Should Terrorists Get Vaccinated?
The better question is actually, “Who is a person?”
One of the Biden administration’s goals is to administer the vaccine to vulnerable populations. Along with the elderly, this includes prison populations, including people suspected of terrorism at Guantanmo Bay.
Covid has ravaged the US prison system. Can you think of a more conducive environment to an airborne pandemic than rows after rows of prison cells housing multiple prisoners in confined spaces?
The New York Post of course put this into hyperbole with the title “Alleged 9/11 Mastermind, Gitmo Detainees To Start Getting Covid Vaccines” (According to Elon Musk the public “only responds to precedent and hyperbole so of course this is an intentionally inflammatory title to drive readership, but I digress)
So, everyone coming across this article is now asking themselves a simple question: Do terrorists deserve to get vaccinated?
But, in order to even answer this question we need to understand a few fundamental and recurring American arguments that seem to manifest themselves on repeat in our news cycles like clock work and have for the past 200 years. These are Howard Fineman’s 13 American Arguments which you can read more about here.
Who is a person?
To what extent are prisoners full people under the law? What about suspected terrorists? Are suspected terrorists still full people? What if they get convicted — are they still full people under the law?
According to the 13th Amendment:
So, the only ways a person is striped of full person hood in the US is by committing a crime they are duly convicted of.
But, does this mean you are also striped of your right to safety while you are being housed in a prison to the same extent that free citizens are? What might basic human rights to health care look like for prisoners versus free citizens during time of normalcy versus a pandemic?
The next question to consider: Is the point of prison punishment or rehabilitation?
If the ultimate purpose of prison is to punish those who are in it, we aren’t doing too bad of a job of it. Our prison population is one of the largest in the developed world. Could withholding a covid vaccine from the prison population be counted as extra “punishment” for crimes committed?
If the ultimate purpose of prison is rehabilitation and reintroduction to society, we are struggling. Recidivism rates are quite high nationally.
Harvard Philosophy Professor Michael Sandel can help us a bit here.
He would argue there are two schools of thought on what to do with prisoners and covid: One side would look at which decision would create the most good for the most people and one side would look at simply what was morally right, regardless of overall impact.
The greatest good folks are utilitarians.
They might say that since reducing covid outbreaks among the most vulnerable populations would have a net positive impact on the impact of covid on the rest of the nation, it makes sense to administer to prisoners since they live in hot spots.
The morally right or wrong folks would be categorical thinkers.
Forget the greatest good. The US government has a duty to law abiding US citizens first even if means prison populations remain vulnerable to high amounts of outbreaks.
Unfortunately I don’t have any clear answers, only questions. Your opinion formulation is more important than listening to mine. But I would at least hope this article might have served as a mental speed bump that would help slow down a rush to judgement on big questions that we rarely ask ourselves: Who is a person? Who is a full person? What is the purpose of prison? What’s the right thing to do?
This reminds me of a Russian saying I learned while in Peace Corps Ukraine:
Conversation is the only solution that continues the problem — but at least you’ll understand the problem a bit better every time.