Cites need for “reconciliation” in opposition to death penalty

The Center for Social Concerns hosted Elizabeth Bruenig, a well-known journalist and opinion writer for The Atlantic, for a lecture on the death penalty on Friday, February 17 in the Eck Visitors Center. The event was titled “Lives Worth Taking?” and was marketed as one of the opening events of Junior Parents Weekend. 

Many parents attended the event, with a noticeably older crowd packing the auditorium than is typical for a campus event. In Bruenig’s talk, these parents, their children, and many others in attendance were treated to a discussion of her personal relationships with death row prisoners and how these experiences have led her to oppose the death penalty in the United States.

The evening conversation began with an introduction of the speaker from Notre Dame Law Professor and Rover Faculty Advisor, Rick Garnett. Garnett highlighted Bruenig’s appeal as a speaker “who doesn’t fit into the categories [in which] we lazily classify people.” Additionally, he pointed to Bruenig’s self-description as someone who is “into the human condition” as another reason why she is such an interesting figure to bring to campus. 

Garnett expanded upon these introductory remarks to the Rover: “I was thinking about the fact that Bruenig is often labeled as ‘progressive’ for her economic-policy views and at the same time is criticized by many progressives for her anti-abortion stance.” This sort of description is one that is often applied to Bruenig, who has been described as part of the “Catholic left” by many commentators throughout her career writing for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic.

He did note that even though “[he] was not thinking about the death penalty specifically” when he spoke of society’s lazy classifications, “[he does] think that our partisan ‘binary’ can obscure the fact that many traditional conservatives are skeptical about the morality and utility of the death penalty.”

After Garnett’s introduction, Bruenig began her lecture by explaining the context of her trip to Notre Dame. She revealed that she was originally supposed to deliver the same lecture a year prior but was forced to cancel and reschedule her appearance due to her attendance at a penal execution on the day before she was set to speak. Although she was disappointed to miss the opportunity to speak last year, she “had made a promise” to the inmate who was being executed, so she could not miss the execution.

After detailing the circumstances of her belated speech, Bruenig started her discussion of “what [she has] learned about the people on death row as [she has] reported on the death penalty.” She first noted how death row inmates are “distinct” from other vulnerable groups in society, such as the unborn or patients pursuing euthanasia, in that no one disputes their personhood and that the state is the one carrying out the termination of life. 

Bruenig classified those condemned to die by the state as “lives worth taking,” a description that fits those on death row, Bruenig asserts, because “we actually make a point to seek out the … most competent, most aware, [and] most healthy people for execution.” She defended this point by citing the fact that those deemed mentally or physically unfit are often withheld from capital punishment. 

In effect, designating death row inmates as “lives worth taking” makes these prisoners equivalent to “lives not worth living,” according to Bruenig. The harshness of such categories led Bruenig to the realization that “none of this has to remain in the abstract” and her decision to report in depth on the death penalty. In such reporting, Bruenig entered into close relationships with many criminals who have been condemned to die. 

She described some of these friendships with death row inmates in extreme detail throughout the bulk of the talk, reflecting that it was “a very strange journey to know a man scheduled to die in a matter of weeks” but that she “wouldn’t dissuade” someone else from doing the same.

Overall, she concluded from her personal relationships with death row inmates that “it is the nature of capital punishment to execute someone very different than the person who was sentenced to die.” Bruenig’s emphasis on the changed nature of the criminals who are condemned to die did not mean to ignore the brutality of the crimes committed by these men, Bruenig claimed: “I don’t leave out heinous details because I oppose execution.” 

Nonetheless, because of her personal experiences with these condemned criminals and how their lives changed on death row, Bruenig maintained that society must “keep alive the possibility of reconciliation.” Summing up her position against the death penalty, Bruenig stated near the conclusion of her speech, “Forgiveness depends on the possibility of change, and change depends on the possibility of tomorrow.” 

Regardless of her opposition, Bruenig ended on a pessimistic note regarding the future of the death penalty in the United States. Ultimately, she laments, “Society is on the side of execution,” meaning that it will remain as a “cultural fixture” and that it is “probably not going to go away legislatively.” 

In addition to providing the introduction of the lecture, Garnett reflected upon some of the central points of Bruenig’s talk for the Rover. Regarding her emphasis on forgiveness as a motive for opposing the death penalty, Garnett saw a different approach as more compelling: “Although I agree with Ms. Bruenig that each of us stands in need of forgiveness, my own view of the criminal law is that it is not a mechanism that is well suited to dealing out forgiveness on the political community’s behalf. Other arguments against capital punishment are, for me, more convincing.” 

Additionally, he had a more positive outlook on ending the death penalty through legislative action than Bruenig: “I suspect it will continue to be abandoned legislatively in more states, and also that it will be imposed less often, even in states that retain it.” Though, from a legal perspective, Garnett noted that “In [his] view, the Supreme Court will not, and should not, declare the death penalty categorically unconstitutional as a national matter.” 

Luke Thompson is a junior from Flagstaff, Arizona majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies, political science, and theology. He currently resides outside of the range of mail (and robot) service in distant Carroll Hall, so if you would like to contact him with any questions or comments, please reach out to him at

Photo Credit: Creative Commons, Allie Henske, Shorenstein Center, Harvard Kennedy School

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