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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

300M U.S. Allies May Be Right on Executions

Most Frenchmen, as most Europeans, admire America. They admire what we do, what we stand for and what we have done for them twice in the 20th century. France considers itself, together with the United States, the source of human rights and modern democracy.

However, this moral leadership is under challenge now because of two issues: the death penalty and violence in our society. During my nearly four years in France, no single issue evoked as much passion and as much protest as executions in the United States.

The United States is seen as executing people who have not had appropriate legal assistance, people who may be innocent, people who are mentally retarded as well as minors. We are viewed as executing disproportionate numbers of minorities and poor people, and there is no compelling statistical evidence that the death penalty is a greater deterrent to potential criminals than other forms of punishment.

When Governor George Ryan of Illinois, a Republican who supported the death penalty, announced a moratorium on executions in his state, I decided I had to rethink the issue. It was Ryan's moratorium, together with repeated reports about incompetent legal representation, that made me take this issue more seriously.

And it was sustained exposure to this issue in Europe, in interviews, in Q&As at universities or just in social encounters, that brought me around to supporting a moratorium while we review the whole issue of capital punishment.

Neither we nor our European allies can be proud of our criminal justice systems. The Europeans have a mandatory release system that returns the most odious criminals to the street after a maximum of 20 to 30 years, which I could not support, while we sometimes execute the wrong people and turn our jails into graduate schools for crime, which is no better.

This is a hard issue, but crime and punishment are hard issues. But some 300 million of our closest allies think capital punishment is cruel and unusual, and it might be worthwhile to give it some further thought.

The death penalty, guns, violence in society, these cast a large cloud on America's moral leadership. I believe it would be worth having a dialogue on these difficult subjects with our Atlantic allies — not by diplomats but by jurists and legislators and chiefs of police. At a time when our military, economic and political power, our so-called "hegemony," is a source of concern to many of our allies, it is important that our moral leadership be sustained.

Felix Rohatyn was ambassador to France from 1997 to 2000. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.