A lot of ink has been spilled over NBC’s Brian Williams’ question to Rick Perry regarding the death penalty, the Republican candidates debate audience’s strange reaction to it, and Perry’s response. Conservatives see Williams’ question—“Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?”—as a loaded query by a biased questioner who is pressing the progressive anti-death penalty agenda. Liberals see Perry’s answer as proof-positive that he is an unthinking, unfeeling, blood-thirsty monster.
Perry answered Williams this way:
“No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which — when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required. But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.”
The question and the answer tell us less about the death penalty than they do about leadership and the failure of most non-leaders to understand it. I don’t know what Williams’ question was intended to elicit. Whatever his intention, it was a provocative way to explore Perry’s leadership style, and that is a legitimate goal for any debate questioner.
Empathy is considered an ethical virtue for good reason: it is at the core of the Golden Rule. A person without empathy is less likely to put himself or herself in the other person’s place. The criminal justice process, however, is not a good fit for the Golden Rule. In the place of a guilty criminal, I would still probably want to be pardoned, set free, and given a second—or third, or fourth—chance to be law-abiding. We want our leaders to have the ability to empathize, but the justice system isn’t the best place to put empathy to the test. If Williams was trying to get Perry to assert an instinct that most Americans find humanizing and attractive, he picked the wrong context to attempt it. No, Perry said, in effect, I don’t empathize with murderers.
Williams’ question is more useful if is interpreted in a broader sense. What role do emotions play in your decision-making, Governor Perry? If this was the question, Perry’s answer was a good one, even though the likes of blogger Andrew Sullivan found it horrifying. Effective leaders often are not inclined to lose sleep over a decision. Leaders who lose sleep over decisions with life and death consequences tend to be vacillating and weak leaders. The time to lose sleep is before a decision, and then, once it is made, commit to it and move on. Anxiety over whether a decision was correct is pointless and expends time and energy—and sleep—that a leader can better use for the next challenge.
Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to go ahead with the D-Day invasion despite terrible weather conditions, and Harry Truman’s decision to drop the atom bomb on Japan were two momentous decisions that ordinary human beings, like Brian Williams or Barack Obama, might have deliberated about indefinitely. Decisions, however, had to be made. In the case of the Normandy invasion, being wrong meant that Eisenhower had lost the war. For Truman, making the wrong decision meant that he was murdering innocent civilians. Both men later wrote that having made their calls, they did not second-guess themselves. That is the proper leadership mindset. A leader assesses the options, makes the best decision in his or her judgment in a timely fashion, and accepts accountability for the results. There should be no remorse for making a decision that turns out to be wrong, only for making a decision as the result of sloppy thinking, insufficient data, bias or emotion.
Williams, I suspect, as well as the majority of Americans who have never had to make a decision affecting the lives of others, don’t comprehend this. Neither do ineffective leaders. A decision that turns out to be correct is “good” and a decision that doesn’t work out is “bad.” A leader who thinks like this is likely to be petrified of taking action, because when lives are at stake, it is very, very rare to have perfect information and the certainty of a correct choice. Perry’s response to Williams stated that he trusts the justice system to make a correct assessment of a murderer’s guilt, and accepts responsibility for carrying out the sentence. That is a leader’s response, not a monster’s.
Opponents of the death penalty would require 100% certainty before a convicted killer could be executed, because they know 100% certainty is virtually impossible. That standard applied to any defendant accused of any crime would ensure a lawless United States. A more nuanced response from Perry, or any death penalty advocate, would be something like this:
“I know that the justice system isn’t perfect, and that it is inevitable that a citizen will sometimes be wrongly convicted of a crime, including murder. This is always a tragedy and a failure of the system, and we need to strive to make sure that this happens as rarely as possible. But if we insist on perfection before enforcing our laws, our laws will never be enforced. In the case of death penalty cases, the tragedy of a miscarriage of justice is magnified; nonetheless, an ultimate penalty for the worst offenses against society and humanity is necessary for society’s standards and values to be clear: there is a point at which a citizen forfeits the right to live among civilized people. The rare case of a wrongly executed individual is one of the terrible prices we must pay for upholding those standards. As a governor, I must not and will not send a prisoner to death unless I am convinced that the system has worked and that justice will be done, but once I make that determination, no—I will not lose sleep over my decision. And if it is shown later that I am wrong, like the system I am part of, I will devote myself to determining how I can do my job better in the future, while taking full responsibility for the consequences of my action.”
Perry’s actual answer, however, wasn’t bad. It would have been better if he acknowledged the obvious: sometimes innocent defendants get convicted.