A Disturbing GOP Debate Moment

This was a really disturbing moment at last night’s GOP debate, when the audience applauded the state killing its prisoners:

“Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times,” NBC’s Brian Williams told Perry as the conservative audience cheered and applauded. “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?”

“No, sir, I’ve never struggled with that at all,” Perry stated. “In the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is you will be executed.”

Perry’s response, of course, is boilerplate GOP pablum, presenting execution as a foregone conclusion if you commit murder in Texas—which, of course, it isn’t. That’s the first disturbing thing about the applause; the people in the audience were, simply by virtue of their dragging their butts out to the Reagan Presidential Library, obviously a bit more politically aware than the average citizen. Thus, it would be even more negligently ignorant if those in the audience weren’t aware of the massive racial and class disparities in the application of the death penalty; I think that it’s all but impossible that at least some of them didn’t know that they were applauding the killing of primarily African-American and Latino prisoners, and primarily prisoners who couldn’t afford good counsel.

Second, of course, is the fact that not every person executed in the state of Texas has been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; in fact, one of them, Cameron Todd Willingham, was likely innocent of the crime for which the state killed him. This isn’t just in Texas, of course; my friend Laura Moye, in her work for Amnesty International, is heavily involved in the case of Troy Davis, a Georgia man set to be executed on September 21, in whose case all but two of the prosecution’s witnesses have since recanted their testimony, creating considerable doubt about his guilt. So these people cheered not only the state of Texas killing guilty prisoners—which is disturbing enough—but also the very good chance that they’ve caught up a few innocent ones in the dragnet as well.

One wonders how enthusiastic the Simi Valley crowd would be about the possibility of the death penalty killing innocent people if it was their husband or father or brother getting the lethal injection. But that goes back to the first point: The Simi Valley crowd is middle-to-upper-class and white, and the people who are executed tend to be poor and people of color. The people on Death Row aren’t the husbands, fathers, or brothers of the audience in Simi Valley—they’re the husbands, fathers, and brothers of people of color or people without money, and their family members obviously don’t matter as much as “our” family members.

Which brings me to the third thing that disturbed me about this moment—that given the two points above, the applause was wrapped up in this entire discourse among the American Right in which some people’s lives and livelihoods inherently matter more than others. This is related to the right-wing’s embrace of the satanic and immoral philosophy of Ayn Rand and the very worst aspects of the Puritan work ethic. The right-wing ideology, at its heart, is that if a person is poor, they’re morally deficient—and their life doesn’t matter as much as that of a middle-class or rich person.

This moral judgment extends in a really disturbing way throughout the discourse of the Republican Party. I’m not the only person who’s noticed the increasing volume and prevalence of an idea among even the mainstream of the right-wing (and particularly out of the Christian Right) that those who are anywhere left of the extreme-right fringe suffer from a similar moral deficiency as the poor. Note, for example, the contempt with which the hate-radio jackasses spit out words like “socialist” or “liberal,” as if these are labels of moral condemnation—or the comments from average right-wingers that flood any unmoderated political message board, suggesting that “liberals” (whose definition for them would, from a pure policy standpoint, include Ronald Reagan) should be jailed or executed for their political beliefs.

Given the moral condemnation of “liberals” coming out of the right-wing of late, and the mirroring of that moral condemnation in their condemnation of the poor and anyone (guilty or innocent) who finds themselves on Death Row, I’m forced to wonder: If Rick Perry had bragged about presiding over the state-sponsored killing of 243 socialists, 243 peace activists, 243 environmentalists, or 243 Democrats—would the people in Simi Valley have applauded just as enthusiastically?

When I think about the good and honest people I know, people of integrity and character, who identify with the right-wing, I’d like to think that they wouldn’t have cheered. I’d like to think that the room would have been suddenly filled with a stunned silence as people realized that their sister or brother, their aunt or uncle, their co-worker or dear friend, their niece or nephew might have been one of the 243 people killed in this hypothetical situation. But the fact that I, who study right-wing discourse for a living, still have a tiny bit of wriggling doubt, a whisper of a suspicion that the silence I’m picturing would have been broken with a spontaneous outpouring of cheers from the crowd in Simi Valley is extraordinarily troubling.

