Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Who Is Trash?

"It's like taking out the trash," he said.

I said, "Taking out the trash?"

"Yes. Like paying someone to do something I don't want to."

"Killing someone is like taking out the trash?"

"If they're evil, yes. Yes it is."

I could not respond. I sat across from an old and dear friend at a table in one of the finest restaurants of a large city. We had just finished a wonderful meal of sushi. As often happens when we meet, we were discussing the world and its troubles, solving each and every dilemma with the wise sagacity that comes with a full stomach. We agree on many things yet on this topic my friend's words sent a chill through me. Did he truly believe that taking a human life, regardless of the reason; was nothing more than removing garbage? To me there is a qualitative difference between taking a human life and taking rotting food, old newspapers and other refuse to a landfill.

The death penalty is a very controversial issue, but in the U.S. most states have death penalties and have used them since the Supreme Court restored the constitutionality of the death penalty in 1976. Texas leads with 464 executions. Virginia has executed 108. Combined, these two states "disposed" of over half the "trash" (572 of 1015 people) in the USA. Countries like China, Saudia Arabia and Iran execute more people per year than the U.S., but we tend to look down on them as less civilized.

I understand that we must protect innocent people from harm. However, I worry about our decision to kill people, particularly when it is done in a cold antiseptic fashion like "taking out the garbage". I say give the accused a fair trial. If they are convicted, and a death penalty is handed down, then those who support the death penalty should view the proceedings. Otherwise, we may simply equate taking life with removing garbage.

When I hide from the impact of my decisions I fail to take responsibility for them. I come to view life like reality television with an opportunity to relax and get a snack during commercials. I am not saying I would never want to kill someone if they harmed someone near and dear to me, but I am certain that doing so would make me miserable for the rest of my life. Thus I am very uncomfortable with the idea of hiring someone else to do the killing for me.

Some say that the death penalty deters murder, some say it doesn't. I don't know. Intuitively and in the minds of many, fear of death should make people pause before they commit a crime, yet in 2009, the seven states with the highest murder rates all had the death penalty. Regardless of the effectiveness of the death penalty, viewing executions as taking out the trash sickens me. I don't want to treat or see anyone as my death "trash man".

A potentially horrible outcome of the death penalty is the possibility (some say fact) of occasionally killing innocent people. The U.S. has released 15 prisoners since 1992 when DNA mapping was allowed as evidence. What if one of these had been executed? There are reports of innocent people who actually were executed. What if I was the trash man who executed one of these people? As I said, I may get angry enough to kill someday, but I am uncomfortable with hiring someone to kill for me. What right do I have to ask them to endure the suffering that must come from killing someone, especially if the someone is innocent?

Wait a second; don't I hire people to kill for me every day? Don't my taxes pay for policemen and soldiers to protect me? Don't these people have to kill others sometimes? What of them? How must they feel if they end up killing someone innocent of any crime other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time? I don't know the answers to these questions. To me it seems that killing ends up fostering more killing – if I kill you, your friends and relatives will want to kill me; if they kill me, my friends and relatives will want to kill them; on and on and on – a perpetual motion machine of death. But maybe everyone must have their own answers. If you catch me on the wrong day maybe I will view you as trash. Now that's something to think about; something to guard against. But right now it's time for green tea, oatmeal and a walk. Maybe when I am finished I will have the answer to who is trash and who isn't.

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