'Tough' Politicians Fan the Flames An Increasingly Violent Society Looks for a Way to Deal with the Violent


Washington. -- This country has become so violent that these sentences sum up myriad tragic vignettes of our time:

"The supervisor kept promoting other people over me, so I just went to the office and shot the S-O-B."

"My boyfriend said he wanted me but not with my children, so I drowned my kids."

"I asked him to give me his sneakers and he got huffy, so I showed him who was toughest. I shot him."

"My parents abused me, so when I couldn't take it any more I took a shotgun and killed them while they were watching TV."

"These cops were hounding me, trying to railroad me to prison, so I just walked into the police station and mowed some of 'em down."

It is easy to make the generalization that there are a lot of "sick" people in America. It is not so easy to add the truth that some of the sickest are the politically insecure, self-styled "tough guys" who make the nation's laws. Yes, I'm talking about the state legislators and members of Congress who vote for the death penalty under more and more circumstances -- with chest-thumping, self-flattery about being "tough on crime." New York's new "tough" governor, George Pataki, has just signed a bill bringing the death penalty back to that state.

America's increasingly venomous atmosphere of vengeance and retribution is so irrational, so mindless, so counterproductive that it multiplies the number of those who believe that every personal grievance entitles them to kill somebody.

Schoolyard disputes are settled by gunfire; dance in a disco with somebody's girlfriend and he might shoot you; cut in front of a car on an interstate highway and the driver may pull alongside and shoot you; cross your wife seriously and she might hire a hit man to murder you.

I blame the politicians, the "state," for creating this insane spirit of violence, this maddening assumption that "vengeance is mine," not God's. "Fry 'em" is the solution for every heinous crime we hear about, whether it is a deranged mother in South Carolina or a cannibalistic freak in Milwaukee who offends our sensibilities.

It seems to make no difference to the "tough on crime" posturers that the death penalty does not deter the perpetration of capital crimes. In recent times, Texas has executed the most people with the most glee. Yet Texas has seen a rise in murders and other heinous crimes.

The cost of incarcerating for life -- without parole -- the worst criminals in America is outrageous. But the cost of bringing an offender to execution -- sometimes $2 million per person put to death -- is as great a waste as almost anything done by government in America.

The nation's police chiefs know this. Criminologists know that executing people never reduces murders, rapes, robberies or other violent crimes. It may make crime victims or their surviving relatives feel better, but it intensifies the disrespect for human life that makes it easier for someone else to "solve his problems" by taking someone's life.

But the spirit of vengeance is so strong across the land, and the political benefits of acting "tough" so obvious, that I see no chance of any embrace of wisdom about the futility and foolishness of the death penalty in a generation or more.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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