The cruelty is the point. That’s both the defining phrase of Donald Trump’s presidency and the title of arguably the defining essay about our 30-month-and-counting national nightmare, written by the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer. His piece last October made clear the silliness of wondering why Trump’s government doesn’t do things like build more humane facilities for immigrants detained on the border — because the pictures of “human dog pounds” are in fact the goal and the basis of his political appeal, a viciousness toward The Other that erupts at his rallies in chants like “Send her back!”
“Taking joy in that suffering is more human than most would like to admit,” Serwer wrote. “Somewhere on the wide spectrum between adolescent teasing and the smiling white men in the lynching photographs [from the late 1800s and early 1900s] are the Trump supporters whose community is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.”
The cruelty is the point is also the first thought that popped in my head Friday when I saw the news flash that Attorney General William Barr — increasingly known as “Trump’s Roy Cohn” in his willingness to ruthlessly do his president’s bidding — had seemingly out-of-the-blue decided to bring back executions of death-sentenced federal prisoners. My second thought was: What took the American Caligula so long to bring back the spectacle of executions to electrify the masses (but not the prisoners ... they’d be lethally injected) and juice his 2020 re-election campaign? Indeed, the five executions are scheduled around the Christmas holiday, presumably to remind us of its pagan roots.
Barr couched his decision in the familiar language of America’s “Death Wish” culture of justice as retribution that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, when he and Trump entered the public arena. “We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr said, singling out the five selected inmates as “the worst criminals.” Coincidentally or not, the attorney general’s announcement came just hours before Trump went on a Twitter rampage against Rep. Elijah Cummings (a critic ... like most people) that depicted his home city of Baltimore in cliché-ridden terms of that Charles Bronson era, as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” For Trump and his Fox News-addled fan base, the 1970s never ended.
As so often is the case, the president, his attorney general, and the rest of Team Trump are headed in the polar opposite direction of the rest of the world. Most developed nations abandoned capital punishment a long time ago, and those that carry out the most state-sanctioned murders — places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China — are the kind of anti-democratic dictatorships that Trump not only admires but increasingly aspires to. But even the U.S. states that carry out the great bulk of executions in America have sharply reduced their use of the death penalty since the last killing of a federal prisoner in 2003.
Some of that drop in the last few years has come with a desperate — and, frankly, sick —competition to get hold of the dwindling supply of lethal-injection drugs. That controversy figures into Barr’s announcement and timing, but we won’t dwell on it here because executing people is inhumane and barbaric regardless of what method is used. The problem with the death penalty isn’t the how but the why. Its continued use in the 21st century is immoral and unjust.
On the injustice front, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner nailed it earlier this month when his office came out against the use of the death penalty in Pennsylvania, coming full circle from the era of his predecessor Lynne Abraham’s reign as “America’s deadliest DA” not so many years ago. The outspoken criminal reform advocate argued that the death penalty is racially biased, arbitrary, and discriminates against the poor — even as the Philadelphia DA’s office has wasted a small fortune defending verdicts that were overturned by higher courts.
And that doesn’t even take into consideration the growing number of death row inmates who’ve been exonerated in recent years — at least 156 so far — as DNA and new investigations show how flawed America’s “war on crime” actually was. Indeed, the fact that Trump called for the execution of the so-called “Central Park Five” — and has failed to take it back even after DNA proved they did not rape a Manhattan jogger in 1989 — ought to make a moral mockery of Barr’s new maneuver.
Those inequities and injustices were baked into the federal death penalty when it was restored in 1988 and expanded in 1994, at the zenith of America’s mass-incarceration mania. Of the 62 prisoners currently on federal death row, more than half (35) are nonwhite, mirroring the unequal application of capital punishment on the state level. University of Baltimore constitutional law professor Garrett Epps writes that “even reflected in the federal mirror, the death penalty shows a version of the same ugly face — a discriminatory and arbitrary relic of the era of slavery and judicial terror.”
The difficulty, of course, in opposing the death penalty is the fact that, yes, some of those condemned to die committed horrific acts against humanity. William Barr is dangerous because he’s not only devious but very smart, and in selecting five inmates to make the case for restoring executions he made sure that: a) a majority (three of five) are white, and b) each committed one of the most heinous crimes one could imagine, the murder of children. Daniel Lewis Lee — scheduled for the first execution Dec. 9 — not only viciously killed a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl, but is a virulent white supremacist, hardly the kind of person for whom progressive foes of capital punishment enjoy advocating for continued presence in this world.
But fighting the barbarity of state-sanctioned murder on moral grounds is a necessary fight precisely not because it is easy, but because it is hard. What is easy — yet also indefensible — is appealing to the very worst instincts of humanity for naked political gain, the road map of fascism and dictatorship that is followed, with great enthusiasm, by Donald Trump.
The ability of a state to decide who will live and who will die is the ultimate abuse of power. And my great fear — which I hope many of you share — is that this Trumpian test case of these five men who committed the most depraved acts is merely a signal of worse things that could come down the road if conditions in this country, and our frayed social fabric, continue to worsen.
Anyone who has witnessed the steady rise of Trump, with the thumbs-up-thumbs-down swagger of an omnipotent Roman emperor, and his movement knew this day was coming. The return of the federal death penalty may be one small step for five prisoners, but it’s also one giant leap down an immoral path that started on Trump’s Day One with a wall to keep out Mexican “rapists” and “drug dealers” and has continued with pursuit of a Coliseum mob-rule style of justice that seeks to “lock her up!” or “send her back!” while cheering on a regime that rips toddlers from their mothers, hordes refugees into “dog pounds” — and hopes that 2020 voters will see what they’ve done to The Others.
The good news is that lawyers from the ACLU and other foes of the death penalty will go to court and hopefully prevent these state killings, certainly well beyond the twinkling holiday lights of Trump and Barr’s barbaric 2019 feast of the winter solstice. The bad news is that these endless legal fights will continue until we can install an American government that has some actual purpose beyond human cruelty and its own greedy, soulless self-preservation.