WASHINGTON — My opposition to the death penalty is weakening. I have opposed the death penalty after being persuaded that it contributes to the culture of death that leaves many aspects of our wondrously free and prosperous society quite grim. Nihilism informs our arts. It is a large element in popular culture. It makes fugitive appearances in our discussions of the beginnings and the ends of life. By opposing capital punishment I have hoped to highlight the glory of life, and the vast possibilities for human beings to grow and develop in a civilized way. Now that I have heard the testimony of Dennis Rader, the hyena who from the early 1970s killed at least ten defenseless people from ambush in their homes, I am not so sure the death penalty always contributes to the culture of death. A noose for this stupid brute might actually be a celebration of life.
Moreover, a seasoned prosecutor of sex offenses made a surprising observation to me. When I said that for Rader to spend the rest of his life in prison was a severe, if wholly justified, punishment, my prosecutor friend quipped, “He might like it.” She went on to say that sex offenders and homicidal sex offenders such as Rader have very perverted tastes. Some of those tastes can be fulfilled in prisons.
Certainly Rader’s brutal murders accompanied, he admits, by masturbation are repulsive and suggest that he is barely human. His testimony before a judge in a Wichita, Kansas courtroom confirms as much. In a matter of fact tone of voice and with a slightly authoritative demeanor, he responded to the judge’s questions and explained serial murders as though they were a slightly specialized activity, but otherwise perfectly normal. He told of how he “trolled” neighborhoods to find his victims. “Potential hits, in my world, that’s what I called them,” he said as he scratched his forehead in a very odd hand action, the back of his thumb doing the work, his palm facing his audience. He is a weak-looking man, but he has large paws. “If one didn’t work out, I just moved on to another.”
I have never known quite what to make of the wise philosopher Hannah Arendt’s term “banality of evil,” which she applied to brutes such as the Nazi, Adolf Eichmann. It is a term that journalists are now applying to Rader’s banal explication of his grisly acts. Arendt wrote insightfully on a wide range of topics, but on brutes who torture and kill she was particularly compelling. She wrote, “The concentration camps, by making death itself anonymous…robbed death of its meaning as the end of a fulfilled life.” In a way, Rader turned his victim’s homes into little concentration camps. He robbed their lives of meaning. Perhaps by putting a noose around his head meaning might be returned to his victims’ lives.
His testimony in pleading guilty to these murders was televised all over the country. I am not sure that televised testimony was a good idea. My prosecutor friend shares my premonitions. Television tends to glorify almost anything it broadcasts. I can imagine evil minds, sitting before their television sets envisaging Rader as a celebrity serial killer, a man who made history. There is such a thing, my prosecutor reminds me, as the “copycat criminal.” Rader not only explicated the tactics of his pastime for the uninitiated, but he also got plenty of airtime to make his unspeakable offenses speakable.
On the other hand, Rader’s appearance on television does unhorse one of the great myths held by many members of the intelligentsia, namely, that there is something fascinating about a murderer. For generations certain easily bored writers have been finding “interesting” facets to crime and to criminals. The murderer was for them perhaps the most fascinating of criminals. I have always thought theses writers were naive and frivolous for the most part, occasionally even evil themselves. Rader’s appearance in that Wichita court ought to put an end to any fascination a writer might have with such a lout.
There was nothing fascinating about him. He was too obtuse to be fascinating and dull. Finally, the horror of his deeds overwhelmed any inchoate fascination. Whether he is locked away for the rest of his years or hung by the neck his name will soon be forgotten. If copycat criminals get an idea in their heads from watching Rader on television, it will not be because he had style or presence. It will only be because he was given a chance to speak the unspeakable.