This post is a response to a comment by Jason Streitfeld on my recent post, Reading Plato on Death Row. My response overflowed the word limit of the comment box, so I am posting it here as a separate entry.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Jason. My response will be a bit long-winded, but I am thankful for the chance to think about these issues more systematically.
It's true that I did not intend to offer an argument against the death penalty, but rather to bring a different perspective to the discussion. It's fair to ask for a defense of my claims, which I will try to offer here. But I also want to make it clear that I do not intend these claims to add up to an argument in the *debate* about capital punishment, because I think the terms of this debate are already immoral. I am absolutely against the death penalty. To enter into a debate about when and whether capital punishment is warranted, when and whether it is properly, justifiably, or "reliably" applied to someone, is already to concede too much. (I put "reliably" in quotation marks in reference to Jennifer Culbert's excellent book, Dead Certainty, in which she analyzes the US Supreme Court's efforts to secure "fair, equitable, and reliable outcomes" in capital cases (Culbert 47).)
So what about states? Should states forgive, can they forgive? Or can they and should they only punish? It would be obscene to think that a state could forgive the murder of someone who is no longer here to speak in their own name. In fact, it would be obscene to think that this is what Hector Black is doing when he forgives. As an ethical and political act, forgiveness is the creation of a space in which new relationships and new forms of community become possible. I'm channeling Hannah Arendt here, and a certain reading of Levinas as well. Can states create this kind of space? I'm not sure they can, but I do know that the United States of America could do a much better job of blocking the creation of these spaces.
This is where I can finally start addressing your questions.
1. "You've shown us that "Prisoners are encouraged by wardens and pastors, parole boards and philosophy professors to learn new things, to reflect on their experience, to make something of themselves in prison." I wonder, then, why you claim that it is the death row inmate's "job" is "not to transform himself, but to remain the same throughout an appeals process that can last years or even decades." By your own admission, the system promotes growth and development, and does not expect the sort of stagnation you say. I assume you mean that the general public, those who you say want to be "soothed," do not want prisoners to change while they are awaiting execution. However, I am not sure why you would make that assumption. I do not think you have given your opposition the fairest representation."
My claim is that the prison system itself, along with the public that supports it, both expects the prisoner to transform him- or herself, and also blocks that transformation. For structural reasons, and not because of the specific intentions of this or that warden, the prisoner is set up to fail. I make this argument at greater length in a paper that I have posted on academia.edu called "Solitary Confinement and the Rhetoric of Accountability: A Levinasian Critique." The context in that paper is solitary confinement, but I think a similar logic applies to the confinement of prisoners on death row in the US. I did not come up with this idea that the US prison system sets prisoners up to fail; this comes from Lorna Rhodes' brilliant book, Total Confinement, which I highly recommend.
2. "Those who argue for capital punishment do not necessarily expect executions to soothe public anxieties. However, even if that is the goal, it is not obvious that this goal can only be fulfilled if the death row inmates refrain from artistic and philosophical endeavors. The anesthetic function can be fulfilled even if it means the execution of eloquent, sensitive and remorseful people. Your assumption, I think, is that a certain level of intellectual and artistic development is evidence of a certain value, and that a line must be drawn once that value has become manifest. That line is sacrosanct. Nothing can justify crossing it. The sanctity of life is absolute."
The unfortunate consequence of writing about eloquent, sensitive people on death row is that it might seem like my stance against capital punishment applies only or especially to those who can prove themselves worthy of living. This is not what I believe. Murder is absolutely wrong; it destroys a singular, unrepeatable person and extinguishes their future of possibility in community with others. That person might be horrible in every conceivable way and, when all is said and done, the world might be better off without them. But any system - legal or philosophical - that attempts to justify the execution of that person, either by the state or by individuals, is participating in the murderous logic that they seek to oppose. If the state has a function, it is to restrain both the murderer and those who would become murderers in a misguided (if understandable) desire to right the wrong of murder by repeating it.
And yet, I'm also not taking the position that "the sanctity of life is absolute." That's Ronald Reagan talk. It's what Agamben rightly critiques as the sanctification of bare life. It would take much more time to go through all the moves -- and I don't follow Agamben all the way because I think he ends up with an inadequate account of resistance and an empty, ontologized politics -- but suffice it to say that murder is absolutely wrong not because each individual life is absolutely sacred, but because it destroys a person-in-relation, a Being-in-the-world. This is why I think that prolonged solitary confinement is a form of murder, or social death: because it attacks the structure of relational being. I say more about this here.
Is this all pie-in-the sky optimism? Convicted murderers are awesome people once you get to know them, you just have to let go of your hang-ups, and you'll see that we don't need capital punishment, we don't need prisons, we just need to read Plato together? No. Not everyone is prison is working like a dog to transform themselves. (Not everyone on the outside is, either.) I can imagine a situation in which a convicted murderer's request for parole is denied, again and again, because they present a clear and present threat to others. But I cannot endorse a system that blocks even the possibility of parole, even for those who have committed the most atrocious crimes.
3. "There is an ideal, of course, in which we all can overcome our desire for retribution. Where we can rise above, forgive and even embrace the tragedies befallen us. But that is an ideal, and I am more concerned with the reality. I do not think families should spend a lifetime of suffering because they cannot live up to that ideal. I do not think every life is so precious that it justifies that suffering."
No one can expect forgiveness from someone who has lost someone they love to murder. But the promise of "closure" extended to family members of murder victims is a cruel joke. Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty explain this well.
We haven't even touched on all the political problems with capital punishment in the US: the evident racism, the scandalous relation between poverty and the death penalty, the outrageous implications of the felony murder rule, and so forth. Because even if you fixed these problems (which is never going to happen, let's face it), capital punishment would still be wrong.