The Scarlet & Black

The Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Troy Davis and international repercussions

Dear readers, you should know that this column stems from my fascination with how people eat. Nervous dates with new acquaintances, chatting sessions with old friends about shared memories, $1000-per-plate political fundraisers and quick bites at the counter of a grungy corner pub all have something in common: we talk. No matter the subject, food seems to be one of the most consistent ways to bring people together. Even if only a comment about a darn sports team that keeps losing or about nasty imminent weather, most of us feel compelled, as we spend the ten, twenty, sixty minutes at our plate to say something to pass the time.

Every other week, my column reports on the content of a discussion had over food in the JRC, most notably in the dining hall. This is the center of campus, where most Grinnellians come several times per day to eat, or at least to check their mail—and where many spend far too long dallying, in avoidance of homework and real-world concerns. And as we enjoy some of the only unstructured time in our hectic schedules, we say some truly amazing things. We sit in the dining hall (as did our revolutionary forbearers at coffeehouses) sharing lessons, building new ideas, and pondering why the world isn’t ‘as it should be’. In this column, I propose to take just one of the ideas that I hear getting digested in the JRC, and to expand upon it. Specifically, I seek ideas where Grinnellians make an assumption about the international community that I do not necessarily agree with. In doing so, this column will certainly be a learning process for me, and perhaps also for you.

The (belated) introduction having been made, we may move on…

I addressed ‘international justice’ in my last column and do not plan to revisit the topic. But this week’s column takes a different approach. Whereas my previous comments addressed the justice of the international intervention in Libya, today I seek to understand the opposite side of the coin: how the international community can exert influence on the United States, under the aegis of ‘justice’.

Last Wednesday at dinner, I tried to digest the fact that a man would die as I chewed. As I walked into the Dining Hall’s fine rendition of Spanish Tapas, I was asked by several students to observe a moment of silence for Troy Davis, a Georgia man accused of killing a police officer many years ago, who was to be executed at 6:00 p.m. CST. While I tend to ignore activism, the immediacy of the execution, twenty-five minutes, got me to thinking about his case and about the conceptual justice of state-sanctioned murder.

For the sake of context: According to the student awareness-raisers, the case against Davis was weak, with 7 of 9 witnesses against him having recanted their testimony. The students told me, with a significant look, that the EU, the Pope, Amnesty International (and, as I discovered upon subsequent investigation, others including UK MPs, the Council of Europe and Desmond Tutu) had called on the U.S. to put the execution on hold. This international assertion of values was, to them, conclusive support that Troy Davis’s treatment in the U.S. Justice System was unjust—a violation of his human rights.

I make no comment about Davis’s individual case, and intend to comment on the implications of the many letters that were sent in by international entities, advocating for Davis’s pardon.

As any practiced cynic will know, such letters have no instrumental value in stopping executions. The death penalty is permitted in the United States as a punishment for the most serious of aggravated crimes. The exercise of capital punishment is strongly supported by several decades of legal precedent. What is more, it would be very hard to for an outsider to convince a Georgia parole board to have sympathy for an offender, when the family of a murdered policeman is ‘glad that justice will finally be done.’

But these normative statements nonetheless have value when viewed as a whole. Most of the countries sending letters only abolished their own capital punishment in the past several decades. I believe one can view the letters as part of a slow de-normalization of a previously acceptable means for organizing society. I believe that, eventually, the U.S. will likely ‘catch up’.

During the 1970s, the Supreme Court suspended all executions, so that it could review the constitutionality of capital punishment. Already, a quarter of U.S. states have ended the practice of capital punishment. And whereas 620 prisoners on death row comprised a “pile-up”, today that number exceeds 3500—making for a 40-year supply of executions at the current rate. This suggests that the death penalty is already less eagerly viewed as a viable option for criminal punishment.

The death penalty has certainly begun to be questioned as an effective means of justice. But what is needed to stop the death penalty is not letters sent from international figureheads concerned with their own public image. Rather, what is needed are letters to Members of Congress. It is not enough to feel conflicted about an execution as one eats dining hall Spanish Tapas. In order for the death penalty to be revoked, legislation must be counteracted: such as the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which played a part in preventing Troy Davis from earning a new trial.

Unfortunately, in view of the strength of legal precedent, I predict that capital punishment will remain legal in the United States, for many years. However, there is still positive progress. If current trends continue, the attractiveness of capital punishment use will become increasingly restricted, hopefully to the point of de facto repeal. This is progress. But of course, this is also no comfort to those killed in the meantime.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
Donate to The Scarlet & Black
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All The Scarlet & Black Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *