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(HOST) The death penalty has been in the news again lately and that’s gotten commentator Willem Lange thinking about crime, punishment and American justice.

(LANGE) A few years ago outgoing Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of all the men and women on Illinois’ “Death Row.” To say that he kicked open a nest of fire ants would be an understatement. The death penalty has been a part of our system from the beginning: the just deserts of heinous crimes, and if good enough for our forefathers, certainly good enough for us.

The trouble with that argument is that times change, whether we do or not. I can’t imagine it’s wrong to open a national debate – even a can of worms – when it’s high time it was done. Governor Ryan did us a favor by opening that one.

Each of us who heard of it had a reaction to the commutations; and each of us seems to feel his own opinion is the one that should be ratified in law. That’s not arrogance; it’s American individualism. But what comes next is name-calling, vows of political vengeance, and quotations from Scripture. And then politicians swearing to guarantee what former Attorney General John Ashcroft calls “the ultimate sanction.” Debate over; we’ve put it off again.

My e-mail from friends in other countries often asks, “What’s going on with you people? What’s in your water? – testosterone or stupid pills?”

Canada abolished capital punishment in 1976, and its murder rate has declined by over one-third. Canadians seem bemused by our inability to develop alternatives to smart bombs, nuclear weapons, and lethal injections in our search for justice. The Toronto press points out that Governor Ryan only asked questions: Why are certain classes of people convicted of crimes five times more likely to die than others? Why is the United States virtually alone in the civilized world in its use of capital punishment?

Governor Ryan simply asked whether executions are for retribution and are fairly distributed. They clearly are not a deterrent. The late Ray Barham, a lifer in New Hampshire State Prison till his recent death, noted that prison authorities had threatened stiff punishment unless the inmates’ behavior improved. Here you have a whole prison full of felons, Barham wrote, with an almost absolute contempt for authority and virtually no ability to connect causes and effects, and you’re threatening them? Are you kidding me?

Capital punishment doesn’t deter or diminish heinous crimes; and the appeals process further separates cause from effect, diluting the connection between the two. There are also numerous religious arguments for removing an eye for an eye. I reject them all. Public execution is contrary to any profession of reverence for life.

This leaves us, as its justification, only the desire for vengeance, which we should have outgrown generations ago. Is it too much to hope that Governor Ryan’s action eventually will provoke a civil debate on the issue?

This is Willem Lange in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

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