America's Deadly Image

America's Deadly Image WASHINGTON POST

February 20, 2001
Tuesday Edition, Page A23

America's Deadly Image

By FELIX G. ROHATYN*
OP-ED

A subject that is rarely noted today is the challenge to America's moral leadership in Europe. Most Frenchmen, as most Europeans, admire America. They admire what we do, what we stand for and what we have done for them twice in the 20th century. I have had the privilege of speaking on D-Day at the Normandy military cemeteries and seeing tens of thousands of Frenchmen paying their respects to the fallen GIs. France considers itself, together with the United States, as the source of human rights and modern democracy.

It is important for the United States to maintain this image in the eyes of Europeans, and to protect the legitimacy of our moral leadership. This moral leadership is under challenge because of two issues: the death penalty and violence in our society. During my nearly four years in France, no single issue evoked as much passion and as much protest as executions in the United States. Repeated protests in front of the embassy in Paris, protests at our consulates and, just recently, a petition signed by 500,000 French men and women delivered to our embassy in Paris were part of a constant refrain. My colleague in Germany, Ambassador John Kornblum, had indicated to me that he was challenged as frequently in Germany on this issue as I was in France.

In France, the death penalty was outlawed in 1981, even though it was still favored by a majority. The European Union outlaws the death penalty. There is a strong belief among our European allies that it has no place in a civilized society.

In addition, the United States is seen as executing people who have not had appropriate legal assistance, people who may be innocent, people who are mentally retarded as well as minors. We are viewed as executing disproportionate numbers of minorities and poor people, and there is no compelling statistical evidence that the death penalty is a greater deterrent to potential criminals than other forms of punishment.

When Gov. George H. Ryan of Illinois, a Republican who supported the death penalty, announced a moratorium on executions in his state, I decided I had to rethink the issue as well as to be willing to address it in interviews and questions that followed my every public appearance.

As a New Yorker who had lived in a high-crime environment, I had always been favorable to the death penalty, at least for certain major crimes. As chairman of New York's Municipal Assistance Corp., I had worked with two governors, Mario Cuomo and Hugh Carey, who regularly vetoed the penalty, but it was Ryan's moratorium, together with repeated reports about incompetent legal representation, that made me take this issue more seriously.

And it was sustained exposure to this issue in Europe, in interviews, in Q&As at universities or just in social encounters, that brought me around to supporting a moratorium while we review the whole issue of capital punishment.

I certainly do not believe that just because our allies oppose the death penalty, we should automatically follow. After all, the French legal system has its own shortcomings. France does not provide for "habeas corpus," which I find incomprehensible in a democratic society, and French jails are in dismal condition, according to a French study published recently.

But I believe that the reality of the situation is that neither we nor our European allies can be proud of our criminal justice systems. The Europeans have a mandatory release system that returns the most odious criminals to the street after a maximum of 20 to 30 years, which I could not support, while we sometimes execute the wrong people and turn our jails into graduate schools for crime, which is no better.

This is a hard issue, but crime and punishment are hard issues. The Constitution speaks of "Cruel and unusual punishment." Some 300 million of our closest allies think capital punishment is cruel and unusual and it might be worthwhile to give it some further thought. I was able to have a rational dialogue on this issue in France by suggesting that neither we nor Europe had found an appropriate answer to the challenges of crime and punishment, to the reform of the penal system as a whole and to the challenge of rehabilitation together with the necessity for appropriate punishment.

The death penalty, guns, violence in society, these cast a large cloud on America's moral leadership. I believe it would be worth having a dialogue on these difficult subjects with our Atlantic allies -- not by diplomats but by jurists and parliamentarians and chiefs of police. At a time when our military, economic and political power, our so-called "hegemony," is a source of concern to many of our allies, it is important that our moral leadership be sustained.

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*The writer was ambassador to France from 1997 to 2000. He is counselor of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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