The Battle of the Boyne and the Laboratory of the States

Former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, now governor of California, heard a still, small voice the other night. The voice said, “Gavin, the intentional killing of another person is wrong.” So His Excellency stepped forth the next day and announced he was taking steps to close every military installation in the state.

Sorry, my mistake. That’s not what the governor did. Never mind that the fundamental purpose of any nation’s armed forces necessarily involves killing people. Never mind that California is full of left-wing nut jobs who would cheer any bid to kick out the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Never mind that several years ago, such types in Puerto Rico succeeded in giving some of our military activities there the heave-ho.

However consistent such a move would have been with Newsom’s insight into the wrongfulness of killing people, it seems the better angels of his nature, or the California Chamber of Commerce, or both, made the idea of denuding America’s West Coast of her military establishments a non-starter with him. California is well on its way to becoming the Puerto Rico of the West anyway. No need to turn the Golden State into the apotheosis of “Get woke, go broke.”

No, what Newsom did was to suspend enforcement of the death penalty in California, indefinitely.

This raises a whole new set of “never minds.”

Never mind that the people of California have repeatedly rejected the abolition of capital punishment. In 1986, they removed state Chief Justice Rose Bird and two other justices for willfully interfering with death penalty enforcement. When the issue was submitted to voters directly, they defeated abolition in 2012 and 2016. In 2016, in fact, Golden State voters approved instead a ballot measure to speed up death penalty enforcement by expediting the appeals process.

Never mind that the still, small voice Newsom found more persuasive than that of his constituents cannot have come from the Lord of Hosts, who prescribes death for murder in both Old and New Testaments. Nor can it have come from any of the Christian luminaries (from Augustine and Aquinas to Luther and Calvin to C.S. Lewis) who have expressed their agreement with that precept.

Nor could that voice have come from Kant, Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesquieu, or Mill, who, as then-New York Mayor Ed Koch pointed out, also endorsed capital punishment. Nor from Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, or Lincoln, who not only endorsed it but, in Washington’s and Lincoln’s case, actually imposed it. Nor from keen observers of the American scene ranging from Ambrose Bierce to Will Rogers to Mike Royko.

John Calvin spoke for them all when he wrote:

If [rulers] sheath their sword and keep their hands unsullied by blood, while the wicked roam about massacring and slaughtering, then so far from reaping praise for their goodness and justice, they make themselves guilty of the greatest possible injustice.

I’ve argued the case against Newsom’s lofty stance many times at American Greatness, and there would be no use in rehashing it now for the governor’s benefit. He wouldn’t notice if I did, not even if I spoke to him in his dreams. Preeners gonna preen, and the one thing Newsom’s inner voice will never, ever tell him is that he is making himself guilty of the greatest possible injustice.

Let’s instead turn from his state to mine.

Driving in San Antonio the other day, I saw a bumper sticker: “Don’t California My Texas.” It was a neat way of voicing the fear among some red-state residents (such as Instapundit Glenn Reynolds of Tennessee) that an influx of refugees from badly governed blue states will have the perverse effect of turning red states blue. Where once you had the deepest part of the Deep South, you now have Florida. (Ecch.)

We Texans have plenty for which we must answer, even without our blue-state newcomers. One such reproach is that we have, and have always had, a high crime rate. But if you think we’re bad now, wait until we turn blue and have someone like Newsom shutting down our death row. Then we’ll really be in a fix.

Texas is “Exhibit A” in death penalty opponents’ argument that capital punishment is a poor deterrent. “Look at Texas,” they’ll say. “That state executes more people than anyone, yet their murder rate is sky high.” Those advocates are, for the most part, not actually dumb enough to suppose that the presence or absence of capital punishment in a state is the only factor that determines its crime rates. But they cite Texas in hopes of thereby duping people into accepting the counterintuitive idea that death does not deter.

In Texas, one salient fact is that the population is more diverse than in, say, Iowa. Sorry, folks. I know it’s impolite to say so, but for whatever reason, black and Hispanic Americans tend to have higher crime rates than non-Hispanic whites do. Many of the non-death row states, like Iowa, are lily white, homogenous, and mainly rural. Others simply have the misfortune of being governed by Democrats. If they can do without capital punishment, good for them. The rest of us aren’t so lucky.

Neither does comparing white and minority crime rates tell the whole story. Just as there are minorities and then there are minorities, there are whites and then there are whites. So, lest you think that, being neither black nor Hispanic, I am patting myself on the head for a good little boy, let me frankly state that my own forebears—mostly Germans, Scots, and Irish—also have a deserved reputation for being a tad obstreperous from time to time.

In America, the most irascible of these are the Scotch-Irish: Scots who had settled in Ireland and later emigrated to America. They cut a wide path across the Appalachian frontier, into Texas and throughout the South. Their exemplar is Andrew Jackson, a duellist who carried in his body a bullet from one fatal fight, a source of constant pain lodged next to his heart. (Jackson is one of three U.S. presidents who survived gunshots to the chest, the others being Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.)

Former U.S. Senator James Webb (D-Va.) has written a book about the Scotch-Irish called Born Fighting. Their dueling ways are examined in Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. Thomas Sowell explored their influence on modern black culture in his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals. The Scotch-Irish are, no doubt, who 1960s radical H. Rap Brown was talking about when he said, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.”

