The term “moral suasion” has fallen into disuse. Its heyday came during the Eisenhower administration, when the genial president, a bit soft on institutional racism, failed to denounce the continuing attempt of Southern politicians to keep their schools — and everything else — segregated. I’d like to revive it and apply it to Barack Obama. With some moral suasion, he could end America’s shameful practice of capital punishment.
Obama recently reacted to the botched execution in Oklahoma. One of the two killers, Clayton Lockett, shot a 19-year-old woman and then ordered her buried alive. His execution went horribly awry and he died, in apparent agony, of a heart attack. Consequently, the other condemned man, Charles F. Warner, had his execution postponed. He was convicted of raping and killing an 11-month-old girl. These crimes are the very definition of egregious.
Almost instantly, the president ordered a policy review. He told Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to look into the way the death penalty is applied in this country. This, though, is hardly a mystery. Obama could contact any number of officials — wardens, judges, etc. — or ring up Barry C. Scheck or Peter J. Neufeld at the Innocence Project. They, too, know a bit about the death penalty — including the 18 innocent people who have slipped the noose on account of DNA testing. Surely, in the pre-DNA days, innocent people died — as, possibly, some still do where DNA is not a factor; a drive-by shooting, for instance.
Can there be anything Obama does not know about capital punishment? The man was trained at an elite law school (Harvard) and later served as a law professor. The issue has been around since, probably, the first stoning, and nothing new can be said about it. Lockett, after all, is not the first condemned man to die slowly. It took the state of Ohio about 25 minutes — 20 minutes longer than usual — to kill Dennis McGuire last January. We now know it can be exceedingly difficult to kill the killers.
The policy review of executions is inaction in the guise of action. What more is Obama going to find out about capital punishment? He even wrote in his book “The Audacity of Hope” that “the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime.” He already knows that executions can be botched. He already knows that they soil the very government that conducts them, and he already knows that murder is usually a state crime. The president has very little direct authority in this area. The president, though, does have moral authority.
Capital punishment is totally a matter of one’s conviction. There is no science to it. George W. Bush’s convictions were well known. He adhered to a primitive eye-for-an-eye belief that was resistant to reason. As with almost everything — including the making of war — if Bush was comfortable with it, he did it.
With Obama, it’s just the opposite. His convictions regarding capital punishment waver. He supports it, but only when the crimes are, as he said last week, like “mass killings, the killings of children.” Still, his statements are so laden with caveats and conditions that it seems fair to say that Obama, as befits his background and education, would not weep if the United States joined most of the world and abolished capital punishment. We keep interesting company — North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia and some others. This is not our crowd.
Obama’s position may be evolving, as it did with same-sex marriage. First others — Vice President Biden, for one — took the lead and then the president scampered to catch up. At times the president is timorous when polls are not at his back. Most Americans — but a declining number — still approve of capital punishment. Obama may choose to lead from behind in this matter, too.
Maybe when Holder writes up his policy review, he will point out that using the nature of the crime as a standard for execution will not work. Every murder is horrible. Every widow grieves; every parent forever hugs the empty air. A statute left on the books for egregious crimes will be used for less egregious ones. The standard has to be absolute: The government will not lower itself to the level of the killer. It will not murder.
And maybe, too, Holder will include a paragraph about presidential leadership — moral suasion — and how Obama has seldom exercised any. The president doesn’t need a policy review about capital punishment. He just needs the guts to oppose it.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.