A Turkey Of An Op-Ed

We don’t spend a lot of time deconstructing liberal op-ed columns, for a number of reasons. Mostly, life is too short. But every now and then there is enough entertainment value to warrant sharing a liberal turkey with our readers. Like this one in the New York Times, by Justin Smith. Smith’s column is in “The Stone,” “a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.” Titled “Cruel and Unusual: A President’s ‘Pardon’ as Dark Parody,” the op-ed attacks the Thanksgiving custom of the president “pardoning” a turkey. Seriously:

In just a few days, we will once again endure the annual spectacle of the president of the United States pardoning a turkey that would otherwise have been fated for the Thanksgiving table. This event is typically covered in the media as a light-hearted bit of fluff — and fluff is what it might well be, if there were not actual humans on death row awaiting similar intervention.

Yes, but…most of us are actually able to tell the difference between turkeys and people.

I am not saying that this slaughter of birds for food is wrong ― not here anyway ― but only that the parallel the presidential ritual invites us to notice is revealing.

We look forward to the column where Mr. Smith explains why eating turkeys is wrong. Not sure how much he knows about turkeys, but most of us would say that being eaten is their highest and best use.

It also involves an implicit validation of the parallel practice for human beings, in which the occasional death-row inmate is pardoned, or given a stay by the hidden reasoning of an increasingly capricious Supreme Court, even as the majority of condemned prisoners are not so lucky. In this respect, the Thanksgiving pardon is an acknowledgment of the arbitrariness of the system of capital punishment.

We non-philosophers might note that the “parallel process for human beings” isn’t quite as arbitrary as the president’s selection of a turkey, involving, as it does, years of appeals in various courts and sometimes–as Mr. Smith notes–serious consideration of a real pardon, not a fake one, by a chief executive.

The rest of the column is a conventional denunciation of capital punishment. Still, there are some interesting moments:

[W]e may acknowledge that some people almost certainly do deserve to die. But for better or for worse, there simply is no person or body that can be entrusted with the grave responsibility of killing them.

This is a point with which I have some sympathy. Similarly, someone has to decide how to spend the money that is raised from our citizenry in taxes, but “there simply is no person or body that can be entrusted with [that] grave responsibility.” This is, some would say, the central problem of our democracy. Still, capital punishment is rare to the point of being almost non-existent, while wasteful spending is ubiquitous. I, for one, have a lot more confidence in the people who make decisions on capital punishment–trial judges, juries, appellate judges and governors–than the people who make decisions on taxes and spending–Congressmen, Senators and presidents. Maybe we should start a new custom: each year, the president “pardons” one taxpayer, who is excused from his income taxes for that year.


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