Capital punishment is the harshest, most terrifying use of government power, and it explains why elsewhere in the Western world, the death penalty has been abolished either in law or in practice — and why, incidentally, Spain is balking at extraditing alleged terrorists to the United States. Yet Texas’s sloppy and inexcusable application of capital punishment troubled Bush not at all. He dispatched 152 people and slept the sleep of a baby.

So, for that matter, did the occasional defense lawyer in a death-penalty case. Many defendants went to their deaths represented by hacks or incompetents, and almost all the court-appointed lawyers, underfunded by the state, were handicapped in mounting an aggressive defense. Minors and the mentally feeble were executed for crimes they dimly perceived, and such was the condition of Texas’s capital punishment system that as soon as Bush decamped for Washington, the state moved to clean up its act.

All this would be mere history if it were not apparent that Bush the president is as apathetic as Bush the governor when it comes to civil liberties. Attorney General John Ashcroft, less amiable than his boss, has played the heavy in much of what has recently been done in the cause of homeland security, but he is Bush’s man — down to, and including, a manic enthusiasm for the death penalty.

In the name of anti-terrorism, the government has abridged what was once the unquestioned right of lawyers and their clients to confidential consulta

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