Review: The Death of Punishment

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.

18 thoughts on “Review: The Death of Punishment

  1. josh

    You can’t shake it off, Scott, because he’s right – there IS an instinct for revenge in all humans. Where he goes wrong is asserting that we should give in to that instinct, and that our justice system should express that instinct.

    The counter-argument is that we have all kinds of instincts which we choose to suppress in the interests of societal collaboration. For example, greed and lust and hatred are universal, but we control ourselves and we teach our children to control the expression of those feelings – and ideally, to recognize their root so that they can minimize the suffering they represent.

    The guilty people behind bars are there because they couldn’t control themselves in the face of powerful instincts. And Blecker wants us to emulate them, on a wide-scale?! It’s a very foolish position, one that requires very little thought to dismiss. You don’t get rid of evil by emulating it.

    1. SHG Post author

      …there IS an instinct for revenge in all humans.

      Don’t attribute your personal issues to the rest of humanity. You may have a problem. Others, myself included, do not.

      1. josh

        I’m not sure what is more flabbergasting, that you’d claim that revenge is not a universal human motivation, or that my statement that it is indicates some sort of personal issue on my part. As for the former, revenge plays some part in about 90% of drama (ever heard of Hamlet?). Even in modern, real life, people are constantly motivated by petty desires to strike back at those who’ve wronged them, in countless small ways. As for the personal attack on me, it doesn’t deserve a response. And frankly, I’d appreciate an apology.

        1. SHG Post author

          There’s a psychological concept called projection. It’s when someone projects onto others what they feel under the erroneous assumption that if they feel it, so must everyone else. You projected, and you get no apology. As for humanity, I’m fairly certain that you haven’t been elected its spokesman, even though you may feel you’re entitled.

          In the future, if you don’t want your feelings hurt, try speaking for yourself rather than all of humanity. It’s not your place. As for what flabbergasts you, meh.

          1. Sgt. Schultz

            Um, did it occur to you that maybe Josh is the ruler of the world and he’s just slumming as an anon blog commenter imparting truisms for all humanity just for lulz? Did it? I don’t think so.

  2. josh

    You know what Scott, you’re absolutely right. Thank you for clearing my eyes on this point. Revenge is NOT a universal human trait – it’s only my twisted mind projecting onto the world. My disconnection with reality is so severe, that I even believe these links are real:

    Even worse, I seem to be under the delusion that revenge isn’t even limited to humans:

    When I think back on so many of the stories that I’ve read and seen on the screen, where people were motivated by this “revenge” thing, I feel nothing but shame. How could I have been so blind, so BROKEN?

    But surely I didn’t make up vanity, did I Scott? The universal human tendency to not want to see their own ugliness? Or do my problems go even deeper? Please help me.

    [Ed. Note: Links left in despite rules because Josh is deeply butthurt and I would hate to add to the trauma by not allowing his complete effort to salvage his dignity.]

    1. SHG Post author

      You are under many delusions, not the least of which is that you haven’t reduced yourself to joke by this infantile attempt to defend yourself. Perhaps this is what comes of your deep need for revenge. Next up, try searching Wikipedia for logical fallacies.

      No one said that there is no such thing as revenge. You’re fighting a strawman. Your assertion is that revenge is a universal human compulsion, which we keep in check by higher order constraints. Yes, some people (like Blecker) feel the urge for revenge to be primary and universal, as you do. Other people do not feel that way about revenge. Your examples of reacting to petty grievances do not support your thesis; sometimes we defense and respond, but that’s not revenge.

      In any event, your argument goes completely off the rails when your proof is that revenge exists. That’s not the issue, and the only thing it reveals is that when you get angry, you respond poorly and you lack the ability to present a cogent argument. A good takeaway from this is to stop digging. You really aren’t suited to logical arguments, and lack the thick skin to handle even minor disagreement.

      Oops, one more thing. If you want to prove a point, don’t rely on Wikipedia. It’s really not a good source.

      1. josh

        Well, with the delusions, making myself a joke, lacking the ability to present an argument, thin skin…that brings the personal attack count to, what, 10 or so for this thread alone? Is there a fallacy that covers that? ‘Ad’ something or other…ad homo sapiens, maybe? In any event, with all those personal problems, I feel like I should get a little credit for at least keeping the drool off of my keyboard.

        In any event, there is an actual argument of substance I’d like to address: “Your assertion is that revenge is a universal human compulsion, which we keep in check by higher order constraints. Yes, some people (like Blecker) feel the urge for revenge to be primary and universal, as you do. Other people do not feel that way about revenge.” I’m not sure what to make of the word “primary” in there. Apart from that, this is a statement of fact which is true, but such people are deluded about their own nature. Why do I beleive that? Consider: if a man’s daughter is raped and murdered, he will want to murder the man who did it. That feeling will pass, but he’ll have it. And moreover people would understand and sympathize with him. To take another example, if a drunk driver kills your son, you’ll hate him and want him dead – and again, no-one will criticize you for that (and indeed you yourself wrote with great sympathy about just such a case not too long ago).

