The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Trading on the snipers to push for the death penalty

Nov 11, 2002

Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that Virginia would be the first state to try the two sniper suspects, John Muhammad and Lee Malvo. "It is imperative," thundered Ashcroft, "that the ultimate sanction be available for those who have committed these crimes."Other officials of the Bush administration explained that not only is Virginia "more efficient" at executing people, having put more people to death than any other state – except George Bush's Texas, of course. Virginia also allows the death penalty for juveniles, while Maryland, where most of the killings took place, doesn't.

Of course, what Muhammad and Malvo did was horrible. Assuming that they were the snipers – and the case does seem strong – they carried out a cold-blooded murder spree. They prepared a vehicle from which they could shoot, then they picked off their targets with a military sniper's weapon. Their targets were chosen, not as a function of who they were killing, but in order to create as much confusion as possible.

It's obvious that no society can accept such horrible actions.

But what Ashcroft and the rest of the Bush administration are doing is much worse. For over two weeks now, the Bush administration has been orchestrating this case as a way to push for reinforcing the death penalty at a time when there is increasing opposition to it. In fact, several states, including Maryland, have recently declared moratoriums on carrying out executions, after people sitting on death row have been shown to be innocent by new DNA methods. In Illinois, for example, 13 men sitting on death row awaiting execution have been proved not to have committed the crime for which they were sentenced to death.

The arbitrary imposition of the death penalty has long created opposition to its use. A murderer who is white and rich has hardly ever been put to death, while one who is black or Hispanic or both white and poor has a very great chance of being condemned, even when the crime committed is similar. Moreover, the murderer of a white person, whether white or black, is four times more likely to be put to death than the murderer of a black person. The justice system clearly puts a higher price on the life of a white person than on the life of a black person. It values the life of a wealthy person more than that of someone poor.

But the issue is not simply whether execution is unfairly imposed or whether an innocent person is put to death – as horrible as these things are. The issue is the outright barbarity of the death penalty. Not a single country in Europe executes people, nor do a number of other countries. In using the death penalty, the U.S. joins itself to some of the most reactionary countries in the world, and some of the most violent, dictatorial regimes in the world, starting with Saudi Arabia. The death penalty is an open declaration of contempt for human life.

The never-ending state of war in which the U.S. is engaged, using its "weapons of mass destruction" against civilians in one far-flung part of the globe after another, is simply another expression of that same contempt for human life.

Is it simply a coincidence that John Muhammad came back from the Gulf War "a changed man," one given to rages, according to his first wife, who hid from him out of fear at what he had become? Maybe.

Is it simply a coincidence that Robert S. Flores, Jr. – the man who two weeks ago killed three teachers at the University of Arizona – also served in the Gulf War, after receiving sniper training?

Is it just another coincidence that there has been a rash of murders by the elite special forces troops returning from the Afghanistan war?

All just coincidences? Maybe. But the fact is that a society which puts forward military solutions, that is, violent solutions, trains its population to be violent.

Today John Ashcroft openly stands in front of the TV cameras, practically rubbing his hands together in glee, considering the possibility of putting John Muhammad and Lee Malvo to death. He might as well propose to take them out to the public square and turn their execution into a public spectacle.

That's what is done in countries like Saudi Arabia whose wealthy class seems to thrive on the death penalty – and which does quite a good job at producing terrorists, by the way.

The ruling class of this country is violent to the core. This is their "morality." Execution is their answer to the violence they themselves have spawned.

It's not ours. We can refuse to be sucked in by their disgusting answers. We can set as our goal the creation of a society in which injustice, exploitation and the contempt for human life which capitalism produces are done away with. The morality of the working class demands respect for life.