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 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT