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Is The Law Worth Your Life?

November 25, 2016

Let’s play a game. Pick a law. Now, the law you pick must have a couple of characteristics. First, it must be a law you like, one you support. Second, it must have a punishment for violating it, but that punishment must not include the death penalty. Third, it must be a law that you are inclined to insist people ought to obey. Okay. Keep that law in mind for just a bit, while we move on with the game. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to this law.

Now, pick another law. This one, too, must have some characteristics. First, it must be a law you dislike intensely, one to which you object vehemently (if there are no laws that qualify, I suggest you study the laws of your state more closely). Second, it too must have a real punishment for its violation, not including the death penalty. Third, it must be a law that you think people should not obey – further, it must be a law you either intend to break, have already broken, or tend to break on at least a semi-regular basis.

Let’s look at your first pick. What happens if someone breaks this law? “Well,” you say “if they are arrested and convicted, they must pay the penalty prescribed by the law.” That sounds good, but what if this person refuses? What if he or she says “no, I don’t think I will pay that penalty;” what will you (or the state) do then? Perhaps, if the initial penalty was only a fine, you will support having this person incarcerated. Suppose she refuses. What then? “No, I’m not going!” can be a pretty powerful statement, depending on how it is delivered. A longer sentence? She has already refused the shorter one. If the state is successful in locking her away, what happens if she leaves? Suppose she resists either her arrest or her incarceration. “Escalate the force” you say? How much shall it be escalated? To the point of death?

Let’s look at the other law. The one you detest. The one you have broken or will one day break. How much force are you willing for the state to apply to you to compel your compliance? Are you okay with the state killing you, should you resist, strongly enough, this law you find so objectionable?

Just before Christmas 2014, David L. Burkhead (aka “The Writer in Black“) published a post on his blog. In it, he makes the point that the meaning of law is

“someone from the government can come and use force on a person to make him or her comply, to submit.  Force.  And if they resist that force, the government can increase the level.”

In a similar vein, The Atlantic published an article in June of this year noting the comments of Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter, that “…law is violent.”

Both articles make similar points. To wit, that law, all law, is ultimately backed up with the threat of force, up to and including deadly force. As Burkhead notes

  “…it has to be that way because without that ultimate use of force, there comes a point where someone can say “no” to your law and you have to say “okay.” At which point it’s no longer law but a strongly worded suggestion.”

Carter simply notes that “Every law is violent.”

Neither article suggests we should not have laws. Both Burkhead and Carter are very clear on this point. Rather, they emphasize we need to be sure the laws we have and those we propose are laws for which we are willing for people to die. Which brings me to the rather obvious point of my poorly designed and hidden “game.”

I suspect you are not okay with the state electing to kill you for  your decision to break or ignore a law you find detestable. Notice I didn’t say you haven’t made the decision to pay whatever price necessary to exercise whatever right you might have to disobey a given law. Rather, that you aren’t okay with the state electing to kill you. The two are not the same.

Since all law is ultimately backed up with force, up to and including deadly force, it makes sense to me that we should be very careful as to the laws we propose or require the state to enforce. We need laws to function as a society. How many of them are we willing to kill people in order to enforce them?


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