Now that the frantic last-minute Christmas shopping is finished and the family gatherings have come and gone, what are we supposed to do?

What else but work on those New Year’s Resolutions?

I came across a line in a Paul Krugman column the other day that I thought might make a good resolution for me:

“Well, I guess we should never assume malice when ignorance remains a possibility,” he wrote in a column headlined “The Humbug Effect” in The New York Times.

But among more specific goals — the ones that I would share in public anyway — I’ve been a little more torn. If I had to pick the three biggest issues in the United States that I would like to work on, my list would include the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us, from the dwindling middle class to the poor; long-term climate change and the deterioration of the environment in general, and our apparent fondness for never-ending wars that are costly in just about every respect I can think of.

But truth be told, I don’t have the slightest bit of optimism that our society will take significant positive steps on addressing those issues in the next year. Note to society: Please, please, please feel free to prove me wrong.

I’m not sure that my next idea is any more attainable, but one concrete area that might benefit from more focus by concerned citizens, me included, is this:

Let’s work to end the death penalty in the United States.

The Netherlands abolished the death penalty in 1870 (shortly after our country finally got over slavery). Norway ended capital punishment in 1905. Country after country has come to the same conclusion over the years.

As Amnesty International reports: “In 1977, only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. As of December 2009 that figure stands at 95 and more than two thirds of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.”

The worldwide trend against the death penalty is clear, and the United States, as exceptional as some of us might think it is, is part of the world’s humanity.

I can’t say why we are so slow to reform our practice on this issue. Maybe, we’re just more afraid of each other than people in other (equally or even more flawed) countries.

Oh, no question that some people in our nation do some very horrendous things (and, no question, too, that we make it easier for them to commit these crimes by worshipping guns, as we do). I’m very grateful that the police have just arrested some thugs who they believe are responsible for a crime spree in my neighborhood and surrounding ones over the last few months. I certainly hope the police got the right guys and, provided that’s proven to be true, I hope they stay in jail for a long time. At least one and maybe more of those offenses was a clear capital crime under current law.

The Quakers tell us that there is that of God — in other words, as the Quakers mean it, something good — in everyone. I believe that’s true. But in some folks that bit of goodness is hard to find. Some years ago, I visited a prison for elderly “criminals.” I expected to feel great sympathy for them — and I did for some — but others, even though they were fairly frail in one way or another, still scared me big time. I believe in redemption. I believe in rehabilitation. But, whether you blame our current prison system or some people’s genes or whatever, the fact is that some people just ought not to be out roaming around freely.

I trust and hope that future generations will deal better with restoring people’s humanity than we have so far.

But  no matter how bad or even downright evil someone is, I do not want to kill them. I doubt that many of the people who might read this would want to, either.

In an act of self-defense or, even more likely, to defend someone you loved, you might. But would you personally kill someone who is behind bars and not in a position to harm others?

Maybe, some people should be imprisoned for life with no possibility of parole. I’m not certain of that, because I think each case is different. But I can accept that life without parole might be a compromise we could all live with.

But killing people is just not something that civilized people ought to do. They certainly shouldn’t kill except as a last resort. And killing people who are already confined and not a threat to society is just inhumane.

So let’s make this a common New Year’s Resolution. Let’s work to abolish the death penalty in America.

Better late than never.


“A Matter of Life or Death”: A balanced and detailed look at issues surrounding the death penalty by an excellent reporting team at The Atlanta Journal and Constitution:

Dates when various nations abolished capital punishment:

Ten good reasons to end the death penalty:

Amnesty International’s campaign against capital punishment:

Keith Graham

Keith Graham

Keith Graham was among the recipients of the prestigious Stella Artois prize at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival. Named for a blind piano player, he is also well known for always giving money to street accordion players. A quotation that he considers meaningful comes from the Irish writer Roddy Doyle: "The family trees of the poor don't grow to any height." In addition to contributing to Like the Dew, Keith frequently posts quotations and links and occasionally longer articles at

  1. Frank Povah

    You put a great case, Keith. The ironies present in every argument for the ultimate penalty should by themselves be enough reason for its abolition.

    In Australia, the death penalty was struck off the statutes in 1984 (and not used since the 1970s after the public outcry following the execution of Ronald Ryan) and yet even today there are those who scream like banshees for its reintroduction every time the massmeejuh moguls sell a few more papers and teevee ad space by raking over the gorier details of a murder – the same institutions that, while broadcasting a drug-company funded report on the latest “miracle cancer breakthrough”, tell us that seeing a blurred-0ut female nipple “may disturb some viewers”.

    Every time the perpetrator of some particularly shocking crime appears in court, there they are by the entrance, that tiny minority among us who seemingly get an almost orgasmic thrill by dwelling on the minutiae of murder or rape or paedophilia. Their hate-contorted faces are always given loving treatment by the teevee camera and, when interviewed by the “reporter-on-the-spot” for SENSATIONATSIXon6, the spokesindividual tells us that he/she nightly “Prays to God for the reintroduction of the death penalty”.

    It’s great to live in a Christian country.

  2. Keith,
    I certainly agree that the death penalty should be put to death. However I do disagree with the Quaker notion of some good in everyone. In my life I have met and experienced people who are truly indwelt with evil, however I don’t believe we, as a civilized people accomplish anything positive by rubbing them out. Incarceration for life, seems to me to be almost as bad as execution. Prisons are horrendous places where the inmates make the rules and freely take advantage of the weaker member. I guess when I think about it, I find myself conflicted because I don’t have an answer, let’s just don’t kill them.

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