“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
So wrote John Adams in 1798. “We have no Government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion,” he observed. “Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.”
Adams feared the arrival of the day when Americans “become capable of that deep simulation towards one another and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation while it is practicing iniquity and extravagance; and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candor, frankness and sincerity while it is rioting in rapine and insolence.” On that day, he warned, “this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world.”
Has that day arrived? “Iniquity and extravagance” we see in abundance all around us. “Rapine and insolence,” too, quite a lot of it—all cloaked in “the language of justice and moderation.” That’s how Joe Biden’s America looks to me, anyhow.
And yet I am not miserable, nor are the people around me.
Perhaps that’s because I had the good luck not to be in the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York, last Saturday. Ten people died there that day because a white supremacist—for once, the epithet needs no scare quotes—decided to kill them. Three more people were wounded by the murderer, and his “manifesto” indicates he intended to go on to kill even more people elsewhere, had he not been caught then and there.
What the manifesto does not indicate on the shooter’s part is any interest in morality and religion, and certainly not any concern for the misery he chose to inflict on as many victims as possible. Morality, religion, and concern for others are absent also from the other mass shootings that plagued us over the weekend: the gunplay Friday after a basketball game in Milwaukee that wounded 21 people, and the attack Sunday on congregants in a Presbyterian Church in Southern California that killed one and wounded five.
That’s not to mention the 12 killed and 70 wounded in other mass shootings, coast to coast, in the seven days prior to Sunday’s attack, nor the countless victims of shootings, stabbings, beatings and other assaults whose body count doesn’t qualify them for the “mass” designation. Those people, together with their friends, families and neighbors, all now know how quickly happiness can be reduced to misery by “human passions” run amok.
Instead of shopping for groceries in Buffalo, I was attending Saturday’s Trump rally in Austin. There I listened as Donald Trump made mention of what had just happened: “They had a tragic event in Buffalo, just as I’m coming on the stage, tragic event in Buffalo with numerous people being killed.” Trump inserted this into a favorable comparison of his performance in office with that of his snakebit successor, a lengthy brag which included enough exaggeration to prompt this headline from Business Insider: “Trump uses Buffalo mass shooting to make misleading boast about lack of US deaths in Afghanistan during his presidency.”
Trump’s reference to Buffalo was obviously an impromptu interpolation, unlike the more deliberate, and all too predictable, uses to which the massacre is being put by others:
“MSNBC host compares Buffalo supermarket shooter to Kyle Rittenhouse.”
CNN: “Liz Cheney just called out her fellow Republicans over the Buffalo shooting.”
The New Republic: “The Buffalo Shooting Is the Latest White Rage Backlash, Brought to You by the GOP.”
The New York Times: “The Buffalo Massacre: A Deadly Mix of Racism and Guns.”
The New Yorker: “American Racism and the Buffalo Shooting.”
Politico: “After Buffalo, Murphy renews plea for more gun control measures.”
Rolling Stone: “The Buffalo Shooter Isn’t a ‘Lone Wolf.’ He’s a Mainstream Republican.”
The Washington Post: “Buffalo shooting shines light on Congressional inaction, GOP rhetoric.”
All too predictable, and, to me at least, not very persuasive. More to my liking is this from Charles Fain Lehman in City Journal:
Our response to the Buffalo mass shooting should be that a monster committed a heinous and indefensible act, and that justice demands we hold him to final account. Try him, convict him, and put him to death.
Doing so would acknowledge the basic mandates of morality. Certain offenses are so reprehensible as to be unforgivable. To fail to answer a vicious, hate-motivated rampage with anything but death is to deny the requirements of retribution.
Lehman acknowledges that “capital punishment is, for no particularly good reason, inoperative in New York State,” but he notes that the shooter can be charged “under federal hate-crime and homicide laws carrying a possible penalty of death, . . . If Merrick Garland’s Department of Justice is really serious about combating hate crimes, then it will proceed accordingly.”
And there’s also this:
Two Republican candidates for governor on Sunday called for a return to the death penalty in New York following [Saturday’s mass shooting]. U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin and former Trump administration aide Andrew Giuliani backed what would amount to a reinstatement of capital punishment in New York, which last executed a person in 1963. It’s a potential revival of what has in the past been a galvanizing campaign issue for Republicans in New York, including the last successful unseating of a Democrat nearly 30 years ago.
