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The Return of the Federal Death Penalty Is an Attack on Democracy

The death penalty is not just a human rights violation — it’s a warning of repression to come.

Press Information Officer Lt. Sam Robinson is reflected in the witness window outside the lethal injection chamber at San Quentin State Prison on September 21, 2010, in San Quentin, California.

The “Justice” Department recently announced that U.S. Attorney General William Barr has instructed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to change the federal execution protocol to include capital punishment. For the first time in nearly two decades, the federal government will carry out the death penalty. What does this say about the time we live in? In this moment, in whose interest is the death penalty to be exercised? In order to answer that critical question, we need a realistic appraisal of the death penalty’s role in the U.S.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons bringing the death penalty back is not an isolated phenomenon. It is one of many interlocking actions intended to protect the poisonous economic and political systems that are undermining democracy. The return of the death penalty is yet another signal that the state will not hesitate to use extreme force to defend policies pursued over the past two years which seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish the most vulnerable, and make basic human rights a privilege to be earned.

For over five decades, the overall policy responses to the immense wealth of the few and the squalor and deprivation in which vast numbers of Americans exist has been willfully neglectful at best. Yet the change of policy direction since president Trump has come into office is worsening this situation and ensuring that the U.S. remains divided and unequal. Despite misleading rhetoric about a booming economy and low unemployment numbers, remarkably little attention has been given to the Trump administration’s radical program of financial, environmental, health and safety deregulation that eliminates protections mainly benefiting the middle classes and poor.

Bringing back federal executions is shorthand, for those in the know, for an ongoing and brutal larger policy shift. It’s shorthand that tells us more and more social protections will likely disappear in the years ahead, which will fuel more social dissatisfaction. It’s shorthand for the tragic targeting of those most affected by policies that further shred crucial dimensions of a social safety net that is already full of holes.

Some assert that moments like this are automatically catalysts, sparking a useful dialogue. I have found that this is not always true. We must intentionally create spaces where people are willing to look at things in new ways. Under the Trump administration, solutions to major domestic social problems are seen to lie in tougher laws and more punishment, replicating the old “law and order” spiel. This underscores Trump’s affection for a polarized past, which hinders us as we reach for a transformative future. We cannot hide from any of these hard truths. We have to name them and own them and change them.

In whose interest is the death penalty to be exercised? Those moving full steam ahead to make the U.S., which already leads the developed world in income and wealth inequality, even more unequal. It is in the interest of the top 1 percent of the American population that owns nearly 39 percent of the total wealth. It is in the interest of those who seek to add 20 million people to the ranks of those without health insurance. More generally, the Federal Bureau of Prisons bringing back the death penalty is in the interest of defenders of the status quo, and also of regression.

Every fascist regime understands the rebellious potential of those cast aside by society, and the political expediency of threats, coercion and the use of force. The death penalty is an age-old tool of repression, and its return on the federal level puts it firmly back in the toolbox. This bodes ill not only for the poor and those clinging to the middle class, but for society as a whole: Experience shows that vulnerable populations are often a testing ground for policies and practices that are later applied more broadly, especially to those who dissent against the status quo.

The problem is deeper than the Federal Bureau of Prisons bringing the death penalty back. The death penalty’s return is a symptom of the extreme inequality that actually signifies the transfer of economic and political power to a handful of elites who inevitably use it to further their own self-interest, as demonstrated in various countries around the world. The death penalty is not just inhumane and a violation of human rights; it also threatens and undermines democracy, and is a portent of more repression to come.

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