It is somewhat startling to realize that in this election year, New Yorkers, who like to think of themselves as a fairly enlightened, educated and ethical bunch, nevertheless are faced with four major candidates-George W. Bush, Al Gore, Rick Lazio and Hillary Clinton-who favor the death penalty. The political calculations that went into each candidate’s pro–death penalty stance are not difficult to understand. A majority of Americans favor this barbaric solution. The harsh truth remains that most New Yorkers will be pulling the lever in November for candidates who will use the power of the Presidency or the Senate to support the death penalty in this country.
Fortunately there are sane voices to temper this unseemly trend toward blind vengeance. On July 30, the president of the National Urban League, Hugh Price, gave a powerful speech at the league’s headquarters on Wall Street in which he argued that judges and juries should have to prove a higher standard of guilt when it comes to death penalty cases. Rather than concluding a defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” Mr. Price said, juries and judges should not be allowed to sentence a man or woman to die unless they conclude the defendant is guilty without a trace of doubt in their minds. This is an excellent idea, for only a naïve fool would believe that mistakes are never made and that innocent people have not been put to death. Mr. Price stated the essential point: The death penalty is “barbaric.” And it has never been shown to be a deterrent to crime.
This country’s ongoing fondness for what is truly a medieval punishment defies rational explanation. And what of the paradox that the death penalty’s most vocal fans are members of the religious right, people who have apparently relegated the Biblical command “Thou shalt not kill” to a footnote? Unfortunately, none of the candidates who are asking to represent New York in the Senate or the White House appears to have the moral courage-or the common sense-to stand up to America’s worst instincts.
While New York City’s economic boom has acted like a magnet for corporations, college grads and out-of-town Senate candidates, it has also exerted a compelling pull on immigrants from every time zone in the world. New figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that New York is in the midst of the largest immigrant wave since 1910, a vast influx that will transform the city in ways too profound to imagine. According to the bureau, a full 40 percent of New York City residents today were born outside this country; that’s up from 28 percent in 1990. The ever-eloquent Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan captured the meaning of these new numbers best when he told The New York Times , “Boy, that is some number. Wow! Wow!”
Wow, indeed. Ever since the Dutch settled at the tip of Manhattan in the village of New Amsterdam, immigrants have been how New York City renews and rejuvenates itself. During the 19th century, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany and eastern Europe came to the city to escape pogroms, famines and tyranny. And the resulting political, cultural, intellectual, financial and culinary contributions of these communities were a prime factor in making New York the world’s greatest city. And since the immigration laws were modified in 1965, New York has benefited from immigrants from the Caribbean, Asia, Central and South America and Africa. They are responsible for the renewal of neighborhoods across the city, such as the Russian Jewish community in Brighton Beach, the Dominicans in Washington Heights, the Ecuadorians and Colombians in Queens. The city now has three Chinatowns: one in Manhattan, one in Flushing and one in Brooklyn. The number of New Yorkers born in the former Soviet Union has nearly tripled since 1990. The Times reports that 116 languages are now spoken in Queens.
New immigrants have been the backbone of the city’s essential small businesses, operating dry cleaners, pharmacies, green grocers and restaurants. And New York University professor Michael Schill has pointed out that although immigrants may start off with a few setbacks, they usually end up as successful workers who contribute more in local taxes than they consume. It is crucial that the city’s elected leaders do what they can to bring immigrants into the political system, an added benefit being that a diverse political class can help moderate the city’s racial climate.
Meanwhile, it perhaps bears noting that, unless you happen to be a direct descendant of the Lenape (the Native Americans who inhabited New York prior to the arrival of the Dutch), you can count yourself as part of New York’s lucky immigrant family as well.
Many parents send their kids to camp; Bill and Hillary Clinton sent their daughter to Camp David. Apparently wanting to give Chelsea Clinton a real-life political science class, the President invited her to attend several meetings at the recent Middle East peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasir Arafat. The Israelis and Palestinians were reportedly more than a little disconcerted by the young Miss Clinton’s presence. Although Chelsea Clinton is by all accounts an intelligent and lovely young woman, here was yet another example of her parents showing terrible political judgment across the board.
It is hard to fathom why the President would invite a 20-year-old college student, no matter how well-meaning, to sit in on high-wire negotiations of historic importance and act as a sort of minister without portfolio. The White House has said Chelsea was there as “unofficial hostess,” because her mother was busy in New York campaigning for the Senate. But surely Mrs. Clinton could have taken a few days off from fund-raising dinners in the Hamptons and made the trip to Maryland.
The truth is, of course, that if Mrs. Clinton truly cared about Israel, she would have been at Camp David herself.