Death or Taxes for the Pusher-man

or: Out, Out, Damn Spots.

Thomas Lauzon, mayor of Barre, VT (pop. 10,000), has suggested giving the death penalty to dealers of crack and heroin, in addition to legalizing marijuana, as a way of re-directing the war on drugs to make it more effective. Or, through his acknowledgement that most legislators will not seriously consider this option, he intends to at least start a new state-wide discussion about the problem.

It's not the first time someone has sparked controversy in order to draw attention to an issue. But I think the way he describes his argument is interesting. I don't believe in the death-penalty (a topic for another conversation) and I believe that marijuana should be legalized (although improbable), but listen (read) this little tid-bit from the honorable mayor:

"People who are dealing crack and dealing heroin have zero social value and should be put to death."

Hello, social cleansing! What if we eliminated everyone that has zero social value? Of course, the mayor probably mis-stated his point. He probably mean that dealers of hard drugs have a negative social value, because they cause drug abuse, like how a murderer has a negative social value because s/he takes out members of society unjustified (unjustified by law... yet another tangent about state-sanctioned killing here...). Still, to qualify one's right to live by their "social value" is an interesting turn for the (proposed) ethics of law.

The arguments for the death penalty are manily punitive. Of course, it is the end all stop to recidivism, but jail without parole is as well, and definitely cheaper. We are left with the general argument that the criminal should be put to death for certain crimes that are brutal enough in nature that they deserve special punitive measures of revenge.

But this is a different argument altogether. Does the mayor mean, that dealers of hard-drugs should be convicted of murder, as he implied in the quote, "If you put a gun to someone's head, it's murder. How is this so different?" Or, does he mean that people who contribute to an act of zero social value and have no other redeeming qualities should be put to death? If he was in favor of charging with murder the dealers who supply drugs to overdose victims and then punishing them according to the already standing death penalty statutes, I think we could assume the former;this defense of state-sanctioned killing would then be no different than the punitive arguments already in place. However, I think that what the mayor means is that anyone who deals hard-drugs should be put to death.

Now, the argument about killing as retribution for someone who kills certainly has its own implications for a deconstruction of our moral values. Why do we feel that by snuffing one more life we somehow cancel the wrong that was done? Or furthermore, (for moralist opponents of the death penalty) how does placing value on each and every single life end the taking of life at all? Strange as it may seem to the moralists, having a personal morality does not prevent others from not having morality at all. Maybe we need to think more about what exactly we value about life, and then use that to think about how to keep people alive. Who wants to have a war? Anyone?

The "social value" argument that the mayor is introducing (perhaps unwittingly) pushes the idea that those that are not actively contributing to society should be removed from it, and not just exiled, but eliminated. If dealers of hard-drugs are the first on the list, who is next? Pornography dealers? Day-time television hosts? Bloggers?

Maybe I'm joking, but that list draws attention to another point; what other normative "categories" overlap with "social value"? I'll let you think about that one.

Who are we really removing from society? Isn't it inappropriate for anyone to decide who gets to live and die in society? Isn't that just imposing a moral value on life that eventually might be made to be paid, the forcing of which the murderer is being punished for in the beginning? Isn't this why we have a justice system, to resist the arbitrary inforcement of beliefs? Say what you want about the state's own institutional belief in right or wrong (and again we return to legalization of drugs...), but at least it has standards of what can make a person guilty of what crime.

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