Death, American Style

Death, American Style

Death, American Style

What the foreign papers are saying.
June 26 2000 9:30 PM

Death, American Style

Texas Gov. George W. Bush's failure to halt the execution of Gary Graham last week sent European newspapers across the political spectrum into spasms of outrage. The liberal Independent of London called the death penalty uncivilized. It continued, "In many respects the US Constitution is the benchmark against which nations that consider themselves 'civilised' must be judged. America is a far more democratic country than Britain, and democracy is almost invariably better than its alternatives. Almost—but not quite. The death penalty is one area where the people's instincts for vengeance should be tempered by wiser legislators." Admitting that the British public would reinstate "the rope" in the case of a referendum, the paper declared, "Democracy should have its limits. George Bush has breached them."

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June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.

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Britain's conservative Daily Telegraph pointed out that the vast majority of Western countries oppose capital punishment and most members of the Council of Europe have abolished it, but the editorial conceded that "[f]oreign censure will make little, if any, impact on the November election." The Irish Times said the current debate "is all too necessary and overdue, given that the United States is so out of line with other developed democracies in its acceptance of this barbarian form of punishment." The editorial attacked the deterrent value of what it called "this most cruel, degrading and inhuman form of punishment," claiming that states with the death penalty have higher levels of criminality, including murder, than those without it. It concluded, "Americans may well be shocked by the angry reaction evoked from Europe by this and other executions. For instance, the French government says it will raise the issue with the US during its EU presidency. It would be as well that US opinion leaders took account of these criticisms from their friends and allies."

Echoing lectures in Spain's El País and El Mundo, the Times of London took little comfort in declining U.S. support for the death penalty (many pieces on the topic quoted the fall from 80 percent in favor of the ultimate sanction in 1994 to 65 percent today), since the fall off seems to be based not on ethical objections to execution but on qualms about flaws in the judicial process. The paper's op-ed concluded, "If, as seems likely, public concern leads to wider DNA testing, better legal representation and more certain convictions, then the popularity of the death penalty will rise, and that stony little part of the American soul that condones judicial killing will harden once again."

The survival of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, characterized by the Financial Times as a "pork barrel gerontocracy," in that country's general election Sunday came as no surprise. But the loss of the party's majority (it will stay in power thanks to an alliance formed last year with two other parties) revealed "the first real power vacuum at the heart of modern Japanese politics," according to the FT. Bad weather and voter apathy contributed to Japan's second-lowest general-election turnout—only 63 percent of the 107 million eligible voters went to the polls. The Sydney Morning Herald described the LDP's methods for holding onto power (it has ruled the country for all but 18 months since its creation in 1955) while one-party regimes have tumbled in Taiwan and South Korea: public-works patronage for rural areas, an opposition "split between a bewildering array of forces," and a two-week election campaign that provides very little opportunity for opposition parties to "develop any sort of momentum for change." The International Herald Tribune added the LDP's "unrivaled collective experience in running the Japanese state. They also command a well oiled vote-gathering machine that leaves most of its rivals behind in the starting stalls."

An op-ed in Mainichi Shimbun evinced pessimism about prospects for the Japanese economy after the election. Extravagant public spending has  pushed the deficit to unprecedented levels (Japan would not qualify for membership in the European Union with its current levels of debt, the paper reported). The paper concluded, "As long as the government sends out signals that it is willing to fork out money to fund public-works projects indefinitely, those who are worried about the prospects of the Japanese economy will tend to restrict consumption and increase savings. But if the majority of people are reluctant to spend money, the government's economic stimulus measures will have the same effect as pouring water into a bucket riddled with holes."

A piece in the Japan Times said, "Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's nonstop gaffes and his administration's staggering unpopularity were ultimately tolerated by the voters who preferred the status quo to gambling on the opposition." The paper attacked the opposition's failure to capitalize on the LDP's economic failures and Mori's low popularity ratings. The largest opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan, fielded candidates for just 262 of the 480 seats and only named its choice for prime minister last week. Its pledge to lower the minimum taxable annual income by one-third and its opposition to public-works projects were not popular with the electorate. Moreover, even though the three parties in the ruling coalition all lost seats (the loss of 20 seats in the lower house due to redistricting made the numerical comparisons used by most papers less helpful and accurate than change percentages would have been), they maintained a unified front, whereas the opposition parties stressed their ideological differences throughout the campaign.

Following England's elimination from the European soccer championship last week, an op-ed in the Independent provided an explanation for Britain's history of athletic innovation: "Britain has invented the best sports in the world. And now we know why. We have to keep coming up with new games because once foreigners start playing them, they do it so much better than we do. Golf, football, rugby, tennis, cricket—all great British inventions. And now all played much better overseas." The author, entertainer Clive Anderson, suggested that Britons should take a leaf out of America's playbook: Curb their creativity and withdraw from international competition. "The Americans do these things much better. The games they have invented are good enough to provide excitement within the United States but nothing like good enough to really interest people elsewhere. The puffed-up pageant of American football is only good for puffed-up Americans. And baseball contrives to be even less alluring to the outsider than cricket, which is quite an achievement. And so, year in year out, only American sides contest the baseball 'World Series.' "