Paul LePage’s Guillotine Dream: Executing Black Drug Dealers

The Queen of Hearts from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” had “only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. ‘Off with his head!’ she said, without even looking round.” Now the bellicose governor of Maine, Paul LePage, is pulling a page from the Queen’s playbook and calling for the return of the guillotine.

“What I think we ought to do is bring the guillotine back,” he told WMOV. “We could have public executions and have, you know, we could even have (guessing) which hole it falls in.” Sounds a bit like the Queen of Heart’s other favorite hobby: playing croquet with live hedgehogs as balls. But LePage’s comments were made in jest, of course. A way to invoke his French ancestry. “I like French history,” LePage said.

LePage sneaks in French references often, sometimes so cleverly that hardly anyone notices. His remarks about the guillotine pick up on a thread started last year. He doesn’t want to (hypothetically) behead just anybody, but specifically out-of-state drug dealers. In previous comments that had landed him in the national spotlight, he’d named “guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty. These type of guys. They come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, then they go back home.”

“Smoothie” may refer to Dionhaywood “Smooth” Blackwell, 31, of New Haven, Connecticut, arrested in September 2015 for bringing heroin into the state and distributing it through a local drug ring. I don’t know who “Shifty” is, but when the governor speaks of “D-Money,” surely he’s invoking the “History of the World, Part 1,”–the film, that is? Mel Brooks created a character named Count de Monet–correctly pronounced Count de Mo-nay, but everyone calls him Count D-Money because money’s all he cares about. A variation of that joke gets repeated in “The Shawshank Redemption,” a film based on the work of Maine’s most famous writer, a man named King, who often finds himself quite upset with this Page. The inmates in that film Americanize the name of one of France’s most illustrious novelists, Alexandre Dumas, by pronouncing it “dumb-ass.”

The guillotine is a French invention too, made famous during the Revolution and used during a bloodthirsty period of ideological fervor known as the Terror. It is not medieval but Modern, the pre-eminent symbol of a newly-realized state power capable of imposing a swift, clinical, impassive, and above all else, standardized (hence “egalitarian”) death on the condemned. As a “machine for the production of rapid and discreet deaths,” Michel Foucault explained in his seminal work, “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,” the guillotine “represented a new ethic of legal death” because it visibly killed without torture: no breaking of bones on the wheel, no drawing and quartering, no hanging, etc., all of which extracted a dying that could take all day or longer to complete. By contrast, the guillotine was instantaneous: the executioner’s version of drive-thu food. During the Terror, thousands and thousands were served.

Per Foucault, the guillotine of 1793-94 sits precisely on that juncture between “the disappearance of the tortured, dismembered, amputated body, symbolically branded on face or shoulder, exposed alive or dead to public view,” and the modern penal state, which focuses instead on removing wealth or rights as a way to punish offenders. This institutional work is abstract and passive, though the suffering is no less real for those rendered non-persons by the state. Today, it is understood that civilized people don’t execute but imprison, with an eye to rehabilitate those who’ve been rendered by the justice system.

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