Michael Zoosman

Yet Another Thanksgiving Brings Executive Pardons for Turkeys – not People

Image: President Kennedy offers the first unofficial presidential pardon to a Thanksgiving turkey at the White House on Nov. 19th, 1963, saying “Let’s keep him going.”  John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/ NARA 

In an increasingly tasteless annual tradition, the US president once again this week gave a pardon to a pair of turkeys at the White House ahead of Thanksgiving. Each and every year, death penalty abolitionists rightfully point out these paltry poultry pardons woefully highlight a perpetual executive failure to exercise authority—authority to uphold the most basic of human rights—granting clemency to those condemned to die.

The custom of the presidential turkey pardon unofficially began sixty years ago, when President Kennedy said “let’s keep him going” and gave back the turkey offered to him for Thanksgiving dinner at the White House in 1963. The ritual that has ensued mocks an arguably Divine/superhuman power that society has given to the president and many governors in regard to a matter that is deadly serious: the ability to grant life or death. As renowned Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in a Supreme Court opinion (Biddle v. Perovich, 274 U.S. 480, 486 (1927), executive clemency “is not a private act of grace from an individual happening to possess power. It is part of the Constitutional scheme. When granted it is the determination of the ultimate authority that the public welfare will be better served by inflicting less than what the judgment fixed.”

As President Biden prepares to pardon his turkeys this Thanksgiving, Americans would do well to remember that there were no executive pardons of humans last week on Nov. 16th, neither in Alabama from Governor Kay Ivey for execution victim Casey McWhoter, nor in Texas from Governor Greg Abbott for David Renteria, the latest ceremonial, political sacrificial offering in that state. A week prior, the United States had inaugurated the holiday season with a post-Halloween execution on November 9th, when Texas marked that day’s 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht by putting to death Brent Brewer. The previous Texas execution – that of my Jewish pen pal Jedidiah Murphy – occurred on October 10th, which, despite being celebrated across the globe as World Day Against the Death Penalty, was bereft of any pardon in the Lone Star State. 

In yet another horrific synchronicity, just a week after Thanksgiving on Nov. 30th, Phillip Hancock is scheduled for execution in Oklahoma. May Governor Stitt of the Sooner State extend to Phillip at least as much mercy as President Biden conferred to Liberty and Bell, the two turkeys he pardoned this week. One might imagine that there is reason to hope for this reprieve, given how on Nov. 8th, the human (Phillip Hancock) was recommended for clemency in a 3-2 vote by the parole board. Still, considering the governor’s celebrated tradition of refusing to pardon the condemned prisoners that his own parole board recommends to him for clemency, it is reasonable to fear the worst.  

Historically, Thanksgiving is at best a fraught holiday, blind to the suffering and oppression that Native American communities have endured at the hands of the earliest American colonists in what would become the United States. The kind of oblivious patriotism that too often infuses this day is reminiscent of the convenient collective amnesia over the fact that during the holiday season of 1862, Abraham Lincoln, one of the most honored of American heroes, saw fit to allow the most lethal mass execution in United States history. Lincoln sent a letter to the Senate in December of that year condemning 39 members of the Sioux nation to death for their murderous raid of American towns for food rations that were promised to them and not delivered. 490 Americans were believed to have been killed in these horrendous raids. In the end, 38 Sioux were hanged by the neck until death for their participation in this massacre. As they stood above the trap door, bound with nooses, the condemned men shouted their names and cried out “I’m here! I’m here!” Lincoln had arrived at 39 as the number of souls to be sacrificed after reviewing the transcripts of all the 303 execution requests made by the military leaders in Minnesota. The president’s decision attempted to walk a delicate political balance, reflecting his desire to kill enough Native resisters so as to deter any future uprisings but not so many that he provoked another insurrection. Ultimately, Lincoln’s letter to the Senate simultaneously served as both the largest mass execution order and one of the most prodigious extensions of clemency in US history. Regardless of whether this historical context might lead one to view Lincoln’s mass execution as “merciful,” given what is now known about the fallacy of deterrence, this grand killing remains a barbaric spectacle in the eyes of most civilized societies today, when over 70% of countries have abolished the death penalty. 

In a similar vein, posterity will join the growing number of individuals who view America’s ongoing reliance on the medieval, psychological – and often physical – torture of capital punishment as the moral and ethical abomination that it is. The thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” know viscerally that, in the wake of the events of the 20th-century, 21st-century Judaism should reject the death penalty without exception. Members of L’chaim therefore respectfully call upon Governor Stitt to follow the example of President Biden’s Thanksgiving turkey pardons. The governor should honor the recommendation of his own pardon and parole board and grant clemency to Phillip Hancock by commuting his death sentence. 

By the same token, L’chaim members join the nearly 23,000 signatories of Death Penalty Action’s petition to President Biden to commute all federal death sentences, and demolish the federal death chamber. If the current polls prove prophetic and Donald Trump returns to the White House, the lives of the dozens of human beings on federal death row will be imminently threatened by the likelihood of another federal killing spree. Lest Americans forget, the first of these in Trump’s last term led to the massacre of thirteen individuals, including a Navajo man, a severely mentally ill woman, and six African Americans.  

In the calculus of whose rights matter more – human or animal – the president’s decision to pardon two Thanksgiving turkeys while he and other executives continue not to save human beings from state slaughter strains all credulity. For this reason, in lieu of the customary greeting of “Happy Thanksgiving” on this fraught, festive day,  the members of L’chaim chant in full-voice: “L’chaim…to Life!”

Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM

Board Certified Chaplain –  Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains

Co-Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty” 

Advisory Committee Member, Death Penalty Action

About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC) and received his cantorial investiture from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. He sits as an Advisory Committee Member at Death Penalty Action and is the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” Michael is a former Jewish prison chaplain and psychiatric hospital chaplain. Currently, he is a multi-faith hospital chaplain at a federal research hospital, the National Institutes of Health - Clinical Center. His comments here represent his own opinions.
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