaves office, having failed to seek re-election under the cloud of a local corruption scandal. For two years, Ryan has agonized in a very public, high-profile way over the death penalty -- a process inspired by the Northwestern University student project that in the 1990s began systematically reexamining, and frequently exonerating, prisoners awaiting death sentences. Two years ago, Ryan instituted a moratorium on further executions. Saturday, saying the implementation of capital punishment in his state was "haunted by the demon of error," he wiped out each and every one of those sentences. The prisoners will -- unless they are proven innocent in the future -- never leave prison, but neither will they be carefully murdered by the state of Illinois.

The question is this:

What took George Ryan so long?

Specifically, why did a sitting governor for two years presumably have a pretty good idea of what he knew was the right thing to do, but not have the courage to actually do it until two days before leaving office, even when he has known for a year that he would not seek re-election?

And we noticed George Ryan's extraordinary gesture not because he waited so long, but because he acted in such a way at all.

Regardless of one's view of the death penalty, clearly, Ryan's mass commutation was an act born of conscience and executive judgment, not of poll testing or public popularity. The death penalty remains popular (though now slightly less so each year) in the United States, in stark contrast to the rest of the Western democracies.

But while it is an issue that excites deep passions, the number of incumbents who have lost office in the last two decades over opposition to executions is virtually nil. The same is true for almost every other controversial issue. Very, very few elections in our country, at any level but especially the higher ones, are decided by a single issue; an alarming number of electoral races aren't even seriously contested unless there is no incumbent running. At a more mundane level, the sort of horse-trading that can decide the fate of legislative bills is rarely governed by resentment over philosophical differences on other issues -- nor do they spill over into fundraising for unrelated races. For an elected official today there is, practically speaking, virtually no down side to taking a principled stand.

Politicians have always been leery of risk, of course, but never more so than today. Despite the safeness of so many seats, public officials still spend half their time fundraising -- in case they either run for reelection or for another office, or perhaps to help out a friend in the next election. They seemingly spend the rest of their time calculating how to avoid the tough decisions littering public life, for fear of alienating even a sliver of the swing voters that might in theory -- but in practice almost never do -- determine the next election.

The result is government by cowardice: state legislatures, all 50 of them, in which budget cuts are born by the people least likely to vote or complain loudly, specifically because they're the least likely to vote or complain loudly. A health care crisis where nothing is done -- despite the desperation of tens of millions of people -- for fear of alienating important electoral contributors if any portion of a rotted medical system is tweaked. At the national level, an entire party -- the Democrats -- paralyzed by the triangulating legacy of Bill Clinton, unable to resist the Bush Administration's bid to reimagine America because principled opposition is literally not an option. And on the Republican side, a case of groupthink and conservative dogmatism so deeply ingrained that its victims are unable to recognize or challenge their own bad ideas, even when they conflict with conservative ideology itself.

The death penalty should be such an issue -- as it was for Ryan. (No present Democrat would have dared do such a thing.) One of the notions of law and order is punishing people for their crime -- and not punishing the wrong people. Particularly with DNA testing, violent crimes where blood or semen are spilled can now link perpetrators to their victims, with virtually perfect accuracy, years or decades later. A law and order guy should want the perps behind bars, and should not want our legal system to be tainted by random police and judicial efforts to find and convict someone, anyone, for a heinous crime.

The same is true, of course, for the nonsensical current enthusiasm for unprovoked war. I've always been puzzled as to why many of the same people who don't trust the government to decide relatively petty issues like property rights, business regulation, or environmental law are so eager to let their state or country decide whether people should live or die. Such decisions are the ultimate in abrogating freedom of the individual. But in our current political system, they take a back seat to getting and staying in power -- just as on the liberal side, commitment to fair and equitable sentences, or to not jailing people for harmless drug crimes, or to easing the current fad for barbaric prison conditions, all take a back seat to the same lust for power.

Enthusiasm for the death penalty in America has historically been cyclical, and it's perhaps a hopeful sign for those concerned about other forms of state violence that the execution tide now appears on the way out. In the last six months, a stream of federal court rulings have raised new questions and curbed some of the more wretched excesses of the modern expansion of capital sentencing. A fundamental re-examination, spurred by the courage of people like George Ryan, is on the way.

But it shouldn't take courage to do the right thing. It should be what we expect, what we demand, of our political leaders; it should be a job requirement. In a complex society with countless intractable challenges, the best answers often won't be the simplest or most popular. The current fad of claiming to "run government like a business" is usually an excuse for corporate welfare and cuts to the needy, but in one respect, such leadership would be a nice change. Successful business executives generally don't get to the top by pandering.

Hopefully, in state capitol buildings around the country, ambitious young politicians noticed what George Ryan did this past weekend, and the admiration it engendered. And maybe, just maybe, somewhere some of his former colleagues will decide to no longer insult our intelligence when facing society's challenges.

Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter. He writes daily for WorkingForChange.

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