Let's start with the hard case. Yesterday, Lawrence Russell Brewer, a white supremacist who chained a black man, James Byrd, Jr., to his pickup truck and dragged him along a bumpy asphalt road to his death, was executed in Texas. There were no protests and not much advance publicity.
Of course there was another execution yesterday. The State of Georgia took the life of Troy Davis despite significant doubts about his guilt and highly publicized objections from around the world. Davis was further punished by being kept in suspense for four hours while the Supreme Court heard, then denied, his final appeal. This had happened before. Davis was nearly executed in 2007 and again in 2008, only to be granted last-minute stays.
I have no idea whether Troy Davis was guilty, but if the seven out of nine original witnesses who recanted their testimony are correct, then somebody else actually committed the murder he was convicted for. I sincerely hope that gives some of the people who pushed inexorably for his execution a few moments' uneasiness. To many who followed this case, the apparent inability of death penalty supporters to feel such emotions—epitomized by Rick Perry's glibness in a recent debate—is particularly baffling.
I described the Brewer execution as the "hard case," though, because it is so difficult to feel doubt or uneasiness about it. This was clearly a very bad man, who did something so indescribably awful that it revolted the nation. There was no doubt about his guilt. Furthermore, if this matters, this was a white man being executed for killing a black man. Some would even consider that progress.
Nevertheless, the simultaneity of these two executions gives us a chance to put the debate about the death penalty in perspective. What is wrong with the death penalty isn't the possibility that an innocent person could be executed—indeed, the overwhelming likelihood that many already have been. What is wrong with it is that taking human life does not convey the message that it is wrong to take human life. Instead, it cheapens human life, and thus makes us a coarser, more heartless and more violent society. The state in which I live—the state that executed Lawrence Russell Brewer yesterday—operates one of the most relentless, implacable death machines anywhere in the world. Here in Texas, the death penalty isn't solving the problem of violence and disregard for human life. It's part of the problem.