        In mathematically precise terminology, we can say “there exists an event for every human such that when that event occurs that human will feel the compulsion to act in revenge.” This is not controversial, I think. But then again, I am a thin-skinned, mentally challenged joke without a rational neuron in my head, so perhaps I’m really talking to my Jell-O inside a padded room somewhere. Well, whether I’m debating Scott or my Jell-O, I ask that you tap into your better judgement and recognize the truth of what I’m saying.

        1. SHG Post author

          Sigh. Josh, why are you forcing me to do this? First, an ad hominem is: you’re stupid, so your argument is stupid. It is not: your argument is stupid so you’re stupid. Either you haven’t bothered to read about logical fallacies yet, or you didn’t understand what you read. In either event, try again.

          Why do I beleive that? Consider: if a man’s daughter is raped and murdered, he will want to murder the man who did it. That feeling will pass, but he’ll have it.

          This is where your bus went off the road and crashed in the first place. I tried to tell you then, but your defensiveness prevented your from hearing. No, this is not universal. Aside from the rape and murder of a child suffering from the logical fallacy of reductio ad absurdum, not everyone will feel the need to murder the man who did it. Yes, some will. No, everyone will not. That you refuse to believe that everyone is a reflection of your view of your view. Hence projection. It is not everyone else’s view.

          Note that I am giving you the courtesy of responding substantively to your comments, not because they reflect things worthy of my time, but as a courtesy to you. Your persistence in demanding that I “recognize the truth of what you’re saying” is a problem, Josh. You have decided that what you believe is truth and my disagreement is therefore not truth. That’s the premise that got you into trouble in the beginning here.

          Most lawyers would know far better than to dig themselves into the hole you’re now in. You haven’t accepted that you’re in a hole, and thus can’t figure out either how you got there or how to get out of it, so you keep digging. You have the answers available to you. Now it’s up to you to put them together and figure out how not to let your emotions cloud your judgment.

          1. josh

            Funny, I don’t feel like I’m in a hole – I’ve argued with honor, and dignity, and not stooped to personal insults, self-aggrandizement, sophistry or outright lies. The only mistake I’ve made is to assume that I’m debating with a person of honor for whom the truth is more important than winning – but perhaps the adversarial nature of your work has ruined you for that sort of thing.

            You claim no-one can do anything to you that would make you desire revenge, I call you at best deluded, but more likely a simple liar. When you try to paint my arguments with the mark of logical fallacy, you do so in a slipshod manner – the examples I gave weren’t reductio, they were examples of well-known, real-life, relatable triggers, which I mistakenly believed would help, because I mistakenly believed you were legitimately arguing a position – and when you adopt an arrogant stance toward me, demean me as, dear God, a non-lawyer, you adopt the stance of the pettiest bully, just like a badged, self-appointed power-monger that sees fit to attack people on the street. With every mean statement, you demean yourself and weaken your position: if you had a strong position, you wouldn’t need to resort to such tactics. As it is, you’ve taken on a position that is impossible to defend: arguing against the universality of the will to revenge is like arguing against the universality of any negative human emotion like anger or hatred, both of which precipitate revenge. The hole here is yours, when you set yourself apart from the rest of us, the rest of humanity, saying that you are somehow above our foibles – and in so doing you ungraciously, unkindly, and unjustly attack a clearly well-intentioned person who merely argues the universality of frailty of weakness of the human condition, and the need for constant vigilance against it – and against Blecker, who implores us to give in to the revenge feelings of the victim, on a systematic basis.

            I no longer believe, however, that you desire the truth. There is a mountain of evidence for the universality of the revenge instinct, in every child that retaliates against a playmate, in every workplace where people backbite and gossip bitterly about rivals, in our entertainments and our love lives. That you argue against that truth just because it’s not a pleasant one speaks to your vanity first, and your cowardice at facing something you do not wish to be so. That you argue with such mean-spirited vigor speaks not only to the weakness of your position, but to the weakness in your self – which you are clearly unable or unwilling to face. That you lead with insult, close with insult, and yet claim that you are not engaging in a personal attack, is merely the dishonest icing on an already very unpleasant cake. I admit to being deeply disappointed – I thought you were a better man. Disagreement is one thing, but the manner you comport yourself in disagreement is really shameful. Respectful, productive disagreement is something that seems to have eluded you, and that’s too bad because you might have something to offer that’s more valuable than mean-spirited jabs and intellectually dishonest arguments.

            1. Sgt. Schultz

              Cool rant, kid, but all you’ve managed to prove is how Blecker’s views of the human condition are those shared by angry, narcissistic whackos.

  3. Eric L. Mayer

    I believe I speak for all of humanity, past, present, and future, to include any of our evolutionary predecessors from bygone millennia and life from inhabitable planets yet to be discovered, when I say…

    Nice post. I shall bookmark it for future reference.

  4. Pingback: Scattershot 2014-02-28

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