“Is this America?” asked a US newspaper, as fear whistled through Washington at the approach of the Biden inauguration. The protests at the Capitol, the violence, the polarisation of the American people – more than one political commentator reflected that it was like watching a foreign country.
Certainly, it might seem like alien territory if you had ever bought into the myth of America as the land of the free. But as Trump finally departed in his jet, pardoning the string of crooks and cronies lined up behind him as he went, a more pertinent headline might be, “IS THIS DEMOCRACY?”
Trump’s crisp white shirt and red tie, his classy designer overcoat, might as well have been feudal, ermine-lined robes; those who lined up to wave goodbye, his tied serfs. The unashamed use of the president’s power of pardon for a hotchpotch of fraudsters and gangsters was surely a most cynical kind of mercy.
Not since Bill Clinton pardoned his half-brother for drug offences has the president’s pardon been exposed as such naked nepotism. Trump’s list included Steve Bannon, his former adviser, convicted of fraud; his popstar supporter Lil Wayne for firearm offences; a racist sheriff; a bent mayor; and a sprinkling of wealthy supporters. This was not clemency but corruption.
Trump’s presidency has exposed America’s fault lines, putting paid to the notion of the US as a mature democracy. Forgiveness is among the highest of human virtues which is why it is unnerving to see it reduced to a grace and favour, pay-out and pay-off system, dependent on connections instead of discretion. Most upsetting of all is that in Trump’s presidency even forgiveness was about class and race and privilege. While he pardoned the white-collar criminals who sucked money out of those who couldn’t afford it, he executed the abused and the alienated, the deranged and the dispossessed.
There had been no federal executions for 17 years in America but in the dying days of Trump’s administration, 13 people were executed. America’s record on executions puts the country in the company of some of the most brutal regimes in the world: China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Is how it handles criminal justice not a sign of how developed a democracy is? It is the state’s job to demand justice, not vengeance.
As a journalist, I have frequently met people devastated by violent crime. I have felt their pain, their anger, their outrage. I know that, should I be in their shoes and someone harmed my loved ones, emotionally I might want to kill them. But while I would expect the state to take account of my emotion, I would not expect them to be governed by it. Judgment governed by emotion without intellect is as flawed as judgment governed by intellect without emotion. As victim, I am probably not the best judge.
Interesting that Trump’s executed were predominantly the least powerful in American society: black and native Americans as well as the first woman to be executed since 1953. The first, last July, was Daniel Lee. His victim’s family pleaded for him not to be executed. Then there was Brandon Bernard, who was involved in a gang murder at 18. He did not pull the trigger, yet was the only one executed.
Even the prosecutor in his case said he became “a humble and remorseful adult”. He died by lethal injection, his last words an apology to his victim’s family. Right now, a black man, Kevin Cooper, jailed for murdering a white family 38 years ago, remains on death row despite increasing forensic evidence that he was framed by the authorities.
It’s a flawed and inconsistent penalty, as Lisa Montgomery, who was executed in Trump’s final few days, illustrates. Lawyers fighting to save her life told a court she was sexually abused from the age of three, raped at age 11 by her stepfather, and consistently raped by gangs organised by her own parents. Montgomery cut open her pregnant victim’s stomach, stealing the baby in her womb. Incredibly, the baby survived. The mother didn’t. Those involved in Montgomery’s case said she was severely mentally ill. Isn’t that obvious? Would the average person need a psychiatrist to tell them that? Sixteen other American women committed similar crimes; none has been executed.
Under Joe Biden, federal executions are likely to halt again. But in any democracy, the death penalty should not be at the whim of the powerful. Nor should pardons. Trump whipped away America’s fig leaf of sophistication. Perhaps now, a truly mature democracy can begin to take shape.