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The Wrong Side of History (2000)

Governor Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire stuck to her guns - or should one say needles - and vetoed the historic bill passed by the upper house of her state legislature on Thursday (5/18). In so doing, she made a blunder of epic proportions and firmly placed herself on the wrong side of history. By a significant majority, both houses of the New Hampshire legislature passed a law abolishing the death penalty in that state. They did so after listening to extensive testimony on all sides of the issue, engaging in rigorous debate and searching their consciences (a rare enough feat for a politician), exactly the way the Founders intended. Having thus done the job for which they were elected, these representatives and senators, some of them emotionally wrought, some changing long-held positions in the process, voted to abolish the death penalty in their state.

This is the first such move on the part of a state legislature in over twenty years and only the second since the U. S. Supreme Court allowed the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976. Governor Shaheen's decision to take what has been seen as the "politically safe" road in favor of death both misreads the current mood of her state and the country and insults the integrity of those conscientious New Hampshire legislators who chose to rise above meanness and partisan political calculus and honor their state in the finest tradition of the Supreme Court's "evolving standards that mark the progress of a maturing society."

Americans grow less comfortable daily with a lethal system exposed as racist, flawed in its application and biased against the poor and the mentally damaged. Americans, those in New Hampshire and across the land, are disturbed to find that the criminal justice system in which they have been asked to place their trust languishes so often in the hands of the politically ambitious, the venal and the incompetent, ensnaring children and the innocent as it grinds its way inexorably downward, devouring our self-respect along with our condemned.

With a nod to the gutsy Governor George Ryan of Illinois, who rocked the political world with a moratorium on death in January, Shaheen declared that had she been in his shoes she'd have done the same thing. The implication, of course, is the superior character of her state's system as opposed to his. She's half-right. The issue is certainly one of character, but not that of the state.

Governor Shaheen initially defended her decision with the tired, long-since discarded argument that the death penalty is a deterrent to violent crime. Because a glance at the difference in per-capita murder rates between non-death penalty states (3.5 per 100,000) and killing states (6.6 per 100,000), quickly deflates that position, she has now retreated to the "some murders are so brutal and heinous" rationale, calling it a "moral" position.

She's half-right again. It's a position; the position of stooping to the level of the least among us at his or her worst moment.

Serious moral leadership - not the lip-smacking, pietism to which we are here treated - is what is required in difficult, self-questioning times. Serious bipartisan moral leadership is what has been offered by the example of the courageous men and women of the New Hampshire legislature. In choosing to negate their inspiring decision, Governor Shaheen may find herself the George Wallace of the New Millennium, railing against progress as she stands in the door of the cave.


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