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Death and Sunshine: Across the American South, a Culture of Death Dominates
Where many pro-life hardliners rule, death is an ever-present reality
The American South is the heartland of America’s pro-life movement. And yet, across my region, policy failures, poor medical care, and a slavish devotion to unrestricted gun rights has made the South a place all too familiar with death.
In Florida, anger over the jury’s failure to award the death penalty in the case of Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz has helped propel a move to reform the legal system that makes it easier for future juries to hand down execution sentences. Last week, the Florida legislature passed a measure reducing the requirement for the death penalty from a unanimous jury vote to an 8-4 one. When Governor Ron DeSantis signs the bill, as he is expected to do, Florida will become only the fourth death penalty state to allow executions without unanimous consent from a jury.
I am personally opposed to the death penalty. Executions, along with many other aspects of our criminal justice system, do not belong in a society based on human freedom and dignity. But where the death penalty is applied, the threshold standards for a death sentence should be as rigorous and difficult to meet as possible. Few things are as serious as the authorization of lethal force by the state against its citizens.
The Florida reform stands somewhat in contrast to Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s declaration that he hopes to pardon Daniel Perry, who was recently convicted of the murder of an Austin protestor. Abbott wasted little time after the conviction to tweet his desire for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to give him a pardon recommendation.
Abbott has a strong track record of resisting calls to pardon convicted felons in Texas. So his move to pardon Perry is glaringly out of step with his usual policy. As one attorney not affiliated with the case put it, “You are more likely to be struck by lightning or win the Texas lottery than to receive a pardon from Governor Abbott.” And the details of the case make this particular move all the more shocking.
Perry’s own words about the protestors and his repeated expressions of homicidal contempt for Black Lives Matter activists are grotesque. Perry coldly discussed whether killing a protestor would be legally defensible under Texas stand your ground laws. In one of his most unsettling messages, the Army veteran said, “My life is full of violence I have killed people and seen people die in my life the key is to not bring work home and no regrets.” Perry’s desire to harm his political opponents and deeply felt racial animus were made clear over and over. Mercifully, a jury of his peers agreed that Perry’s actions did in fact constitute murder, so they convicted him.
Governor Abbott pardoning Perry wouldn’t merely subvert justice—it would sanction a murder. I do not see a cleaner way to put it. If Abbott goes through with it, the message that it is ok to kill another person in Texas so long as the politics and identity of the person you kill are of a certain sort will be hard to deny. Under the right circumstances, you can kill them where they stand, and you will be celebrated. The most powerful elected official in the state will even have your back.
Meanwhile, in Florida, those in power are sending another message: more convicts need to be executed. Not enough people in the state of Florida are being sentenced to death, apparently, so the powers that be want to ensure juries can more easily hand down the most decisive and final punishment we have.
Both cases display a chilling attitude toward the taking of a life. When you put them together, they reduce the seriousness of killing and suggest that, for both the state and people with the right politics in society, executing those we want to see dead should be easier than it currently is.
Law and Order or Lawlessness
Amidst all this, it’s important to note that violent crime is a real problem. And it is worse across much of the South. Year over year, states like Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee consistently rank in or near the top 10 according to CDC homicide mortality rate data.
This, in part, is why the widespread implementation of permitless carry laws is so senseless. In fact, the Arkansas House advanced such a bill on an 81-11 vote just after the Nashville shooting. Florida took similar steps, with DeSantis signing permitless carry into law there on April 3.
Permitless carry is the sanctioning of rank lawlessness. There is no practical justification for removing the permit process for concealed carry, and there isn’t a public mandate either. In fact, even in states like Florida, permitless carry is widely unpopular, with one recent survey showing 77 percent of Floridians opposed the move.
The insistence of many permitless carry advocates referring to it as “constitutional carry” is preposterous. There is no clear right to such an unregulated approach to individual gun rights in America’s founding document. But I am reminded of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s declaration that the Constitution was “a covenant with death” when it came to the way he saw racial injustice and slavery as part of its very fabric. Today, of course, it enshrines the freedoms and citizenship of people from all backgrounds and walks of life. But were I to accept the ludicrous premise that the Constitution does in fact endow each an every American the right to stalk their communities armed to the teeth, with no processes in place to assess their competencies or fitness, such a document would be the greatest deal death ever struck.
Where Birth Brings Death
In my home state of Arkansas, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the state’s Republican supermajority recently passed a law calling for the construction of a privately-funded monument to unborn children in Little Rock. Republican State Rep. Mary Bentley explained her support for the monument by saying, “It was a holocaust in this nation. … And we forgot how precious human life is. And life won.” Her love for human life notwithstanding, in 2021, Bentley took to the floor of the Arkansas House to call trans people “abominations” by way of quoting Deuteronomy.
Raising a monument to the unborn in one of America’s worst states for both maternal and infant mortality is a bit of an uneasy contradiction. Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that, for the 2018-2020 period, Arkansas led the nation in maternal deaths per 100,000 births. And it was the only state to clear 40 deaths per 100,000 in that period.
Moreover, it’s in Arkansas’s poorest and blackest regions that things tend to be the worst. Thirty-seven of its 75 counties are “maternity care deserts,” and the heavily black and rural counties of the Mississippi Delta region of eastern Arkansas fare especially poorly. In terms of infant mortality, Arkansas ranked as the third worst according to CDC data for 2020, and it has also consistently ranked among the 10 worst states in past data sets.
Abortion is now almost totally banned in Arkansas, with an emergency to save the woman’s life being the only legal exception. In reality, this will only increase the risks of childbirth in a state that is unable to provide all of its population with the necessary care for safe and healthy births to begin with. As for the children who are born and grow up here, many of them face difficult outlooks. Arkansas ranks in the bottom 10 for child well-being according to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which looked at a wide range of health and quality of life indicators.
I am at a loss to see how life has won in my state. Death visits too many newborns and new mothers, especially in the delta counties and southern gulf plain. And things are far too hard for the living across the state. Nevertheless, the Arkansas House has elected not to take up a bill, filed in November by Republican Rep. Aaron Pilkington, which would ensure Medicaid coverage for new mothers for up to 12 months. Who will build their monument?
Culture of Death
This weekend, political activist and MSNBC contributor Brittany Packnett Cunningham forcefully criticized South Carolina Senator Tim Scott’s declaration that he “supports the culture of life,” saying, “I really want him to put his policy where his mouth is.” I could not agree more.
And criticisms of this failure of so-called pro-lifers to promote a politics that promotes and preserves human life have come from the center-right as well. Charlie Sykes has written eloquently on this issue, arguing on abortion that “[O]ver time, I … came to believe that the movement’s focus needed to shift from coercive legislation to addressing the fundamental choice that women had to make under often harrowing circumstances.”
On guns, Sykes and other centrist conservatives have been equally clear, observing the intensity of the right’s commitment to unfettered access to weapons of war. There’s simply no way to square a personal and policy commitment to “life” with such an anarcho-Ramboist approach to the Second Amendment.
The American South performs poorly when it comes to homicide rates. We perform poorly when it comes to maternal and infant mortality. We perform poorly when it comes to life expectancy. We do, however, excel at executions.
What I see across the strongholds of the hard right in the South is not a culture of life. It’s a love of power and force, a culture of total freedom to wield destructive weapons of war while the state exercises selective authority to pardon and kill. When Daniel Perry said that his life was “full of violence,” that statement didn’t necessarily have to refer to Perry being a combat veteran. Because every day across the South, so many of us experience it as a fact of life. We wake up to death and sunshine.