A Tale of Two State-Sponsored Killings

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by William L. Anderson: Progressives
and the Bloody 20th Century



The other night,
the State
of Georgia killed Troy Davis
for the alleged murder of an off-duty
police officer. The execution was controversial because a number
of witnesses who testified at Davis’ trial later recanted their
statements. What was most interesting to me about that was that
prosecutors had no problem accepting their testimony when it implicated
Davis, but when those same witnesses later claimed to have been
coerced and said that they lied because that was what police and
prosecutors wanted, suddenly those same conveyors of truth had become
“unreliable.” Likewise, those wearing the black robes of judges
came to the same conclusion.

The case itself
became a symbol of the state ramrodding through executions even
though there could be doubt about the guilt of the convicted, and
I join in the disgust and anger that others who have opposed this
execution have expressed. However, Davis’ state-sponsored homicide
was not the only execution in the USA that night; the New York
Times had an
Associated Press article about an execution in Texas

White supremacist
gang member Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed Wednesday evening
for the infamous dragging death slaying of James Byrd Jr., a black
man from East Texas.

There were
no vigils and no protests of this government killing, and the headline
in the NYT said it all: "White Supremacist Executed
for Texas Dragging.” The placing of the two accounts together supposedly
highlighted the contrast between the natures of the stories. In
one, the state was killing a black man convicted of killing a white
cop and there was doubt about the verdict, thus bringing together
all of the political issues at once. In the other, we see a vicious,
racist killer getting his just desserts in an open-and-shut case.

With Davis,
we have a story about issues of racism, the killing of a state agent,
and wrongful convictions, all wrapped in the ugly shroud of executions.
One cannot put together a case with more political implications,
and the response to it was what one would expect. The wounds of
past injustices are great and only opened more when the State of
Georgia injected poison into the body of Davis, and also injected
more venom into our Body Politic. Racism. Cop killing. Wrongful
convictions. Executions. There is nothing to add.

Brewer's state-sponsored
homicide brings different emotions. I remember seeing an African-American
juror who had voted death to Brewer being interviewed on television
afterward, and he said that while he opposed the death penalty,
the nature of this case made such punishment justified. To put it
another way, the horrific circumstances of the murder of Byrd and
its racial and political implications permitted people to do away
with their own principles and to support that which they normally
would oppose. (To their credit, the family of Byrd asked for clemency
for Brewer, while the family of Mark McPhail, the dead officer,
supported Davis' execution.)

He had participated
in the murder of a black man, and was identified with groups that
openly are racist. His views of others of a different race made
it easier for those who say they oppose executions to support his
being put to death by state authorities. Like Davis, who allegedly
killed a member of a politically-favored group, police officers,
Brewer not only had violated the life of someone else, but he had
engaged in politically-incorrect behavior. Thus, the government
apparatus that seeks to execute went into high gear in order to
make sure that these alleged miscreants were to face the full fury
of the law.

Before Brewer
was to be killed, he declined to make a statement; Davis, about
to die, calmly expressed one last time that he did not do what he
was about to be killed for allegedly doing. They were different
men, different events, yet they are tied together and not just because
they were executed on the same date in the same country.

Would Troy
Davis have supported the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer? Would
Lawrence Russell Brewer have supported the execution of Troy Davis?
I don't know. What I do know is that when it comes to state-sponsored
killings, all principles are discarded. People become what they
have hated, and supposedly-principled people become the worst of

People who
say they are "pro-life" try to justify executions in that
same light. John Ashcroft, who lost his U.S. Senate election in
2000 to a dead man, had enraged black voters in his state of Missouri
because he single-handedly denied the appointment of a black judge
to the federal bench because Ashcroft claimed that the judge "was
soft on the death penalty." Yet, Ashcroft was one of the most
staunchly anti-abortion members of Congress and always was feted
by "pro-life" groups for his legislative actions.

Likewise, many
others who oppose state-sponsored killings of people convicted in
the courts believe that taxpayers should be forced to fund the killing
of children who are ready to be born, the "partial-birth"
abortion in which a medical professional brings out the head of
a child from the womb, stabs the back of the head with scissors,
bringing death. Like those in the execution chamber, the child is
not deemed worthy of staying alive by people in legislative office
and by men and women wearing black robes, not to mention the editors
of the "Newspaper of Record."

What I am describing
is a Culture of Death, and a state-sponsored Culture of Death at
that. In fact, a society cannot degenerate into that awful culture
without the prodding and the sponsorship of the State. In the end,
the State itself becomes Death.

I don't know
if Troy Davis did what police and prosecutors claimed and what jurors
and judges believed, although given what I know about how the courts
in the USA work, I have my doubts. On the other hand, no one disputes
the perfidy of what Lawrence Russell Brewer did, and it is understandable
why jurors were willing to discard their own principles so that
they could order his execution.

As I see it,
once we give the State the privilege of killing whom it may choose,
things are set into motion that are expressly unjust and cannot
be reversed. The fact that Brewer took part in a terrible murder
no more justifies his execution than the chance — and only the chance
— that Davis shot a cop to death justified the State of Georgia
killing him. (The officer was off-duty, but the fact that he was
employed as a police officer was enough to label Davis a "cop-killer.")

giving the State the power to kill others "legally," we
also must realize that the State will kill those whom are politically
deemed unfit to live. Plenty of people commit terrible murders for
which no one is officially put to death. Only when a killing is
deemed politically-incorrect is someone executed, and if
politics ultimately is to become the standard of who is to live
and who is to die, then we have become people who have passed the
Point of No Return.

Following Davis'
execution, the economist Robert Higgs wrote:

Those who
compose the state have estranged themselves from their fellows
and arrogated to themselves the power of life and death. Heedless
of natural law, they are cruelly selective and opportunistic in
their obedience even to the “laws” they have made. They have traded
their consciences for power and political place, and their souls
are as cold as ice. They are, morally, the walking dead.

I would add
that other people who support such things also join those who are
spiritually dead. That is where state-sponsored killings always

23, 2011

L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him
], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland,
and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute
. He
also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit
his blog.

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