The Straight Story

The editor of Teaching Tolerance reflects on governmental executions.

The introductory activity was clever enough -- a "hangman" game in which the eight mystery letters spelled V-I-O-L-E-N-C-E. After guessing the word, students would learn that the objective of the five-day unit was to begin exploring their own and their classmates' perspectives on this societal problem.

There was only that one reference to the hangman. If we hope to teach our children that there is always an alternative to violence, we must ponder the gallows, too.

When the murder rate over the last 20 years in states that have the death penalty has been 50 to 100 percent higher than in those without it, how does the "deterrence factor" measure up? When the pro-death-penalty governor of Illinois admits that his state's capital punishment system risks killing the innocent, what does "violence prevention" mean? When the 3600 people housed on death rows around the country are disproportionately Black and nearly all poor, whose vision of justice does their fate fulfill? When the list of our fellow nations that retain the death penalty is dominated by repressive regimes, who are our allies on human rights? When an average of 10 juvenile offenders receive death sentences in the U.S. each year, how do we define a civilized society?

Controversy has surrounded the death penalty in this country since colonial days. Quakers were among the first "abolitionists" on the issue. Laws varied from colony to colony, but capital crimes in 17th-century America included stealing grapes and trading with Indians (Virginia) and denying the "true God" (New York).

Although the scope of capital offenses narrowed over the 19th and 20th centuries, public opinion vacillated in response to domestic and international developments. Fears of political unrest after the Russian Revolution, for example, prompted harsher death penalty laws in several states. Public lynchings of Black citizens in the Jim Crow South blurred the boundary between law and mob rule.

The Supreme Court itself decided in 1972 that the death penalty, as then administered, was cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional. Four years later, the Court gave the green light for states to resume executions under newly drafted statutes. All but 13 have now done so. This summer, the federal government carried out its first execution since 1963.

As we challenge our young people to resist the culture of violence, it's time to give them the straight story on the death penalty. A number of organizations and programs can help:

  • The Michigan State Communication Technology Laboratory provides an award-winning on-line curriculum for high school students that examines capital punishment within the context of democratic decision-making;
  • The Moratorium Campaign, an international petition drive coordinated in the U.S. by Sister Helen Prejean of Louisiana, advocates suspension of the death penalty while people on both sides of the issue seek common ground;
  • The American Civil Liberties Union offers current death penalty statistics and legal information, as well as guidance for student activists.

Resources targeting younger students are harder to find. The history of capital punishment in the United States might be a place to start. We can't afford to shelter them: When our government takes a life, we're all playing hangman.

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