Is Death Row a Form of Psychological Torment?

Death Row is Torture

Is Death Row a Form of ‘Psychological Torment’?

To the Editor:

“Lifelong Death Sentences,” by Adam Liptak (Sidebar column, Nov. 1), says that “foreign courts have ruled that living for decades under the threat of imminent execution is a form of psychological torment.” But the condemned do not live under threat of imminent execution; the long delays give the lie to that claim.

The condemned have advance notice of each execution date and learn to discount them with each successive stay. As my visual documentation of life on death row in several states shows, most often life on death row is more laid back than the daily life of convicted murderers sentenced to life.

Mr. Liptak cites the observation by the Columbia law professor James S. Liebman that we produce too many death sentences. True. But as Mr. Liebman and I declared in a joint op-ed article in The Houston Chronicle (May 25, 2003), opponents and death-penalty proponents can find common ground by narrowing the death penalty to the worst of the worst. Then we should shorten the time it takes to execute these monsters.

ROBERT BLECKER New York, Nov. 1, 2011

Update and more on pressure vs. pain


Continuing the useful distinction between pressure and pain: 

Two recent events illustrate it.  The Israelis and Hamas engage in a prisoner swap — one Israeli soldier for 1000 Palestinian prisoners.  Had Hamas killed the soldier it kidnapped, they would have inflicted more pain.  But by capturing him and keeping him alive, they maximized the pressure which eventuated in the exchange.

Or take Herman Cain.  Assuming recent allegations of sexual harrassment have some foundation (which they may not) — had he simply revealed the truth, his campaign would have been damaged (pain).  But the pressure would be gone.  By refusing to specify what happened, and call for the release of supporting documentation, Cain has allowed the pressure to increase, day by day.

Perhaps that’s what Roosevelt meant by “nothing to fear but fear itself.”


Pressure vs Pain

My just published memoir/essay “Let The Great Axe Fall”  (see link to Kindle below) cites Roger Fisher’s distinction between pressure and pain.  Those who would alter the strategy or policy of an opponent (or an enemy) should focus on maximizing pressure but not necessarily pain.  Fisher, the author of the best selling classic Getting to Yes  (well worth the read) drew the distinction in the early days of Palestinian terrorism.  If the Israelis ever come to view getting blown up in a cafe bombing as a random, tragic, isolated but unavoidable act — like getting killed in a fatal car crash — the Palestinians would have lost all pressure, even if they retained to capacity to inflict pain.

The baseball playoffs remind me of this.  The team coming to bat, down 3-0 might well be better off having their leadoff batter hit a double, (or even a single) than a home run.  This may seem counterintuitive.  After all, the defensive team is still ahead 3 runs.  But now they begin to adjust to protect against the run — pull the infield in to guard against a bunt or make a play at the plate.  Perhaps intentionally walk the next batter to try to get a double play.  The team at bat, down three runs, now exerts greater pressure, and may end up with a big inning.  Had their leadoff hitter hit a homerun — true the score would be 3-1, but the pressure’s off

It strikes me that our policy toward Iran  (with the late revalations that they might have ordered a hit on the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.) seems wisely directed at increasing the pressure to change their nuclear policies.  We could attempt a surgical strike on their nuclear facility (probably missing secret sites.)  But that would set them back but probably not pressure them to change.

Utilitarian advocates of punishment, too, as “Let the Great Axe Fall” points out, seek to maximize the pressure on would-be criminals (general deterrence) and convicted criminals (specific deterrence).   We retributivists who would keep covenants with the dead sometimes see the infliction of pain itself, separate from the pressure it exerts in the future, as a vital part of justice.  I’ll leave it to you to read and react to the essay.  

If you do read it and find it worth your time, I’d appreciate if you post a review on Kindle.  On the other hand, if you read it and find it boring, remember what your parents taught you:  “If you have nothing nice to say . . .


Anyway, this is my maiden post on my blog.   I invite your reaction.

      – Robert

Amazon Link for Book