It’s not as if New York Law School Professor Robert Blecker hadn’t staked his claim as the intellectual leader of the Kill ‘Em Now crowd already. He’d been out there, pounding the pavement to drum up business in advance. So when the review copy of The Death of Punishment, published by Palgrave Macmillan, arrived, I was all ready to rip it to shreds.
It opened as I would have expected of anyone who sought to take ownership of the joys of capital punishment, immediately forcing me to wonder what trauma happened to Blecker in his formative years to stunt his intellectual growth and leave him an emotional cripple. Maybe it was the simplistic notions instilled in him as a child, eye for an eye, revenge, retribution?
But a lousy thing happened on the way to hating Blecker’s book. Aside from the inexplicably warped view of capital punishment, there was a grudging respect for him. He was no mental midget, not by a long shot. This was a very smart man.
Worse, the book largely retells his years of experience interviewing inmates of prisons, convicted criminals who told their stories, explained their world. And this is where confusion set in that forced me to continue to read: Blecker retold their stories with empathy and, almost, endearment. He seemed to have an understanding of these guys, and, dare I say it, liked them, felt for them.
Had The Death of Punishment been given another title, and left out the nonsense about how the humans needed to kill the “worst of the worst of the worst” among us, this would have been a fascinating and insightful book about the nature of people in prison, the lessons they learned along the way and the insight gained, through their peculiar eyes, of how society and the system function. As the bulk of the book tells these stories, and frankly tells them well and offers much that’s consistent with the experience of any criminal defense lawyer who has sat with clients, listened to their stories, heard their perspective, it would have made for a great book.
But Blecker couldn’t leave it there. It wasn’t enough to use his years of interviews to illuminate the mindset of convicts, but to drive home his own truth: Justice demands the execution of the worst of the worst. There is no forgiveness. There is a need to rid society of its worst, and that must be done. And not only must it be done, but it should be painful, because they deserve no better and we, society, deserve to see them die in pain.
And, by the way, if some innocent gets executed in the process, well, that’s just how it goes.
As for the guys in prison, the ones Blecker comes to befriend, to understand, they still get off too easy. To Blecker, the punishment isn’t the years, decades, lives, spent in prison, but the misery they should endure while they’re there.
Jeff Gamso reviewed the book before me, and did an excellent job explaining the incongruence of Blecker’s stories and conclusions. My extreme ambivalence toward Blecker and this book held me back for a while. I pondered what to write about it, the excellent, insightful storytelling or the outrageously simplistic, wholly incomprehensible, almost infantile desire to kill people.
Robert Blecker has no rational argument in favor of capital punishment, or his need to inflict misery on those he deems the “worst of the worst.” If you’re looking for someone to confirm your visceral bias in favor of execution, he’s your man. If you’re looking for a very smart man to offer an utterly baseless polemic, pick Blecker. If you’re looking for a reasoned justification for the death penalty, there’s nothing for you here. He’s empty. For Blecker, it just is. Lots of words spent in the process, but it all amounts to nothing more than this is how he feels, and that’s that.
Find that hard to believe? Well, me too, so I offer Blecker himself, in a video by my pal, Lee Pacchia, at his new Mimesis productions, on behalf of NYLS. It’s not that Blecker had deep, brilliant thoughts and they somehow never made it past the cutting room floor. This is it.
I’m constrained to presume that Blecker means what he says, and that it’s not just a cynical attempt to grab virgin turf where no otherwise thoughtful academic would credibly go. So if you can get past the pain of his position on the death penalty, the sick need to inflict misery that he thinks others feel as he does, then The Death of Punishment is worth reading for everything else.
Yeah, I’m as surprised as anyone. But I still struggle to shake off Blecker’s claim that humans have some innate need to embrace the avenging angel of death to kill others, and that taints everything else he says. It still leaves me to wonder what ruined him as a child. Ultimately, I can’t get past it.