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Europe's View of the Death Penalty

New York Times, May 13, 2001


The legal drama and publicity surrounding Timothy McVeigh point up a fact of cultural geography. America and Europe are land masses separated by both the Atlantic Ocean and enthusiasm for the death penalty. Americans who travel in Europe, whether as tourists or ambassadors, marvel at the frequency with which they are called on to defend the American legal system's reliance on capital punishment. At least among European elites, the death penalty has become an even stronger metaphor for America since the nation is led by a man who presided over 40 executions in 2000 alone and the government was preparing, until Friday, to carry out on May 16 its first federal execution in 38 years.

The McVeigh saga and the media's response are "the latest twisted piece of Americana," according to The Sunday Herald of Glasgow, expressing a typical view. Such commentary underscores the fact that the United States, in its belief that execution is an appropriate punishment, stands nearly alone in the community of democracies.

Felix Rohatyn, ambassador to France during the Clinton administration, says that every time he gave a speech, French audiences asked him to defend America's use of the death penalty -- and it was usually the first question asked. European politicians and intellectuals, who view the death penalty as a human rights issue, are incredulous that Americans support a punishment that fails to deter crime, targets mainly those who cannot afford a decent lawyer, is used on the mentally retarded and has often gotten the wrong man. America's high execution rate stands in striking contrast to its history of respect for individual rights and its role as an international champion of human rights.

The death penalty is becoming a diplomatic impediment for Washington. Some European countries will not extradite suspected murderers to America. Capital punishment may be one reason that Washington's European allies voted against American membership in the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Today, the European Union will admit no country with a death penalty. It was abolished in Germany, Austria and Italy right after World War II. Later, other European nations gradually abolished it and signed international treaties that make it unlikely that the death penalty will be revived there in the foreseeable future.

Surprisingly, public opinion polls show that the death penalty is still popular in many of the countries where it is illegal. Support ranges from very low in Scandinavia to 65 percent in Britain. But supporters do not hold their views strongly. The death penalty is not a subject of ongoing political debate, in part because European nations do not elect judges or prosecutors. So most officials who administer the legal system are not subject to campaign pressures or fears of being depicted in television ads as soft on crime.

These attitudinal differences have cultural and historic roots. America was shaped by a frontier culture and an emphasis on individual accountability. We endorse longer sentences than European nations, which stress rehabilitation, not punishment. A recent Gallup poll showed that American supporters of the death penalty do not believe it deters crime. Almost half of those polled believe in the justice of "an eye for an eye" and endorse execution as social vengeance. That view is anathema among Europe's parliaments.

The size of the American popular majority supporting the death penalty changes with the intensity of the public's fear of crime. The more violent the state, the more likely it is to employ the death penalty. Shamefully, it is also a shorthand for attitudes about race relations, an issue that Europe is only now beginning to confront. The death penalty is most used in the American South, and is disproportionately applied to those who kill whites.

Certainly, many of the Europeans most scornful of our use of the death penalty are motivated by resentment of America, not concern for human rights. Nevertheless, they are seeing a reality to which Americans seem blinded. In our reliance on capital punishment, America stands apart from the other progressive democracies.