Is Executing An Innocent Man Enough?

Publius on Cameron Todd Willingham:

But in addition to making me mad, I'm hopeful that this story will change some "hearts and minds."  Specifically, I hope that social conservatives (particularly in Texas) take some time to reflect on the implications of the fact that Texas executed an innocent person -- and that Rick Perry is trying to cover it up.  It's hard to think of something that more directly contradicts the "culture of life." 

For this reason, though, it's an area where a political coalition of social conservatives and secular progressives could do a lot of good, if the political will existed.
Perhaps, but I'm not sure. I've been thinking some about what we tolerate from the people charged with public safety and why. I think, in my blogging and writing about criminal justice, I've undervalued the basic human need for order, and overvalued a basic human commitment to individual rights. I don't mean to sound high-minded. Order is important. If you know the rules, even if the rules are draconian, you can plan your day, you can imagine how the next day may shape up, you have some sense of what awaits your children. But under chaos, say in a country besieged by competing warlords or a place where there's insufficient sanction to deter criminals, you have no sense of what the future holds.

The death penalty promotes our sense of order--it offers assurance that those who savagely violate our most cherished morals will be harshly penalized. The question, for me, is what will we tolerate to preserve that assurance? What I hope will come out of this case is a more honest debate about the death penalty. I strongly suspect that Rick Perry--at this point--knows that something went badly wrong in Willingham's execution, and yet still believes in the death penalty. What I hope will emerge is death penalty advocates honest enough to admit that no system of state-sponsored execution can be infallible, because people are fallible. I want them to come out and say what's clear--innocent people will be executed. I want them to stop treating us like children, and make the argument.
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Entertainment

From This Author

Just In