Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Value Spectrum

This post is a day late. My schedule has been terrible lately, which is entirely the fault of my lack of discipline. I'll own it. But the off-kiltered posting has not been the result of that messed up schedule (I can almost always find the time to write). I've just had real trouble finding the right thing to write about. Every couple of weeks I'll get a rash of inspiration and I'll find myself with a half dozen ideas, presented as draft posts on the blog. Then it's pretty easy, I sit down, choose one, and go. Right now, I'm out of pre-ready topics. Well, that's not true. I have two in the hopper, but they're more in depth and require more time than just grabbing the computer in a spare moment. So, this one may feel a bit forced and possibly repetitive. It's a topic I struggle with and one that's close to me heart.

As you may be aware, legislators in my state (Delaware, small wonder) have tried in the last two years to get our death penalty repealed. I know I've written about life and death, especially in the context of revenge, quite often in this space. I'll try not to go too much into that today. But we have, again, it seems, failed to get this thing through. There was far more vocal support this year - even the Governor, "High Highness Sir Wishy Washy" came out in support, making public his intent to sign the bill when it got to him. Last year, it passed the State Senate by one vote and was killed in committee by the House. The House committee once again failed to pass the bill along to the full body - where it has (and has had for quite some time) more than enough support to pass. There is a procedural option, by which the rules can be suspended and the committee process skirted, to bring it to the full house. However, in order to make that motion, the Speaker has to give permission - and he's just flat out refused.

That brings me to the real crux of the issue. The Speaker, and many of our elected leaders, are retired police officers and the police organizations in the state are (at least it seems so) the only real opposition to death penalty repeal. It's not a party issue - many Republicans support repeal because of cost savings or a truly "pro-life" philosophy, and the Speaker in question is a prominent Democrat. It's really come down an issue of assigning value to life.

Many of the law enforcement contingent say they'll vote for the bill if it includes a provision allowing for continued execution of cop killers, a revision the bill's supporters have so far refused to employ. This rubs me the wrong way.

I get that police officers have a dangerous job. I can't imagine what it would be like to sit at home every day and realize a spouse, child, or parents works in a job where injury or death is a real possibility all the time. I don't want to see any police officers injured or killed, but the notion of capital punishment as a deterrent is just not supported in any way but anecdotal. Then again, I also have a strong commitment against violence and coercion, which provides a real tension in dealing with police in the first place.

I don't feel like I have the right standing to be super vocal in this matter. There are plenty of police officers who do oppose the death penalty, for a variety of reasons; they're in a much better position to argue this point. For me, it never seems to be about deterrence; it always seems more an issue of revenge. The notion of "an eye for an eye" makes a lot of sense to us (me too!) as human beings. In the fraternity of police, I get the "they took one of ours, we'll take one of theirs" mentality. I do get it. While I disagree, I think it's certainly a valid argument for keeping capital punishment.

What I don't get is making that distinction just for police officers. Doesn't this keep us going down the road of assigning differing values to the life of different people? We're already talking about a devalued life for criminals. If we're going to kill them, then their life must be worth less than the life they took. Adding in this police exemption seems, to me, to be valuing the life of a police officer above that of ordinary citizens.

As I said, I get the nature of their job is unique. It requires a kind of commitment and bravery most don't possess. In a sense, they have a lot of the qualities we value highly. I just hope we haven't gotten to a place where a person's value is the sum total of their qualities (for good or ill). We do need to maintain the notion than human-ness itself, contains a value far beyond any characteristics or actions that person might have or have done.

It's not the most popular of the anti-death penalty arguments, but the one that rings most true with me is the notion that killing is bad and that executions compound the tragedy of death with more death. I don't believe it's good or healthy - for society or for us individually - to take part in a process like this. But it bothers me even more if we're going to start designating some murder victims as more tragic than others.

If you want to support capital punishment, support it uniformly across the board. We may disagree, but at least it's a coherent argument. Separating life into different categories of value puts us on potentially dangerous ground. Saying, "It's just an unrepentant murderer," is only a few steps away from saying, "it's just a drug addict," "it's just a homeless guy," "it's just a sick, old man." I recognize that "slippery slope" arguments are general reactionistic and ultimately baseless - but that's exactly my point: there is no slippery slope here. There's a cliff.

If we begin to say, "not all life is equally valuable," we've devalued all life. We've made the worthiness of our existence just another competition in the world. I guess that's what evolution tells us about how life came to be and how we got where we are - but where we are is thinking, rational beings. We are not entirely bound by our instincts and drives; we have the ability to work against our natural reactions. We have the ability to choose differently.

I hope we choose to remember, to recognize that all life is valuable, even if the person inhabiting that life doesn't seem to understand that fact. There is no value spectrum. All life is tied together. We either value life or we don't.*

*There's a whole other discussion of how we can value life and still, regrettably, take it in certain situations - an argument that is still important in discussions of societally sanctioned killing. I've talked some about this here (there's more than one post).

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