Their legacy is not always a source of pride. During the Mexican War, the cruelty of Scotch-Irish frontiersmen toward civilians earned them the name “diablos Tejanos” among the Mexicans, and it disgusted many of their American officers. The top U.S. commander, General Winfield Scott, called it enough “to make Heaven weep, and every American of Christian morals blush for his country.” And, of course, the Scotch-Irish would later lend one of their words, and many of their sons, to the most notorious terror group in American history: the Ku Klux Klan.

Photo credit: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

A key event in Scotch-Irish history is the Battle of the Boyne, when Protestant forces led by William of Orange defeated Catholics loyal to the deposed King James II. It took place near Drogheda, Ireland, on July 1, 1690, but is commemorated on July 12 due to a subsequent switch to the modern, Gregorian calendar. In Northern Ireland, July 12 festivities continue to this day, with bands parading and big bass drums booming after a night devoted to colossal bonfires that rival any ever built by the Texas Aggies in College Station.

To the Orangemen, it’s like our Independence Day; to their Catholic neighbors, it’s more like Nazis marching through Skokie. Accordingly, the annual parades feature not only children in holiday regalia such as in the picture above but also counter-demonstrators, barricades, riot police, burnt-out vehicles and other mayhem, including even a young woman run over as in Charlottesville. Click this link to see hundreds of July 12 images, each one worth a thousand words.

Now let’s get back to America, where such fractious spirits have room to roam. Here in Texas, there is a small town north of Houston called Cut and Shoot. I used to think it got its name from a strip of country honky-tonks whose frequent brawls provided the young community with its leading local industry. But the real origin is more bizarre: a dispute among churchgoers about whether a certain disreputable preacher would be welcomed at the community meeting house. How’s that for obstreperous?

It all goes to show how culture, even more than demography, makes the Texas murder rate so high. What, then, can capital punishment do against such a force? Actually, quite a lot. Here is where “the laboratory of the states” enters the picture.

The United States underwent a nationwide moratorium on enforcement of the death penalty beginning in 1967 and ending with Utah murderer Gary Gilmore’s voluntary death by firing squad in 1977. Executions remained very rare thereafter, not returning to anything like their pre-moratorium frequency until the mid-1990s.

Also in the mid-1960s, the country was engulfed by an enormous crime wave that has yet to fully recede. The wave crested in the early 1990s, just as the death penalty was starting its partial comeback.

How much of this is mere coincidence, and how much of it is cause and effect? The Texas experience offers a clue.

In 1964, Texas put five criminals to death, its last executions before the moratorium began. Meanwhile, criminals murdered 785 Texans. The Texas murder rate was 7.6 per 100,000 inhabitants, slightly more than half-again higher than the national rate of 4.9 per 100,000.

Late in 1982, Texas carried out its first post-moratorium execution, one of only two that year nationwide. In that year, 2,466 Texans died at murderers’ hands. The state’s murder rate was 16.1 per 100,000, closer to twice the national rate of 9.1 per 100,000 than to half-again higher. So, during the 18-year absence of capital punishment, our position in comparison to the national murder rate had grown worse.

By the mid-’90s, the annual number of executions in Texas had risen to the double digits. In 2000, murderers killed 1,236 Texans and Texas saw a record 40 executions, almost half the 85 carried out nationwide that year.

Wait a couple of years for that high-water mark to have its effect. Then what? Between 1982 and 2002, the nation’s murder rate fell 38 percent. Texas—despised by “progressives” as the execution capital of the nation—beat that trend by a little bit, with its murder rate falling 63 percent, to 6.0 per 100,000, scarcely over 2002’s national rate of 5.6 per 100,000.

This is even more striking when compared to the jurisdictions (at that time, 12 states and the District of Columbia) that had no death penalty. Their murder rate fell only 21 percent.

The Texas death chamber is not nearly as busy now as it was in 2000, and—surprise, surprise—our murder rate is starting to edge up again. But we still have the reputation of being Death Row Central, and here’s the good news: For the past several years, our murder rate has actually been running slightly below the national rate.

Does that prove deterrence? By itself, no. Who knows what other variables are at work? But researchers who’ve taken great pains to factor out those other variables think they’ve seen a deterrent effect—and the point is this: The burden of proof rests not with those who affirm deterrence but with those who deny it. As I put it when discussing this subject two years ago:

If a reasonable possibility exists that executions actually carried out will deter some murders, then the people put at risk by our failure to enforce the death penalty far outnumber the Death Row inmates who are the focus of so much concern among capital punishment’s opponents. The ones put at risk are the hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children who will fall victim to criminal violence tomorrow, next year and on into the future.

The governor of California has just given those innocent men, women, and children the back of his hand. And President Trump should box his ears for it.

This is the hill to die on—or, as General Patton would say, the hill to make the other poor, dumb bastard die on. Mr. President, go to California. Take the side of California’s voters against the vainglorious posturing of their new governor. Make an issue of crime and punishment, especially capital punishment. The Democrats have all gone hard left on the issue, and if you press them, they can’t help but fight you over it. Nor can they avoid losing, bigly.

Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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About Karl Spence

Karl Spence is a retired journalist living in San Antonio. His work has appeared in National Review, the Chattanooga Free Press, American Thinker and at www.fairamendment.us.

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