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January 20, 2017

Pondering the death penalty under a Trump presidency

Many scenes from “The Silence of the Lambs” stuck with me over the quarter decade since I first saw the film in a since-demolished Eric theater in South Jersey, but I’ll never forget the guttural gasp brought about by one in particular.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter disemboweled Officer Jim Pembry (dammit) and, to escape from captivity, carved the guard’s face off, placed it atop his own and tricked medics into loading him into an ambulance.

When Lecter peels that face mask off and makes his great escape, it was jarring, most notably because you didn’t know what was coming next or before or ever.

Those types of scenes take your mind and emotions, put them in a Boggle grid and send them flying about in all different directions.

Where I part with liberal orthodoxy is in how I support the death penalty.

I woke up thinking about that scene on Friday, January 20, 2017 not because I think a depraved serial killer will take the reins of our country at high noon. I don’t. That’d be silly even for me.

But the impossibility of knowing – with any level of certainty – what exactly Donald Trump will do once he’s sworn in comes close to matching the Pembry scene’s visceral audience reaction. That is, until I had a moment of clarity, and here it is:

I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump tries to bring back public executions and – despite the fact that he’s only facing life in a U.S. prison if convicted – he’d start if off with a “Make America Great (and Safe)” push to nominate Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman as the first.

When our leaders give little indication of what specifically they want to do when installed in office, the best we can do is hypothesize in advance. This hypothesis makes sense, if you ask me.

America’s last public execution was carried out in 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky. Before a bloodthirsty audience of 20,000 observers, a man named Rainey Bethea was hanged for the rape and murder of a 70-year-old woman.

Fast forward 81 years, and America elected a president who rode to victory a slogan of reviving the past.

He’s also a man who, in 1989, dropped $85,000 on full-page newspaper ads lobbying New York state to bring back capital punishment for five black and Hispanic teenagers accused of raping and brutally beating a Central Park jogger. They were cleared when the rapist confessed; Trump never apologized.

He’s also noted that he’d sign a “strong, strong statement” of an executive order calling for the death penalty for those who kill police officers.

He’s Tweeted about “missing children (sic) grabbed by the perverts” in order to call for fast trials and executions for said perverts.

He’s noted there “should be like death penalty or something” for the people behind WikiLeaks for using classified documents and videos obtained from Chelsea Manning (y’know, the source whose sentence was recently commuted by Trump’s successor at the White House).

In other words, the man has a death penalty fetish.

He also has a disdain for Mexico (the country that handed over El Chapo to the United States on the eve of the inauguration). 

And a vindictive streak (aimed at those who demanded a Central Park Five apology from a man allergic to apologies). 

And a penchant for projecting his shortcomings onto others (a stretch, but the two men’s “management styles” exhibit some minor parallels.)

“You can't take pity if someone makes a mistake, you can't back down when underlings make excuses for not keeping to the schedule. If there was a problem, El Chapo eliminated it.”

Eliminated it = you’re fired (albeit one that’s markedly more violent).

Already, El Chapo’s abrupt extradition is being framed as a gift to the United States made before Trump’ is sworn in. To wit:

It's also seen by many in Mexico as a delicately timed maneuver aimed at limiting political fallout for President Enrique Pena Nieto, already deeply unpopular in part for his perceived mishandling of Donald Trump's tough rhetoric on Mexico. …

"It could be a coincidence, but I think that's unlikely," Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope said, noting it came the last full day of Barack Obama's presidency and hours before Trump's inauguration. "They could not send him after Trump was inaugurated because the interpretation would have been that of a tribute.”

Where I part with liberal orthodoxy is in how I support the death penalty. (Fix the problems, but don’t abolish; some people deserve to die.)

When I think about the reactions I’ve gotten each time I’ve written about capital punishment in the past, I can relate to how non-liberals feel when that flock rains disdain down upon them. That's part of the motivation for their obnoxious "we won, you lost, get over it" victory prance.

And when I think about everything I’ve seen from Trump and his deplorables over the past year or so, I see people getting inspired by visions of payback against everybody who’s wronged them (both in reality and fantasy).

Those are my guiding principles when I try to figure out what’s going to happen in America after Trump’s hand lifts off that Bible and he walks into a world of unmatched power.

He likes the death penalty, and hates Mexico.

He's seen his security beefed up after threats from a drug kingpin who just arrived, cuffed and shackled, in the country he's about to lead.

He wants to bolster support of American law enforcement, and close off access to others.

He takes shots at criminals, whether they’re patently guilty or wrongly accused.

He loves big ratings.

He makes the rules, and seemingly doesn't feel beholden to abide by those established in history and tradition. (Sure, the death penalty's a state-by-state issue, but if this campaign proved anything, it's to expect the unexpected).

His utter unpredictability makes it folly to consider anything off limits – i.e. the legality of legislators returning to a deadly vestige of the past – which is why I can’t shake this idea of public executions in the waning hours before inauguration.

What will happen when he peels the mask of a candidate and president-elect off and reveals himself as the leader of the free world?

Nobody knows, but we’re all about to find out.