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A Matter of Principle

The Founders were realists, not cynics. They devised a system of government based on the notion that most of the time most of the people would act out of self-interest. But they did so with the full expectation that a healthy political culture would thrust up not only time-servers, but also servants of the common good.

Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York fulfilled that expectation this week, when for the seventh time in seven years, he vetoed a bill that would have reimposed the death penalty in his state. His action required not simply the sense of decency and justice that leads people to oppose capital punishment, but something far rarer, political courage. Recent statewide polls have found that fully 70% of the governor’s constituents favor reinstituting the death penalty in their state, and the pro-execution forces in the New York legislature now are within one vote of the number needed to override the veto.

Explaining his position to an audience of students, Cuomo said he recognizes that in parts of his state “life has become more ugly and violent than at any time I can recall.” But, the governor argued, capital punishment--with its inherent inequities and inevitably capricious application--would do nothing to redress these ugly facts of contemporary life.

“Of course we must make clear that we intend to fight the terrible epidemic of drugs and violence,” Cuomo said. “But the death penalty is no more effective a way to fight them than the angry cry that inspires it.” Stripped of the false justification of social utility, the governor argued, capital punishment can be seen for what it is, “a barbarous act of vengeance unworthy of government.”

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