Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Rick Perry, the death penalty and Palestine

The saving grace of Rick Perry’s run for the presidency, if indeed we must fine one, might be that his willingness to make use of the death penalty even in cases where a substantial body of evidence points towards innocence, and the willingness of right-wing audiences to applaud state-sanctioned killings might be bringing back the death penalty debate. 

It will be too late for Troy Davis who will be murdered by the State of Georgia—yes, I use that word deliberately, but what else can you call it when a justice system kills a man while ignoring evidence?—this evening, barring a Supreme Court intervention.  I oppose the death penalty under all circumstances, but surely even its proponents must recognise the logical and juridical frailty of a system which can press on with an execution in the face of massive evidence suggesting that Davis was wrongly accused. 

Some years back I joined Berkeley School District teachers and other CAFL people in reading and scoring students’ district writing assessments (boy, do I remember writing those like it was yesterday!).  The topic was the death penalty. 

Of those I read, only about 25% were “for” the death penalty at the beginning of their essay, and about half of them had talked themselves out of it by the time they were through.  You could tell which students were just reciting talking points they’d read or heard somewhere (sometimes in a somewhat garbled fashion—“we shouldn’t have the death penalty because it’s killing all of our black people”), and which came from the heart: “what if we’re wrong, and they’re innocent?”, “how can it ever be right to kill another person?”, “we shouldn’t play God”, “how is killing someone going to bring back the people they killed?”, and “is killing someone really justice?”.

These aren’t the kids of the Cal professors or the Green-activists who populate Berkeley in the imaginations of many Americans.  They are kids whose dads, moms and older siblings have often seen the rougher side of justice and the wrong side of the law.  They are kids who already know what it’s like to be profiled, harassed and written off, who’ve slept in stairwells, watched friends and cousins get killed, sometimes because they did something wrong, sometimes for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and always because they were born in the wrong place in the wrong time in the wrong society—one which promotes the casualisation of labour, the cutting off of educational opportunities, and an economic structure which widens rather than bridges wealth disparity.  These are kids who by the time they’re 10 or 12 aren’t really kids any more, because the innocence that is supposed to characterise childhood has been bludgeoned to death by unemployment numbers that were high and opportunities that were scarce long before our current economic crisis hit the more affluent inhabitants of “Main Street”.

But they’re also kids who’ve kept coming to school, and who use their experiences to contextualise the political issues in front of them, from whom we can learn more than we’d care to admit. 


But if Rick Perry has unwittingly brought the death penalty centre-stage (even if only momentarily), we should be less thankful to him for his ridiculous (if typical for his party) contributions to the debate about long-overdue Palestinian statehood.

“The Obama policy of moral equivalency”, Perry argued yesterday, “which gives equal standing to the grievances of Israelis and Palestinians, including the orchestrators of terrorism, is a dangerous insult.  There is no middle ground between our allies who seek their destruction”.  He went on: “America should not be ambivalent between the terrorist tactics of Hamas and the security tactics of the legitimate and free state of Israel.  By proposing ‘indirect’ talks through the U.S. rather than between Palestinian leaders and Israel, this administration encouraged Palestinians to shun direct talks”.

Standard Republican fare.  The same people who tell us to listen to our generals—who describe to us the necessity of negotiating with the Taliban (people we’ve labelled “terrorists”)—when it is convenient, reject the same rational strategy here.  Moreover, Perry simply doesn’t make sense: if there’s no middle ground, why should we be promoting direct talks at all?  If it’s so black and white and there’s no moral equivalency, why talk?  This inconsistency suggests that he’s just reading AIPAC talking points.

More troubling still is the ignorance behind the attack on “moral equivalency” and the “terrorist tactics” versus “security tactics”.  Those “legitimate” “security attacks” killed nine people on an aid convoy last summer, one of whom was a U.S. citizen.  The same tactics have Gaza in a vicious hammerlock, subjecting its populous to a blockade and creating manifestly inhumane conditions.  The country behind those tactics came into being by launching terrorist attacks against the internationally-recognised trustee of Palestine in the 1930s and ‘40s.  These tactics pushed 80% of Gazans below the poverty line, and killed nearly 1,000 non-combatants.

The “direct talks” that Perry wants have been failing steadily for decades, both because Israel negotiates from a position of vastly superior military strength and with a total lack of interest in the success of negotiations, and because the unconditional backing which the U.S. has given to Israel (thanks to people like Perry) allows that country to walk away from the table without fear of the consequences.

Perry’s contributions to this debate demonstrate that he is ill-informed about the current status of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, profoundly ignorant of the conflict’s history, and totally illogical and immoral in his approach to U.S. involvement in the region.

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