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September 19, 2011

A Measure of Humanity

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

One week removed from the solemn remembrances of Sept. 11, from flags waving on front porches and yards of proud Americans bound together by overwhelmingly national pride, the reactions of a handful of political activists’ risks redefining our historic commitment to humanity and dignity for those among us of lesser station in life.


Ten years removed from our nation’s single worst day, it was heartening to see and hear the swell of pride and deepened resolve to stand for the principles that have always made us great. A civilization rooted in the fundamental belief in compassion, dignity and freedom for our fellow man has allowed this constitutional republic to stand up to communism, fascism, and more recently, radical religious terrorism.


It was in this context that the events of the recent Republican presidential debates came across as so jarring and troubling.


In the first example, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was asked about his record of sending death row inmates to face the poison needle. It turns out that Governor Perry is efficient in the operation of his government, especially when it comes to carrying out death sentences.


We all know that a governor does not decide on this particular brand of punishment. That decision is made by a jury of peers of the convicted, in a court of law based on evidence and an initial presumption of innocence for the accused.


This is also not a criticism of the death penalty, something that this country remains deeply divided over. In Texas, juries have that sentence available to them, and they appear to have no compunction about using it. Governor Perry would be deficient in his service as governor if he were to routinely ignore the will of the people of his state.


In Maryland, our governor has no such problem. He has ignored Maryland law by refusing to create the regulations necessary to insure a humane administration of a death sentence, mostly because his personal religious and political beliefs lead him to oppose it.


At the recent debate, Governor Perry was asked to explain his apparent enthusiasm for the death sentence since he has authorized the most executions of any governor in America. Before he could provide what seemed like a rational and reasonable answer, though, debate attendees began shouting and clapping their approval of the idea that he was operating an assembly-line efficient death row machine in Texas.


In another example, while responding to a moderator’s question about whether to deny life-extending care to a young uninsured man in a coma, Texas Rep. Ron Paul (TX) was interrupted by a number of shouted comments from the audience. “Let him die” was clearly audible, and from more than one person.


In an interesting twist, even Congressman Paul disagreed with the audience of Tea Party members. His answer to the question, barely audible above the yells and applause, was a definitive “No” to the question. Mr. Paul seemed, in spite of his political beliefs in limited government and fiscal austerity, to understand that core human value of compassion for his fellow man.


Both of these examples foretell a fundamental shift in our national political dialogue. Ronald Reagan, that beloved father of the modern political conservative movement, was as compassionate as any president has ever been. He would also have advocated for the provision of care to the uninsured young man, and might even have harbored some concern for an audience that would cheer for the denial of that care.


Zealotry in politics is understandable; in fact, it’s probably to be expected. On both side of the ideological spectrum, we suffer from a blinders-on mentality, a winner-takes-all view of elections and public service.


If you accept that our nation’s design was the result of Judeo-Christian values that infused the thinking of our Founders, don’t you have to extend that belief to all of our modern political arguments?


We can believe in the full administration of justice, and we can argue for the use of the death penalty as the ultimate punishment for the most egregious crimes against society. That doesn’t mean that we should cheer for a record-setting pace.


We can actively oppose socialized healthcare without publically encouraging the premature termination of a human life over a lack of health insurance.


Our standing in the world community is not the issue here. Maybe it was just rude people in the audience, people who have been blessed with wealth and happiness. Maybe they’ve never experienced the tough choices some people have to make, sometimes through circumstances beyond their control.


The larger question we should be asking is who we are as a society? Do we really want to be the ones who loudly cheer over the dead body of a convicted killer? Are we the kind of people who clap at the idea of a young man dying alone, denied a chance to survive because he didn’t have a health plan?


In retrospect, the intolerance and hatred that drove plane-loads of people into buildings are, at the core, not dissimilar to the emotions expressed at those recent debates.


We have to be better than that.


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