In The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester the protagonist, Ben Reich, commits murder in an effort protect and expand his corporate empire. Ultimately Reich is discovered, convicted, and sentenced to “demolition”, a process in which an individual is stripped of their psyche, and is rebuilt from scratch. The demolished man retains the positive aspects of his character, while all the negative aspects of his being are destroyed. The text describes the process as the slow, painful, and traumatic destruction of the mind. Bester uses the concept of “demolition” as a rehabilitative alternative to capital punishment. In The Demolished Man capital punishment is seen as an antiquated method of punishment which wastes valuable talent.
Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is currently a legal option form of punishment in thirty-five states. Over one thousand persons have been executed since 1976. Fifty-two individuals were executed in 2009 (DPIC). Capital punishment is most commonly carried out by the use of lethal injection, a combination of chemicals injected into the body with the goal of terminating the life of the individual. Capital punishment is seen as a deterrent punishment for homicide. Fear of execution is thought to reduce the number of homicides committed in those states in which capital punishment is still legal. This assumption may be inaccurate as murder rates in states without the death penalty are statistically lower than states with the death penalty (DPIC).
Throughout The Demolished Man, Ben Reich acknowledges that his actions will result in his demolishment. It is unknown if Reich would have proceeded with the killing if capital punishment was still practiced, however, one can summarize from the text that fear of punishment was not a major deterrent for Reich: “If anyone entered and found the guards before he was finished, he was on the road to Demolition. If the guards revived before he was finished, he was on the road to Demolition. No matter what happened, it was a final gamble with Demolition. Leaving the last of his sanity behind him, Reich pushed open a jeweled door and entered the wedding suite” (58). Reich enters the wedding suite and kills D’Courtney despite the likelihood that he could be caught. Demolition does not serve as a deterrent from committing the crime. In fact, Demolition gives Reich the motivation he needs to prevent Powell from gathering the information his investigation needs to convict him. When Powell encourages Reich to confess, he refuses to do so: “And give up the best fight of my life? No. Never in a million years, Linc. We’re going to slug this one straight down to the finish” (85). Considering the extreme nature of Demolition in comparison to lethal injection it is doubtful that capital punishment would have deterred Reich from committing murder.
Demolition, as described in the novel, is a chemical and therapeutic rehabilitation process that restructures the psyche. Currently, no such technology or therapy exists. In part, this is due to the fact that we do not completely understand how the criminal mind works. Some believe that criminals suffer from a social disease, meaning that the effects of society on their person, be it in the form of abuse, neglect, or poverty, contribute to the person’s criminal nature. Others believe that criminal intent is an inherited characteristic, or a malfunction of the mind and those individuals showing a predisposition for criminal actions can be identified early in their childhood. Without sufficient understanding of what creates a criminal there is no hopes of engaging in the complex re-wiring suggested by Bester. Extrapolated, this also means that today’s rehabilitation efforts are a shot in the dark at turning criminals into viable members of society. Criminals re-offend at rates as high as 60%, while the best of rehabilitation programs offer only a 35% reduction in those that reoffend (Wikipedia).
If fear of death does not deter, if punishment and/or rehabilitation does not prevent recidivism, then what else can be done to keep the criminal element in check? Perhaps, efforts to control crime should focus primarily on prevention. Increased foot patrols, quick clean up of vandalized property, increased neighborhood watch programs, and social programs geared towards identifying and helping individuals at risk for committing or being victims of crimes can significantly reduce the amount of crime an area may experience (Kelly&Wilson). Such programs are labor and cost intensive, but the overall benefit to society and the subsequent long term savings over incarceration and victim compensation make preventative programs the overall best method for addressing crime.
That leaves a difficult question. Could the murder of D’Courtney by Reich been prevented? Reich was rich and powerful: social programs geared towards identifying at risk individuals likely would not have targeted him. Reich lived in a society that had sufficient law enforcement professionals: crimes, in particular premeditated murder, were exceedingly rare. Reich could have been dissuaded from his actions by his cohorts, but his power and influence prevented that as people in Reich’s sphere of influence felt pressured by him. In the end it was Reich choice to commit murder. His desire to kill D’Courtney overpowered all the social constraints designed to prevent crime. The flaw in his character, once expressed, could not be suppressed. Reich represents that which cannot be changed systematically. The morality of the individual cannot be altered externally. A person must find their own moral equilibrium as they navigate through their daily life. While anti-crime programs can have a positive effect on an individual’s ability to conform to societal norms, they do not constitute the core of a person’s beliefs. Some people will continue to commit crime because it is within their nature to do so. In even the most orderly of societies crime will persist.
Death Penalty Information Center, “Facts about the Death Penalty”. Death Penalty Information Center. 1/9/2010 .
Death Penalty Information Center, “Deterrence: States Without the Death Penalty Have Had Consistently Lower Murder Rates”. Death Penalty Information Center. 1/9/2010 .
“Prison”. Wikipedia. 1/9/2010 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prison#cite_refautogenerated1_4-1
G. Kelly and J. Wilson, “Broken Windows”. Atlantic Monthly. 1/9/2010