Blech-er: confronting the venomous

Odious people tend to up the ante the most when they’re schilling something: like NY Law Professor Robert Blecker1, who’s got a book out about the death penalty. So naturally he takes to the beatified pages of CNN’s op-ed section to write an unholy screed about how lethal injection is just too easy.

When the condemned killer intentionally tortured helpless victims, how better to preserve some direct connection short of torture than by that murderer’s quick but painful death? By ensuring death through anesthesia, however, we have nearly severed pain from punishment.

An unpleasant life in prison, a quick but painful death cannot erase the harm. But it can help restore a moral balance. I, too, oppose lethal injection, but not because these untried new drugs might arbitrarily cause pain, but because they certainly cause confusion.

So what is his solution?

Publicly opposing this method of execution, I have found odd common ground with Deborah Denno, a leading abolitionist scholar who relentlessly attacks lethal injection protocols. Although Denno vigorously opposes all capital punishment, we both agree that the firing squad, among all traditional methods, probably serves us best. It does not sugarcoat, it does not pretend, it does not shamefully obscure what we do. We kill them, intentionally, because they deserve it.

Some people may support the firing squad because it allows us to put blanks in one of the guns: An individual sharpshooter will never know whether he actually killed the condemned. This strikes me as just another symptom of our avoidance of responsibility for punishment. The fact is, in this society, nobody takes responsibility for punishing criminals. Corrections officers point to judges, while judges point to legislators, and legislators to corrections. Anger and responsibility seem to lie everywhere elsewhere — that is, nowhere. And where we cannot fully escape responsibility — as with a firing squad — we diffuse it.

Both Greenfield and Gamso have taken this on today, with Scott pondering the value of televising and making executions a public spectacle once again:

But it’s made me consider whether the issue would be best brought to a head by putting executions on the television, prime-time, hosted by someone who used to be on MTV, so that all the agnostics who are kinda for it without having to give themselves headaches by thinking too hard can watch it in high-definition.

and Gamso echoing Scott in that maybe, just maybe, we all don’t have this bloodlust of Blecker:

Except, you know, maybe not everyone’s so hot to kill.  Maybe not everyone thinks matching evil for evil is a moral command.  Maybe some of us absorbed the lesson that two wrongs don’t make a right.  Maybe mercy is a higher value than retribution, more something we should at least aspire to.  And maybe those folks who just don’t trust the government to get it right have something there.

They both recognize – correctly – that not everyone is like Blecker and there are those2 who are moving in the opposite direction.

But there are more Bleckers out there than Gamsos and Gideons and Greenfields. The death penalty is still heavily favored across large swathes of the country. So who, exactly, are the Robert Blecker’s of the world? And what can be done about them? Let’s start with Blecker himself. From his “bio“:

With a gleam in his eye, Robert Blecker, a nationally known retributivist advocate of the death penalty, has managed to alienate both sides of the debate on the politically divisive and morally complex issue of capital punishment.  But his position as designated outcast is nothing new, nor is his strongly held conviction that the most vicious and callous offenders deserve to die and that society is morally obliged to execute those “worst of the worst” criminals.

His entire bio is a manifesto of his “outsiderness”, his “unpalatable” positions and his “radical” agenda.

His positions, however, are hardly radical when it comes to the death penalty. Retribution is a such a simple emotion and requires little to no thought. It is base, unadulterated and intoxicating.

“You hurt me so I hurt you.”

Forgiveness is difficult. It takes understanding. It takes swallowing of pride and absorbing the wounds of pain and humiliation. Revenge is easy. As with anger, it consumes and obfuscates. It takes over one’s entire existence.

And so people across the country succumb to its allure. “Hang him by his penis“, they shout. “All murderers should be executed.

These are our jurors. Our death penalty jurors. Some of whom might even be death-qualified. So what do we do about the Bleckers of the world? How do we confront that which is so venomous, just as Blecker would have those condemned confront the guns of a firing squad?

A commentator on a national listserve pointed out that one might be able to look at Blecker’s philosophy itself to counter this wall of rage and retribution.

Blecker makes much of executing only “the worst of the worst”.

Yet we all know that there’s no such thing. That “the worst of the worst” is an euphemism for the defendant du jour. There’s always someone, somewhere, who’s done worse. Or appeared to do worse.

In Lockett v. Ohio, the United States Supreme Court held that the decision to sentence someone to death must be based on an individual assessment of moral culpability.

The decision to vote for death is a deeply personal, moral and individual one. Even people like Blecker must be forced to admit that not every case is “the worst of the worst” otherwise that distinction will have no meaning to him.

The death penalty is a punishment imposed on an individual, not on an act. Acts may be the “worst of the worst”, but as applied to people, that term is meaningless. Because people are damaged and broken and flawed and disabled and mentally ill and provoked and oppressed and angry.

In the end, this approach perhaps covertly reinforces the abolitionist position all along: that no matter what people do, they are still people, individual human beings who don’t deserve to be summarily executed in anger, or in the name of some collective good.

So, Robert Blecker, you’re closer to a true abolitionist than you thought.

  1. Get the pun in the title?
  2. Some would say a growing percentage.

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