Morally inadmissible



The death penalty made a bid for life near the end of the last session in the Iowa Legislature. It cleared a Senate subcommittee but was not added to the debate calendar by leadership because of troubles in the House. Capital punishment makes a bid every year, at least since 1997, as Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, keeps introducing it. Gov. Terry Branstad toyed with the idea years ago, and it remains popular in the Republican caucus. It will come up again. After all, the abolition of the death penalty remains the great legacy of former Gov. Harold Hughes, D-Ida Grove. Iowa just buried Gov. Bob Ray, R-Des Moines, who was an ardent opponent.

Two lobbies, mainly, have kept it from coming back: the Catholics and the Methodists, with big assists from other Christian faiths at the Capitol. But the Republican Party continues to promote capital punishment for the most heinous crimes, and people from those churches appear to be going along with it because of what they perceive to be fuzzy doctrine on the matter.

Comes now Pope Francis last week to declare capital punishment “morally inadmissible.” The new Catholic catechism will say it is so. It is folded into the same seamless garment that opposes abortion in the same grave terms. “It is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel, because a decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and of whom, in the last analysis, only God can be the true judge and guarantor,” Pope Francis said.

The pope has pushed the moral quandary in front of Iowa Republicans who insist on bringing it up, year after year, as the rest of the civilized world moves away from an eye-for-an-eye in these new times. Such has been the burden of Catholic Democrats with abortion — how do they answer for their platform in the face of a direct moral challenge?

It gives each an opportunity to move into more secular and less divisive territory for the political debate.

In the case of capital punishment, most serious studies and common sense tell us that it is not a deterrent to a madman opening fire at an innocent. Seeing someone hang may slake a perverse thirst for revenge, but that is not the point of good policy. If it’s revenge you’re after, death comes mercifully compared to a life behind bars at Fort Madison with no possibility of parole. That is the state of Iowa law. You could call that justice, imperfect as it might be.

In the case of abortion, we can appreciate its moral gravity while acknowledging the practical limits of public policy. Do we make a criminal out of the 17-year-old girl from the tiny rural burg where prenatal care isn’t that good and who is scared to death? Do we charge the doctor? Can we agree in a pluralistic society on either question? Do we forbid abortion once the high-tech equipment can detect a heartbeat? When does life begin?

In either, dogma tells the dutiful Republican that capital punishment is wrong in every circumstance and tells the Democrat that abortion is a grave moral evil. We have come to an uneasy stalemate in Iowa for the moment — capital punishment still falls short of majority legislative support, and our fetal heartbeat law probably will be struck down in court. Polls tell us time and again that we are bothered by each issue and can’t quite agree what to do about either. It’s about the best we can do. We should leave it at that, and possibly to the Divine.

It’s way cool

We recommend for your reading a business column by Lee Schafer in last week’s Minneapolis StarTribune featuring a two-day visit to Worthington, Minn., with Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari. The banker wanted to know how immigration was working out. You could have plugged in the words Storm Lake for Worthington: Population has grown from less than 10,000 in 1990 to about 14,000 today and immigrants comprise at least a third of Worthington’s population. Most work in meatpacking.

Kashkari is concerned about rural demographics. “If you do the math, there are three choices. One choice is just accept slower growth. A second choice is to subsidize fertility. Or number three, you can embrace immigration.”

He heard the good and bad about town. “Are we perfect? No,” said banker Greg Ramo. “We have work to do.”

But business is growing. Tara Kraft came from Trinidad and Tobago, using micro-financing to start a bridal shop. Miguel Rivas opened a computer store. Juan Palma is expanding his car dealership. “The language barrier is not as big as it was,” Palma said. “And the culture, we are kind of creating our own, you know?”

We do know. The same exact thing is happening in Storm Lake. We stood in line with brown and black and white folks at La Juanita’s waiting for a Sunday evening enchilada. The owner has sold enough of them through sheer hard work to buy a farm with horses. The diners all were under age 50 but for us, likewise the crew. It had a feel to it that you simply do not feel in rural Iowa or southern Minnesota very often. Forgive us for saying that it felt cool. The woman behind the cash register was hollering at the cooks in Spanish and the diners in Spanglish or English and shoving trays to the fore, smiling the entire time. Little children chased around on the sidewalk along Lake Avenue. The Fed president would like that.