Thursday, June 26, 2008


This response to the Supreme Court's decision to ban capital punishment for child rape is apparently enough to inoculate Barack Obama. I'm somewhat surprised:

Obama's non-Dukakis answer

Michael Dukakis, Obama is not.

On the death penalty today, Obama sidestepped a potential political land mine. Opponents could have had something recent and tangible to tag him anew as a hard-left liberal had he answered any differently than he did on the issue.

When asked about the Supreme Court ruling against the use of the death penalty in instances of child rape today at a news conference in Chicago, Obama answered, "I disagree with the decision. I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for most egregious of crimes. I think that the rape of a small child, six or eight years old is a heinous crime, and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances, the death penalty is at least potentially applicable. That does not violate our constitution."

He continued, "Had the Supreme Court said, 'We want to constrain ability of states to do this to make sure that it's done in a careful and appropriate way,' that would've been one thing, but it basically had a blanket prohibition and I disagree with that decision." ...

I was afraid that the many qualifications in his statement would get him brandy as a wussy, legalistic liberal, especially in contrast to John McCain's response, as quoted in The New York Times:

Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, said, "That there is a judge anywhere in America who does not believe that the rape of a child represents the most heinous of crimes, which is deserving of the most serious of punishments, is profoundly disturbing." He called the decision "an assault on law enforcement's efforts to punish these heinous felons for the most despicable crime."

But so far no one seems to be pouncing on Obama. I guess it's enough that he disagrees with the decision, and that he's not categorically opposed to capital punishment, as Dukakis was. But I'm pleasantly surprised that he's getting away with the tone of this statement, with its utter absence of macho posturing -- I'm not sure Kerry or Gore or Dukakis would have. Maybe the folks who run the right-wing noise machine have fallen so much for their own rhetoric that they don't have a ready reaction to an Obama statement that's to the right of their stereotype.


I'm not a big fan of the death penalty, but I do think this decision gets the notion of "evolving standards of decency" quite wrong -- I don't have any sense that this country finds the death penalty for child rape abhorrent. I think there's still a chance that the McCain campaign will take advantage of this, citing Justice Kennedy's phrase "our own independent judgment" (which I think is going to become notorious on the right) and railing against "out-of-control judges" (never mind the fact that three of the five judges in this majority were appointed by Republican presidents). And (see at the Times story) I think this is odd:

Justice Kennedy also said that capital punishment for child rape presented specific problems, including ... the fact that the crime often occurs within families. Families might be inclined to "shield the perpetrator from discovery" when the penalty is death, he said, leading to an increase in the problem of underreporting these crimes.

Death penalty fans have a belief, contradicted by all evidence, that capital punishment has magical powers of deterrence, and now here's a decision overturning some death penalties that agrees with that fallacy. It seems to me that a lot of families already shield child molesters, out of fear that any punishment at all will be meted out -- they don't want the molester jailed or even just removed from the home, seeing that as more disruptive to the family than the sexual abuse (which is hidden from sight and easy to be in denial about). There might be valid reasons to oppose the death penalty for child rape, but this isn't one of them.

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