We’ve long known that emotion plays an important role in politics. A single viewing of a modern political ad confirms that. But what role should emotion play in the actual formation of public policy?

I found myself asking precisely that question earlier last week after hearing state Sen. Edith Prague hold forth in an interview with Christine Stuart, who writes for this very website.

Prague was trying to explain why she had suddenly opposed a bill pending in the General Assembly that would ban capital punishment in the state of Connecticut. The answer appeared quite simple. The senator had met recently with Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor of a violent and deadly home invasion in Cheshire four years ago.

Petit, along with his sister and their lawyer, told Prague in no uncertain terms that if the repeal was passed, it would make it very difficult for prosecutors to get the death penalty for the second defendant to be tried in the case, Joshua Komisarjevsky. Hugh McQuaid and Stuart write: Prague indicated she may still support future efforts to abolish the death penalty. But this year, she said, she can’t look Petit in the face and “not give him something that would make his life a little easier.”

So in essence — and I am admittedly mixing metaphors here — the only surviving victim of one of Connecticut’s most horrific crimes looked into a senator’s eyes, tugged at her heartstrings and got her to do an about-face.

And Prague’s abandonment of principle is even more profound than it sounds. She threw to the wind her righteous opposition to capital punishment in order to achieve a higher goal: making it easier for Dr. Petit and the State’s Attorney’s office to seek the very death penalty she wanted to repeal.

It just goes to show that it’s easy to make a public policy pronouncement on this issue or that one. But when you meet with people who don’t share your point of view and they put a sympathetic face on the opposition, your resolve can turn to jelly — especially if you’re a politician on the relentless prowl for money, votes, and good press.

But then, not satisfied with a simple explanation of her change of heart, Prague told Stuart she preferred torture to death:

“They should bypass the trial and take that second animal and hang him by his penis from a tree out in the middle of Main Street.”

The reaction was almost uniform. I think it’s safe to say that everyone within earshot was flabbergasted. In legal circles, the condemnation was swift. Citing the “inflammatory” nature of Prague’s comments, Komisarjevsky’s lawyers have asked the judge for a delay in the trial. Now we are told that the impetus for the legislative repeal of Connecticut’s death penalty has also been thrown into question.

Some commentators, however, could barely disguise their glee. Meanwhile, Prague was utterly unrepentant.

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To a certain extent, emotion guides all of us. It informs many of our decisions because, after all, we’re human beings. But, as is the case with many professions, politicians should do their utmost to repel emotions because of the far-reaching consequences of their work.

After President George H.W. Bush saw heart-wrenching televised images of starving children in Somalia, he set off a chain of events that led to the deaths of 19 American troops and more than 1,000 civilians, culminating in the disastrous helicopter raid on Mogadishu.

And a level head is an invaluable asset in a court of law. Notwithstanding President Obama’s peculiar view that in some judicial decisions “the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart,” judges need to guard against decisions borne of empathy, prejudice, frustration, or anger. Otherwise the time-tested tradition of a fair trial is imperiled.

How fitting that Sen. Prague’s ill-chosen words and subsequent change of heart on a matter of public policy could have far-reaching effects in Connecticut’s courtrooms. But we should have known that. Emotion and politics are a toxic mix.

Terry Cowgill blogs at terrycowgill.blogspot.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He is host of Conversations with Terry Cowgill, an hour-long monthly interview program on CATV6 on Comcast’s northwest Connecticut system.