I, like so many people, sat through the Republican debates the other night, listening to the same old lines that pour forth from contenders during any election cycle, regardless of the party. The dogma is rehashed, centrists and extremists are more clearly defined and the theater unfolds in fairly predictable ways. But there was a moment that struck me as I listened to the otherwise predictable responses – and that was the audience’s reaction to Rick Perry celebrating the number of people the state of Texas has executed under his tenure. Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of murdering his three daughters and executed despite evidence showing that he was likely innocent of the crimes, was something (not someone) to be celebrated. Or was Cameron Todd Willingham even a factor in the collective response?
Texas has held some 234 executions on Perry’s watch, more than the next two states combined have executed since the death penalty was restored 35 years ago (three people who were juveniles at the time of their crime were executed between 2000, when Perry took office, and 2005, when the Supreme Court banned the execution of juveniles). But the numbers or the morality of the death penalty were not the thing that hit me – that debate has largely been decided in the minds of most voters and it is to be expected that anyone running for the Republican nomination, for better or for worse, is going to support the death penalty. It is simply a platform issue and one that won’t change anytime soon.
No, the fact that Mr. Perry said he stood by his record was no surprise. The eruption of applause that ensued was. It was the first real explosive response of the crowd for the night, which struck me as disheartening, because it speaks volumes about the driving force behind the current ultra-conservative perspective and worldview. Job creation, US military involvement abroad, the debate over healthcare, none of these produced anything more than the standard mediocre applause. It was the fact that a candidate was proudly proclaiming that his state, and his governorship, was adept at killing that set the crowd on fire. And therein lies the problem, because this is not about dealing with crime and handing down justice. This is about hatred of and bloodlust for the “Other.” It is about fear on a grand scale and the breakdown of civil discourse. The people executed and those on death row in Texas are more than convicts, they are symbols to the far right. The cheering of Mr. Perry’s comments is about fear.
On one level it is about fear of change and fear of those unlike us. A Texas inmate named Duane Edward Buck, who is set to be executed Sept. 15, has petitioned Perry for clemency from his death sentence. Though Buck’s guilt is not in question, the way the prosecution secured his death sentence is. To prove Buck’s “future dangerousness” and secure the death sentence, prosecutors used the testimony of a psychologist who claimed that Buck was more dangerous because he is black. Is this to say that every supporter of the far right agenda is racist? By no means. But it does represent the underlying current of fear that explicitly or implicitly excludes gays, Hispanics, non-evangelical Christians, non-Christians, liberals, etc. It is representative of the belief that if you are in disagreement with the Tea Party’s fundamentalist wing you are something to be avoided and feared. You are suspect because you aren’t like them.
On another level the cheers are meant to send a message of intimidation to people both inside and outside the party. It is a vocalization that says if you aren’t with us, we will crush you. If you aren’t like us, we will hate you. If you confront us or call us into question, we will destroy you. It isn’t about the death penalty, Perry or the nature of the criminal justice system. It is a grand, explosive “fuck you” to anyone and everyone that supports anything other than the extremist views of a philosophical minority population of the US.
Mr. Perry is a religious predator who is willing to do anything to get elected President. Just the fact that a man so blatantly and defiantly amoral would be considered qualified for the highest office in the land speaks volumes about the disintegration of the Republic as a result of the destructive efforts of Fundamentalist. It should be of little wonder that his remarks on the Texas legal system and its propensity for executing people garner such a strong response. Because it isn’t about justice, it is about fear and control. What seems of interest isn’t the statement they cheer, but the subtext the statement represents.