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Richard Falk: America at Its Best Is Strange

Nebraska's recent vote to abolish capital punishment reveals the strangeness of the American political system.

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Image from Flickr user Romana Klee.

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk

America even at its best is a strange place, alive with contradictions, a Teflon political culture that has an unshakable faith in its innocent and virtuous national character and its overall impact on the world, impervious to the ghosts of slavery and of ethnic cleansing of native Americans that should be tormenting our sleep and darkening our dreams, comfortable with its robust gun culture, and with its promiscuous reliance on rogue drones engineered to kill on command and on the brutal happenings that take place in black sites immorally situated in countries whose leaders agree to avert their gaze from the dirty work taking place. Looked at from a short distance this is not a pretty picture.

Yet there are still those rare moments when this unsavory national profile seems not to be telling the whole story. For instance, I felt heartened by a recent news item reporting that the conservative Nebraska Legislature voted to abolish capital punishment, and in doing so went so far as to override the governor’s veto. That’s right, Nebraska!

There is a strong temptation to commend Nebraska for such an unexpected show of humanistic sensitivity, but that would overlook what actually swayed the vote.

Unfortunately, the welcome Nebraska move may not survive the backlash in the making. The Republican state governor, Pete Ricketts, vows to overturn the new law: “My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical law to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families.” He is supported in this lethal passion by a pro-capital punishment legislator who proposes arranging a ballot initiative that supposedly will allow Nebraskans to reinstate the death penalty. It is not yet certain whether this is a legally permissible tactic.

While the abolitionist move stands there is a strong temptation to commend Nebraska for such an unexpected show of humanistic sensitivity, but that would be misleading, overlooking what actually swayed the majority to vote the way they did. Speaking for this majority, Peter Collins put it this way, “We went into it wanting to remain objective. This is purely about costs.” And sure enough, it seems that it was primarily conservatives, not liberals, that pushed hardest for abolition on the amoral grounds of fiscal conservatism and a commitment to “philosophical consistency” when it comes to entrusting the government with authority over life and death. As a Republican legislator, Laure Elke, insisted, the bill was “a matter of conscience,” because if you are not able to trust the government on health care, how can it be trusted on such irrevocable life/death decisions? A few other conservatives were apparently troubled by the seeming contradiction between supporting the right to life for the unborn as a sacred matter while permitting a state government to impose death on a life in being.

Perhaps, and only perhaps, what we insist upon for ourselves might finally spill over with respect to what we to do to others.

The main crusader for the bill was a Democrat, Senator Ernie Chambers who had tried thirty-seven times during his forty years in the Nebraska Legislature to get rid of the death penalty before achieving this notable victory. Even Chambers was forced to acknowledge that it was “conservative pragmatism” not liberal idealism that made the difference, taking note of a growing Republican trend to oppose capital punishment because it is viewed as costly, inefficient, and for some, un-Christian. On one level, who cares why capital punishment was abolished? It is the outcome that counts. Yet on a second level, it is worth caring, because if the decision reflects cost/benefit assessments rather than a principled ethical stand, it could be quickly reversed when calculations changed.

It is indeed a strange country: rapid public strides in the direction of freedom to shape one’s own gender identity giving rise to a series of vindictive pushbacks by those that want to impose their particular lifestyle on those who seek to live differently in ways that do no harm. The opportunistic rants of rightwing politicians on such issues as same-sex marriage, transgender identity, and abortion may not be meant to hurt and demean but they do. They hurt and demean those who want to live openly their authentic identities or deeply felt needs, which is what freedom should mean for all of us, not just for ourselves but our neighbors, that is, for every sentient being on the planet—for those who are so often forced elsewhere in the world to live in locked closets or face harsh criminal punishments. Is this not the deeper meta-religious significance of globalization? For all that is wrong with what the United States is doing to others throughout the world, these explorations on the frontiers of personal freedom might be the start of a better page of national history if this forward momentum can be sustained and exported in relation to personal self-determination.

America is not alone in being strange. All countries are strange reflecting the particularities of tradition and experience.

Perhaps, and only perhaps, what we insist upon for ourselves might finally spill over with respect to what we to do to others. I don’t expect the drones to disappear anytime soon or even for capital punishment to become a bad memory, but at least more folks will begin to draw the sort of connection that to align themselves with a conservative repositioning similar to what turned a big majority of legislators against the death penalty in Nebraska. Given the political climate in the country, “conservative pragmatism” may be the best we can currently hope for at this time for America. Sadly, the 99 percent have once again left the playing field of political life enabling the 1 percent to indulge their inexhaustible appetites.

Of course, for me the abolition of capital punishment has never been a matter of cost/benefit analysis, whether measured in dollars or bureaucratic efficiency. It is a matter purely situated in the domain of values. I believe that no government should ever be given the authority to kill its own citizens, or that anyone anywhere should be vested with authority to kill without proper submission to the rule of law, whether acting domestically or internationally, and I believe it would benefit prospects for species survival if as many of us as possible strive for and advocate a comprehensive ethos of nonviolence or what Glenn Paige has dubbed “a non-killing politics.” For now, this is a utopian wish, but this goal has long struck me as being a time-sensitive ethical and biopolitical imperative. In the domain of social practice, I feel the same way about same-sex marriage, gender self-determination, and the reproductive rights of women. Capital punishment is about wrongful death, same-sex marriage is an emotional component of the right to life, and reproductive rights recognize the sacred endowments and personal responsibility of women in relation to their own bodies.

America is not alone in being strange. All countries are strange reflecting the particularities of tradition and experience. Strangeness is bound up with originality and contradiction, and is not necessarily negative. We can be inspired by what is strange and wonderful, and appalled by what is strange and abusive. It is this negative strangeness that we must struggle to mitigate, whether it be capital punishment, human trafficking, or the subjugation that accompanies deep poverty and all forms of forcible dispossession.

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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