Skip to main content

Why do we keep executing people?

By Thomas Cahill, Special to CNN
March 20, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
The Texas death chamber in Huntsville in June of 2000.
The Texas death chamber in Huntsville in June of 2000.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Texas set to carry out its 500th execution. If all appeals fail, Kimberly McCarthy will die
  • U.S. is the only Western nation that still has death penalty, joins North Korea, China, Iran
  • Thomas Cahill: Black people much more likely to be sent to prison and to death row
  • Cahill: Get rid of electric chairs, nooses, lethal injections

Editor's note: Thomas Cahill is the author of the Hinges of History series, which begins with "How the Irish Saved Civilization." Volume VI in the series, "Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World," will be published at the end of October. He has also written "A Saint on Death Row" about his friend Dominique Green, who was executed by the state of Texas.

(CNN) -- Killing people by lethal injection will soon be as distant a memory as burning heretics at the stake and stoning adulterers -- at least throughout the civilized world. No country that employs the death penalty can be admitted to the European Union, and the practice dwindles daily.

But despite the growing worldwide revulsion against this lethal form of punishment, Texas and a handful of other states continue to take their places among such paragons as North Korea, China, Yemen and Iran in the club of those who attempt to administer the death penalty as a form of "justice."

Thomas Cahill
Thomas Cahill

Indeed, Texas is way ahead of all other states in the administering of such justice. At the end of this month, under the leadership of Gov. Rick Perry, the state is expected -- if all appeals fail -- to celebrate its 500th judicial killing since our Supreme Court in 1976 reinstated the death penalty as a legitimate form of "justice," despite the fact that an earlier court had determined that the death penalty was "cruel and unusual punishment."

Death row diary offers a rare glimpse into a morbid world

No one doubts that the woman who is scheduled to be executed on Wednesday, Kimberly McCarthy, is guilty of the 1997 murder of her neighbor, a 71-year-old woman and a retired college professor. At the latest count, 1,369 people have been executed since 1976 and 144 people on death row have been exonerated. Kimberly McCarthy will not be exonerated; so, why shouldn't we kill her?

For the same reason Warden R.F. Coleman gave to reporters on February 8, 1924, the day the official Texas Death House was inaugurated with the electrocution of five African-American men. Said Coleman then, "It just couldn't be done, boys. A warden can't be a warden and a killer, too. The penitentiary is a place to reform a man, not to kill him."

Warden Coleman resigned rather than pull the switch. Sadly, so many others have failed in the many years since then to follow his heroic example.

Was race a factor in death sentence?
Florida bill would speed up executions

And let's not equivocate: Often, and in every age, doing the right thing requires heroism.

Kimberly McCarthy is a black woman. Black people are disproportionately represented on death row, as are blacks imprisoned throughout this country. Many would say (at least in a whisper) that black people are more prone to crime and violence than are white people.

But as a historian, I know that there was a time, long ago, when my people -- Irish-Americans -- were deemed to be more prone to crime and violence than were others. This was in the years after the potato famines of the 19th century that brought so many desperately poor Irish people to these shores.

The police in New York City became so inured to arresting Irishmen that they began to call the van they threw the arrestees into "the Paddy Wagon," a name that has adhered to that vehicle ever since.

But who today would care (or dare) to make a case for exceptional Irish criminality? The immigrating Irish were more prone to criminality not because of some genetic inheritance, but because they were so very poor, so neglected, so abandoned. When I see a vagrant today, snoring on a park bench, clothed in rags and stinking, I think to myself: Whatever happened to this guy, whatever the history that dropped him on this park bench, no one loved him enough when he was a child.

His parents, if he had parents, were too taken up with the pain of living, with the struggle for survival, with their own hideous fears, to tend to him adequately, if at all. No one came to rescue this child, give him enough to eat, adequate shelter, a caring environment — the love that everyone needs in order to grow.

We -- the larger society -- have a profound obligation to such people, an obligation we have largely ignored. Many other societies in the Western world devote considerable resources to keeping poor children (and their parents) from despair. As an American friend of mine who lives in Denmark says: "In Denmark we tax the rich, but everyone is comfortable."

Not everyone is comfortable in the United States. Many children live below the poverty line, millions of them without enough food or adequate shelter and with almost no attention to their educational needs. As for their emotional needs, are you kidding me?

If Texas would pay attention to the needs of all its children, if we would all do the same for all our children, if we would only admit that every child needs to be loved and that we are all obliged to help ensure this outcome, our world would change overnight. We would certainly not need our electric chairs and nooses and lethal injections. We could then say what the poet-priest John Donne said as long ago as 1623, "Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind."

Any man's death. Any woman's death. Any child's despair.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

Correction: A percentage referring to death row exonerations was miscalculated in an earlier version of this article.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Thomas Cahill.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT