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Our escalating culture war has many battlefields, but the death penalty is a battlefield liberals hate. When the crime is especially heinous, the public has little patience with politicians who block its use.

This week, the Democratic governor of Colorado intervened to halt the execution of Nathan Dunlap, who brutally killed four fellow employees of a Chuck-E-Cheese pizza restaurant 19 years ago. He signed an executive order granting a reprieve, postponing the scheduled August execution indefinitely.

The governor’s decision took many of the state’s citizens by surprise because as a candidate in 2010, he said he supported the death penalty. And in March he had intervened to persuade Democratic legislators to withdraw a bill calling for repeal of the death penalty. But when faced with the scheduled August execution of Dunlap, he blinked.

The death penalty has been on the books forever in Colorado, and a few have been executed, the last one being a white male in 1998. But in 21st century Colorado, the state’s liberals can’t imagine a crime heinous enough to warrant actually enforcing the death penalty.

The governor’s statement explaining his decision reeks of personal angst but is devoid of common sense. If he finds the state’s implementation of the law “flawed and imperfect,” his obligation as the state’s chief law enforcement officer is to try to fix it, not circumvent it.

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One of the governor’s statements reveals the immense cultural gap that now exists between our nation’s ideological left and ordinary citizens who simply want our laws enforced impartially. In explaining the granting of the reprieve for the convicted murdered, Hickenlooper said he could not reconcile his personal culpability if as chief executive, he must instruct people who are under his command “to kill a person who is not a threat to anyone at that time.” Think about that.

The death penalty necessarily and inevitably involves taking the life of someone who has been rendered incapable of injuring anyone else – because he is in custody and in chains! Hello! That statement reveals hypocrisy and dishonesty. It clearly means that he is against the death penalty in principle, yet he will not say so and lacks the courage to advocate its repeal. Instead, he granted a reprieve and kicked the can down the road.

In national politics, Colorado is known as a “battleground state.” The death penalty debate illustrates that it is also a pivotal battleground in the culture war. The state’s new political elites think the death penalty is relic of our primitive past. But it is not just one issue among dozens: it is a pivotal question in civilization’s self-definition and self-defense.

The death penalty is society’s self-defense against the barbarians amongst us, barbarians who take the life of a neighbor, co-worker, spouse or bank teller. Liberals who deny this right of self-defense are declaring their neutrality in that contest with barbarians: yes, we can halt and punish barbarians, but not proportionately, not by removing them forever from our midst.

When called out on the matter, they retreat to tired clichés about our “imperfect system of justice.” All laws are imperfect in some respect, which is why we have judges and juries to weigh the facts and circumstances of each case. But the only imperfection in the justice afforded to Nathan Dunlap is the unconscionable escape from justice granted him by an official masquerading as the chief law enforcement officer of the state.

Yet, in an odd way, the governor’s action is consistent with his support earlier this year for the Obama administration’s agenda for the incremental confiscation of guns through universal licensure and eventual registration. In the view of the liberal-left, citizens do not need guns; they can rely on government for protection.

Here is how the culture war comes down to inescapable choices and hopeless contradictions. How is it that a left-Democrat can say that, yes, an individual citizen has a right to self-defense of his home and family, that yes, he can take another man’s life if necessary to protect himself against a threat of imminent harm – but that it is wrong for the collective society to take a life after due process and a fair trial, when guilt is no longer in doubt? We are to rely on the government for protection, and the police can shoot and kill a man in self-defense, but courts and juries cannot order his execution if he is not killed by the police?

We might agree that denying a right to self-defense can be a consistent pacifist view when held by an individual, but is surely a suicidal one if held by a community.

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