Regardless of the latter point, there’s no doubt that the audience in Simi Valley was full of people who cheered the state killing more of its prisoners—despite the fact that most would claim to worship and try to live by the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. Can any of them, with a straight face, say that they honestly think Jesus would have applauded with them? Is this what the GOP has become?

  • Concerned Citizen for Justice

    Does anyone remember that Simi Vallley was the location of the
    Rodney King trial and verdict that exonoreated 4 police
    officers of the vicious and excessive beating of Rodney King then their lies to cover it up but for a video tape that showed
    the world scope of police brutality ?Even with a tape explicitly
    documenting the wanton criminal felonious assault by
    several police officers of an unarmed black man by 4 LAPD
    officers while 18 other officers from the LA sherriffs department, the Calififornia Highway Patrol and other
    LAPD officers watching idly and silently….then not fullfilling
    their duties as officers of the law….not a vicious gang of thugs in uniforms…. to report what was a crime.
    It was no fluke or accident that the jury in Simi Valley
    19 years ago found those officers not guilty. That jury
    was drawn from the voters of Ventura count, California…
    a place which the US Justice Department and subsequently
    a US Federal Court found guiltu of systematically rigging
    the election procedures and voter regisration to exclude Hispanic nand Blacks. All elections in
    Ventura County must now be supervised by federal election monitors…similar to Alabama and Mississipi in the 1960s
    ( but no longer deemed neccesary in the South currently)
    and 3rd world corrupt, tyranical countries America always invieghs about for human rights violations.On the
    the matter of human rights violations…. the US Justice
    Department found that the Ventura County Sherriffs Depart-
    ment ( with the knowlege of the Ventura County District
    Attorney and Prosectors office ) used illegal restraint chairs
    that had been implicatred in deaths essentrially as torture
    devices on prisoners… most of whom were not in need of being restrained for dangerous behavior but were use3d gratuitously for retribution on prisoners…. particularly minority group disproportionally chosen foer this punishment by a device which is outlawed by the Geneva Convention and even was prohibeted at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. If citizens are concerned by the blood lust response
    of what was predsominately an audience from Ventura
    County…. they should should be concerned that the children and grandchildren routinely express their
    explicit consent and approval of means which violate
    the 8th amnebdment to the US Constitution regarding
    cruel and unusual punishment. In fact the criminal
    justice system in Ventura County….knowing they will not
    be held accountable by the cititenry routinely engages
    in t5hese act incuding the shooting and killing of of
    unarmed citizens.
    To hold responsible for the ongoing violations of due
    process by the Ventura county criminal justicice system…. the public and citizens from outside of Ventura ….now aware
    of the blood lust bias of the Ventura county residents…
    need to appeal to the US Justice Department to go beyond
    a piecemeal case by case review to encourage
    the US Justice Department, Civil Rights Division…Office
    of special investigations office to institute a comprhensive
    investigation of ” Pattern and Practice ” violaions through
    abuse of police and prosecutorial authority by abuses ” under of law” of the entire system so a court appoointed monitor can be installed by federal authority what
    has been an ongoing violation of federal law.

    County who were shocked by the audiece response

  • Margot

    You might be giving humanity too much credit – lots of the people you hope wouldn’t applaud would mindlessly enter mob mentality and right-wing-fear-land and applaud for whatever Perry (or another right winger) said.

    I agree that no death should be cheered or applauded. I was horrified when so many Americans, including many of my friends, cheered Osama’s death, let alone cheering the consequences of the death penalty. However, I do disagree, to some extent, with your focus on the connection between the death penalty and race. There is some connection, without a doubt. But the main connection is class, and America likes to live in oblivion of class issues. The second factor is the nature of the crime, which is a complicated mix of sexism, racism, classism and all sorts of issues in society. For example, you’re just not gonna get the death penalty for killing a prostitute, because we don’t care a whole lot about prostitutes and women who “deserve it” (unless maybe if you killed a dozen of them or got a media storm around your crimes). Yes, more ethnic minorities are on death row than white folks. That’s because more of them commit murders. (Or maybe white people and Asian people commit just as many but are better at getting away with them. I don’t know, but I doubt it.) My understanding is that the ethic disparity on death row reflects the ethnic disparity of who is committing murders (for the most part). Again, race certainly is a factor, but it’s not the factor that us lefty folks are used to relying on when we argue against the death penalty.