That would be when George Pataki ejected Mario Cuomo from his perch in Albany in 1994, a feat that made Pataki my preferred candidate when the presidential primaries began in 2016.
Like Pataki, Donald Trump supports the death penalty. I wish he had elaborated on that in his Austin speech, as he has often done before. For example, after someone shot up a Maryland newspaper office in 2018, Trump said:
Journalists, like all Americans, should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their jobs. To the families of the victims there are no words to express our sorrow for your loss. Horrible, horrible event. Horrible thing happened. When you’re suffering, we pledge our eternal support. The suffering is so great, I’ve seen some of the people, so great. My government will not rest until we have done everything in our power to reduce violent crime and to protect innocent life.
And when someone shot up a synagogue in Pennsylvania, he said this:
It’s a terrible, terrible thing what’s going on with hate in our country, frankly, and all over the world. And something has to be done. . . . We should stiffen up our laws in terms of the death penalty. When people do this, they should get the death penalty, and they shouldn’t have to wait years and years.
And when you have crimes like this, whether it’s this one or another one on another group, we have to bring back the death penalty. They have to pay the ultimate price. They have to pay the ultimate price. They can’t do this. They can’t do this to our country. We must draw a line in the sand and say very strongly: Never again.
The sad thing is that Trump’s rhetoric, heartfelt as it was, ultimately had no effect on public policy. On his first day in office, after taking the presidential oath, he declared, “This American carnage stops right here, and stops right now.” But the criminals who create the carnage, the ones who have been killing us by the tens of thousands year after year, weren’t paying attention that day. And in the four years of his presidency, Trump never found a way to make those criminals pay attention, or at least to make them pay. Who paid instead? He did, and we did.
I complained at the time about this lack of follow through:
His comments generally have been vague and emotional, as if he were merely venting—the sort of thing you’d hear from the garrulous guy at the end of the bar. To make the most of this issue, he should get much more specific, more focused on what needs to be done, what obstacles must be overcome, and how it all can help us.
And when the dust of the disputed 2020 election had settled, I summed things up, recalling that with Trump’s inauguration,
I began to hope that conservatives’ neglect of crime might at last be ending. Sadly, that turned out not to be the case. Even with Trump talking a good game about crime, he—and we—failed to follow through on it. So we lost the House in 2018, the White House in 2020, and the Senate this year. Other problems contributed to those setbacks, of course, but success in crushing crime would have overwhelmed them all.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda. Here we are, back where we were so many years ago, with liberals in power pushing gun control, and conservatives in opposition playing defense.
But what does any of this have to do with restoring “morality and religion” to American public life? Certainly, such restoration must rely more on individual repentance—on the faith, hope and love that God’s grace may stir in each of us—than on any change in public policy. But regarding public policy itself, some still might ask: Why expect capital punishment to have any more restorative effect than what would result from the nostrums of the left-wingers cited above?
For answers to that, I invite readers to look through my American Greatness archive. There you’ll find the evidence for the death penalty’s deterrent effect. You’ll see its compatibility with Christianity and with the Constitution. You’ll discover how many of the heroes of civilization, from St. Augustine to Henry Fielding to C. S. Lewis to Will Rogers to Theodore Roosevelt, favored it as well. Among the rest was New York Mayor Ed Koch, who wrote that capital punishment
has been upheld by philosophers throughout history. The greatest thinkers of the nineteenth century—Kant, Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Mill agreed that natural law properly authorizes the sovereign to take life in order to vindicate justice. Only Jeremy Bentham was ambivalent. Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin endorsed it. Abraham Lincoln authorized executions for deserters in wartime. Alexis de Tocqueville, who expressed profound respect for American institutions, believed that the death penalty was indispensable to the support of social order.
Click on those links, and then see if you still think capital punishment has no role to play in ending the “rapine and insolence” of the present day.
On top of it all, some two-thirds of Americans have long favored imposing death for murder. Yet our liberal elite are passionately against it, and our conservative elite have no stomach for it. The resulting inaction has brought us to where we are today.
Caught between the wrong-headed and the soft-hearted, our country has stumbled into a shambles. Widespread rioting and lawlessness, surging murder rates in cities across the country, and the demonization, demoralization, and depletion of the police—all driven by left-wing ideologues in office and on the streets—make it much harder to be complacent about criminal violence now, as so many of us were a few short years ago. Are we ready, at long last, to wage a true war on crime?