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An Encouraging Bump in the Road to Death Penalty Abolition

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I'm not a huge fan of quoting kids' political analyses. Most major policy issues are more complicated than the naive and innocent elementary school mind. Most, but not all.

So far, every four years in my 10-year-old daughter's life, the people of the United States elect an inspiring African-American president, and the people of California deliver a demoralizing blow with respect to a marker of our progress as a civilized society. It makes for some confusing post-election emotional sorting.

Four years ago, we celebrated Obama's victory but, as Proposition 8 narrowly prevailed, my then-six-year-old couldn't understand why "women can't marry women and men can't marry men." Last night, we cheered Obama's reelection, but she was incredulous about the loss of Proposition 34, which would have abolished the death penalty in the state with the largest death row. "Don't they know what they are killing people for doing?" she asked (having recently discovered sarcasm).

She's right, of course, on both counts. You don't have to be smarter than a fifth grader to understand why it is wrong to deny someone the right to marry the partner of his or her choice. And whether we ought to kill people who kill people is controversial, sure, but not all that complicated. The rest of the Western world has figured it out.

When the moral clarity of a child's mind accounts for all the pragmatic concerns we adults can generate, the resolution is a foregone conclusion. The only question is timing.

Consider that it was less than a decade ago that nationwide hostility to gay marriage was blamed for John Kerry's defeat to George Bush. Last night, voters in three states legalized gay marriage, Wisconsin elected the nation's first openly gay senator and we re-elected the first president to endorse gay marriage. These victories would have been unthinkable in 2004.

But let's not say it is unthinkable today, in 2012, to envision similar victories in the fight against the death penalty. Prop 34 moved the conversation light years ahead in this state, and it lost by a narrow margin. When we finally abolish the death penalty, in California, and in every state, we will look back at this defeat as a bump in the long road. (By the way, bumps don't set you back, they move you forward; you have to go over them on your way to your destination.) It's a long road, but one that is coming to an end.

I look forward to celebrating with my kids when we get there.