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Davis, California

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Column: Rest in politics

For many, school began on a somber note last week with news of Troy Davis’ execution the day prior. Wherever your opinion lies on the spectrum of state-sanctioned executions, death sentences are not cause for celebration.

For those who are against the death penalty, each lethal injection is a saddening reminder of the distance between your own view of morality and the reality of our punitive system. Even for those in favor of the death penalty, with each execution you are reminded of the irredeemable crime that necessitated that sentence.

So, too, was it with the case of Troy Davis. Late Wednesday night after the execution, the widow of Davis’ alleged murder victim Joan MacPhail-Harris told the Associated Press it was “nothing to rejoice.” On the other side, the groups and individuals who had hoped for the exoneration of Davis realized the battle for his individual justice was finally over.

Troy Davis was the 35th inmate on death row executed this year, and the 1269th since 1976. Of those, many executions have carried a measure of controversy. Even among those controversial death penalties, the case of Troy Davis rose to a notable height of public spectacle among politicians and political pundits, celebrities, activist groups and approximately 70 percent of my Facebook newsfeed. Could it be that the politicization of Troy Davis was an accomplice to his execution?

By politicization I mean the transformation of an individual case, with particular details and a specific history, into a public debate polarized along predictable political lines.

Applied to Troy Davis, this means transforming his 20-year journey to defend his own innocence into a mass debate about the racial inequities and legal inconsistencies of the death penalty. In that debate, Troy Davis the person nearly disappears behind the insurgence of well-worn liberal and conservative talking points about Troy Davis, the symbol.

On one side, liberal activists joined by the likes of Jimmy Carter, Alec Baldwin, Al Sharpton and Amnesty International fight for his clemency. They apply the details of his case to a much larger issue of a racialized penal system.

Conservative activists like Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin and Rick Perry, however, reject his plea for innocence. They use the case to remind folks that we cannot be “soft on crime,” especially when the victims are public safety officials and the alleged criminals are “cop-killers.”

This looks to me like a perversion of John Rawls’ philosophical concept of the Original Position. Rawls used this thought experiment to determine the morality of particular decisions on a principled basis.

It goes like this: Imagine you’re sitting somewhere outside society and all of its roles. You will eventually re-enter society, but first you need to decide what laws everyone will follow – but there’s a catch.

When you return to society, your role will be randomly determined. This way you’re deciding which moral principles and laws everyone will follow, but you could end up returning to society as a politician, a judge or a criminal on death row.

Rawls believed that people would fashion the fairest set of laws possible if they operate behind what he called the Veil of Ignorance. By creating a distance between yourself and moral questions, he argued, you can remove bias.

When an issue is politicized, it gives new meaning to the term Veil of Ignorance. This time, political groups operating outside the specific details of the case argue with the same diametrically opposed groups they always argue, but on a different battlefield.

Politicization inverts the Original Position. Rather than create a distance between yourself and the moral questions of the Troy Davis case to remove bias, you instead create a distance and layer bias on top. 

This came to head with the Twitter-war between liberal actor Alec Baldwin and conservative political personality Michele Malkin. Near the time of the execution, Baldwin tweeted: “When Do Cheney and Rumsfeld go on trial for murder? Will that trial be in Texas?”

To which Malkin responded, “Waiting for Hollyweird @alecbaldwin’s ‘I am Troy Davis’ tweet.”

And this goes on for longer than I’m willing to divert space in this column toward. Notice, though, that neither here, nor in later tweets, do they talk about the case. Both co-opt the case to reaffirm their political alignment.

The problem with politicizing issues is that it automatically cuts support for either side down to the predictable split between liberals and conservatives.

If public opinion has any place in judicial decisions, or in President Obama’s considerations for granting clemency, a 50-50 split automatically makes the politicized debate useless. No one with authority beholden to public opinion would risk losing half the population by intervening in the case.

As tragic as the execution of Troy Davis is for both sides, it is worth taking another moment of silence to consider other issues doomed to inaction by virtue of their misalignment in the realm of politics.

RAJIV NARAYAN recognizes the irony of using his first political column to write about what shouldn’t be political. But feel free to point this and other issues out to him, anyway at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.

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