Skip to main content

Why do we keep executing people?

By Thomas Cahill, Special to CNN
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Thu March 20, 2014
The Texas death chamber in Huntsville in June of 2000.
The Texas death chamber in Huntsville in June of 2000.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Texas set to carry out its 500th execution. If all appeals fail, Kimberly McCarthy will die
  • U.S. is the only Western nation that still has death penalty, joins North Korea, China, Iran
  • Thomas Cahill: Black people much more likely to be sent to prison and to death row
  • Cahill: Get rid of electric chairs, nooses, lethal injections

Editor's note: Thomas Cahill is the author of the Hinges of History series, which begins with "How the Irish Saved Civilization." Volume VI in the series, "Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World," will be published at the end of October. He has also written "A Saint on Death Row" about his friend Dominique Green, who was executed by the state of Texas.

(CNN) -- Killing people by lethal injection will soon be as distant a memory as burning heretics at the stake and stoning adulterers -- at least throughout the civilized world. No country that employs the death penalty can be admitted to the European Union, and the practice dwindles daily.

But despite the growing worldwide revulsion against this lethal form of punishment, Texas and a handful of other states continue to take their places among such paragons as North Korea, China, Yemen and Iran in the club of those who attempt to administer the death penalty as a form of "justice."

Thomas Cahill
Thomas Cahill

Indeed, Texas is way ahead of all other states in the administering of such justice. At the end of this month, under the leadership of Gov. Rick Perry, the state is expected -- if all appeals fail -- to celebrate its 500th judicial killing since our Supreme Court in 1976 reinstated the death penalty as a legitimate form of "justice," despite the fact that an earlier court had determined that the death penalty was "cruel and unusual punishment."

Death row diary offers a rare glimpse into a morbid world

No one doubts that the woman who is scheduled to be executed on Wednesday, Kimberly McCarthy, is guilty of the 1997 murder of her neighbor, a 71-year-old woman and a retired college professor. At the latest count, 1,369 people have been executed since 1976 and 144 people on death row have been exonerated. Kimberly McCarthy will not be exonerated; so, why shouldn't we kill her?

For the same reason Warden R.F. Coleman gave to reporters on February 8, 1924, the day the official Texas Death House was inaugurated with the electrocution of five African-American men. Said Coleman then, "It just couldn't be done, boys. A warden can't be a warden and a killer, too. The penitentiary is a place to reform a man, not to kill him."

Warden Coleman resigned rather than pull the switch. Sadly, so many others have failed in the many years since then to follow his heroic example.

Was race a factor in death sentence?
Florida bill would speed up executions

And let's not equivocate: Often, and in every age, doing the right thing requires heroism.

Kimberly McCarthy is a black woman. Black people are disproportionately represented on death row, as are blacks imprisoned throughout this country. Many would say (at least in a whisper) that black people are more prone to crime and violence than are white people.

But as a historian, I know that there was a time, long ago, when my people -- Irish-Americans -- were deemed to be more prone to crime and violence than were others. This was in the years after the potato famines of the 19th century that brought so many desperately poor Irish people to these shores.

The police in New York City became so inured to arresting Irishmen that they began to call the van they threw the arrestees into "the Paddy Wagon," a name that has adhered to that vehicle ever since.

But who today would care (or dare) to make a case for exceptional Irish criminality? The immigrating Irish were more prone to criminality not because of some genetic inheritance, but because they were so very poor, so neglected, so abandoned. When I see a vagrant today, snoring on a park bench, clothed in rags and stinking, I think to myself: Whatever happened to this guy, whatever the history that dropped him on this park bench, no one loved him enough when he was a child.

His parents, if he had parents, were too taken up with the pain of living, with the struggle for survival, with their own hideous fears, to tend to him adequately, if at all. No one came to rescue this child, give him enough to eat, adequate shelter, a caring environment — the love that everyone needs in order to grow.

We -- the larger society -- have a profound obligation to such people, an obligation we have largely ignored. Many other societies in the Western world devote considerable resources to keeping poor children (and their parents) from despair. As an American friend of mine who lives in Denmark says: "In Denmark we tax the rich, but everyone is comfortable."

Not everyone is comfortable in the United States. Many children live below the poverty line, millions of them without enough food or adequate shelter and with almost no attention to their educational needs. As for their emotional needs, are you kidding me?

If Texas would pay attention to the needs of all its children, if we would all do the same for all our children, if we would only admit that every child needs to be loved and that we are all obliged to help ensure this outcome, our world would change overnight. We would certainly not need our electric chairs and nooses and lethal injections. We could then say what the poet-priest John Donne said as long ago as 1623, "Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind."

Any man's death. Any woman's death. Any child's despair.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

Correction: A percentage referring to death row exonerations was miscalculated in an earlier version of this article.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Thomas Cahill.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT