06/26/2006 12:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Is Cruel and Unusual Getting Crueler?

I celebrated inwardly when it was revealed that a single hold-out juror prevented the so-called twentieth hijacker from 9/11, Zacarias Moussaoui, from receiving the death penalty. This juror gave no reason, but I hope it was conscience pure and simple. The U.S. has isolated itself among First World countries by allowing the death penalty -- 123 countries have abolished it completely, or in practice never use it, a few permitting it under extreme circumstances. Of the 50 countries that newly abolished the death penalty since 1985, only 4 have reinstated it. Why aren't more people chilled by the fact that in 2004, 97% of executions took place in China, Iran, Viet Nam, and the U.S.?

Execution amounts to cruel and unusual punishment by the world's prevailing standards. A current case before the Supreme Court is testing that proposition here. Yet somehow the American public feels undisturbed by this issue. Few if any politicians dare to run on the wrong side. In this case "wrong" means humane and rational. Why do we kill criminals? The right wing surely can't hide behind morality, unless they want to warp Jesus into an eye-for-an-eye advocate.

No, the death penalty is almost entirely irrational. It has little if any deterrent effect. Tragic mistakes have been made in its application. The very fact that inmates must wait on death row for years, even decades, is cruel enough. How many times do they die in their own minds before the actual event?

The landscape of cruelty in America has become more and more disturbing recently. Guantanamo is a global disgrace, yet one hears feeble outcries over it here, especially in Congress. Abu Ghraib has led to minimal repercussions, and rumors of CIA torture centers in Eastern Europe sound all too plausible. The fact that the tide of cruelty has crept up gradually is no excuse.

Having escaped death, Moussaoui now faces doing time in a "super max" prison in Florence, Colorado, where Terry Nichols (co-conspirator with Timothy McVeigh) and Ted Kaczynski (the Unibomber) already endure conditions that frequently induce psychosis. A super max prison is an antiseptic hell where inmates sit in isolation for 23 hours a day, being allowed out of their cells for only an hour's exercise. They have no human contact, no television, no library except for a collection of law books (access to legal information is mandated by the courts). In some of these facilities, which have grown extremely popular in recent decades, the cells are lit up 24 hours a day under surveillance cameras.

Under what possible moral scheme can a civilized country consider this anything but barbaric? Our prisons are called penitentiaries (from the root word 'penance') because over two hundred years ago it was felt that an enlightened society must move beyond Old Testament revenge for wrong-doing. Now we have slipped back across that moral boundary, and the saddest thing, in this boom time for building more prisons, locking away more non-violent criminals, and handing down maximum sentences, is that we have learned to condone cruelty almost as if it didn't exist. As if it was a good thing.