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GARDEN STATE
December 17, 2007
 
Most people don't know that New Jersey is a lovely place, in many ways --they drive past the oil refineries on their way from the airport, and they think they've seen the state. Or they watch "The Sopranos" and think they've met its citizens. This is like saying you know Manhattan because you've been to the Port Authority, or that you know Florida because once you went to Disney World.

The oil refineries are real. But so are the beautiful 18th-century houses throughout the western part of the state, hundreds of them, their old wooden doors opening right onto the road. So are the horse farms in Colts Neck, and the apple orchards there. So is the Atlantic Highlands, with a twin lighthouse keeping watch over the sea. So is Cape May, with its Victorian "painted ladies," each house more gaily painted than the last. And the beautiful Delaware Water Gap, on the border with Pennsylvania, and the old canals leading to it.

And, today, so is one more thing: today New Jersey will become the first state in the union to repeal its death penalty. Capital punishment never became the popular indoor sport here it has become in some states -- we have not used it since it was reinstated in the state in 1982 -- but we do have 13 people on death row, some of whom have exhausted their appeals. When Governor Corzine signs the repeal today, their sentences will be changed to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The ongoing presence of capital punishment in the United States is a national disgrace. Other developed countries eliminated it long ago, and simply cannot understand why we have not. We share the dubious distinction of having retained the death penalty with some countries over who we usually trumpet our moral superiority: Cuba, Libya, Uzbekistan,Uganda, North Korea, Iran. Study after study has shown that it does not deter crime in the least or reduce the murder rate in the slightest. And yet almost every American politician since the 1970s has known that s/he'd better affirm it if s/he wanted to be elected.

And that is changing. Some sanity, and a measure of political courage, are returning to our public discourse on this issue. Other states are contemplating following New Jersey's lead: repeals are making their way through the legislatures in Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico. Thanks be to God.

Everyone knows what it is to have a thirst for vengeance. We all thirst for it when we hear of an especially heinous crime, and sometimes we surprise ourselves by our graphic imaginings of what we'd like done to the perpetrator. An eye for an eye, we tell each other firmly, as if it were commanded in the Bible. It is mentioned there, of course: but its bloodthirsty balance is specifically rejected by Jesus. My thirst for vengeance may be real, but nobody could say that it represents me at my moral best: it is among my baser instincts. It has no business being enshrined in law.

New Jersey's nickname is "The Garden State." People who haven't seen our gardens snicker at that, but we know better. God first set humankind in a garden, the story goes, a place in which there was no death. We don't live there any more, but the whole of the moral and spiritual life is an attempt to restore what we break when we turn away from goodness. Today we have turned back in its direction.
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The city of Rome will light up the Coliseum, which has become an international symbol of capital punishment this evening, when New Jersey repeals its death penalty. Rome's Colosseum, once the arena for deadly gladiator combat and executions, has become a symbol of the fight against capital punishment. Since 1999, the first century monument has been bathed in golden light every time a death sentence is commuted somewhere in the world or a country abolishes capital punishment. -AP
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