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Cheering death: A pathetic new low in American politics

The cheers of the audience for Rick Perry's Texas killing machine will long be remembered as a low in point American politics.

I watched all of last night's rather predictable and not particularly game changing GOP presidential last night. As the dust settles, I honestly couldn't tell you who the "winner" was. I can tell you who lost, though:

Basic human decency. Not to mention America's reputation as a nation built on virtues like justice and fairness.

This shocking new low came near the end of the debate when moderator Brian Williams of NBC News asked Texas Gov. Rick Perry to defend his record of executions -- 234, more than any other governor in modern history -- during his tenure in Austin.

The mere mention that Perry had made what was once considered a solemn decision to sign off on the state-sanction deaths of 234 human beings caused the audience to break into sustained applause. Just watch the video below.

It was utterly sickening to watch. When Perry -- who recently vetoed a bill that would halt the execution of the mentally ill -- told the audience that anyone convicted of murder in the Lone Star State faces "the ultimate justice," the applause grew even louder.

I'm strongly opposed to the death penalty. I've felt that way ever since I was a young boy going to Sunday school, and I was baffled how the state could choose to put people to death when it was wrong to take any human life. Since then, everything I've learned and seen about the death penalty has strengthened my conviction that it's morally wrong. It's telling that the executions are banned in most civilized nations, but they're still carried out in repressive nations like Iran and China. At the same time, I can still respect people who make reasoned arguments for the death penalty, who claim that it's a necessary deterrent to the murder of innocents -- albeit not a deterrent we take joy in using.

What you heard echoing in the Reagan Library last night was not reason. It was bloodlust, pure and simple, and it was repulsive.

Who were these pathetic people?

Three quick observations.

First, Rick Perry's applauded quest for "the ultimate justice" has resulted in at least one and possibly more cases of the ultimate injustice: The state-sanctioned murder of an innocent man. In fact, Perry recently quashed an investigation in the 2004 Perry-sanctioned execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, amid mounting forensic evidence that Willingham was not a murderer. Beyond that, here's a good guide to the mentally infirm, youths and the dubioiusly convicted who were put to death by Perry's regime.

Second, with the 10th anniversay of 9/11 just four days away, everyone's been looking for a window into America's post-attack psyche. I think that, sadly, that window just opened wide in Simi Valley last night. I've never forgiven my own newspaper, the Daily News, for leading the Sept. 12, 2001, paper with an editorial headlined "Blood for blood" that started out: "Revenge. Hold that thought." Obviously, we have -- for coming up on a decade. The cheering of executions is the hallmark of a sick society -- one that's incapable of tackling its real demons and looking for vengeance on whomever happens to be available. Unfortunately, we should all remember what Roger Daltry and The Who said about loving vengeance. That's never free.

Finally, last night's debate was supposed to honor Ronald Reagan. God knows Reagan's presidency had major flaws -- I catalogued them in my book "Tear Down This Myth" -- but he also had a personal revulsion at the taking of human life. That's why he often spurned his aides' urgings to respond militarily to Mideast terror attacks, because he felt the killing of civilians in such a response was terrorism itself. And one reason he became embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal was his quest to do anything humanly possible to prevent any of the U.S. hostages in Lebanon from being killed. The real Reagan would have been appalled at people cheering death in his name.

The Gipper is probably spinning in his grave right now.