A few weeks ago, a 17-year-old resident of the Barry Farms housing project in Southeast Washington was kidnaped, handcuffed and held hostage by drug dealers who were attempting to force an acquaintance of the youth to return some drugs he had been given to sell.

The friend had apparently "messed up" the drugs, and couldn't deliver, so while he was on the telephone explaining this to the hostage-takers, they decided to send a message to him and others who would make similar mistakes.

They killed the young man with a gunshot to the head.

Last Monday in the 1400 block of Montello Avenue NE, a 17-year-old girl was confronted by a 15-year-old boy who demanded that she turn over drug money owed him.

She replied that she had nothing that belonged to him, so the boy decided to send a message to others working in that drug-infested area that he would not tolerate being short-changed.

She was fatally stabbed.

Sending such messages is rapidly becoming a way of life in Washington's underground drug economy, but what law-abiding residents who live in these troubled neigborhoods should worry about just as much is the fact that society at large has begun to emulate drug dealers' callous disregard for life.

Consider what happened in Southeast Washington recently:

A crazed peeping Tom gunman goes around shooting people -- five in six weeks -- and the public isn't told about this until the fifth victim turns up with the bullet hole in her head. By yesterday, the tally had risen to eight, one dead.

In a city where 51 percent of the households are headed by women, many of whom live alone, the women of Southeast were relegated to the status of sitting ducks.

Had this happened in Georgetown . . . well, forget that. It wouldn't have happened. The message, as drug dealers already know, is that some lives are worth less than others.

At the same time, a man is driving through a predominantly black working-class neighborhood, allegedly shooting people at random. Nine are shot in all, with one black man killed and two others seriously injured.

The message that some lives are worth less came quickly from the U.S. attorney's office, which settled for a second-degree murder rap, instead of murder one, and it was repeated by the court commissioner hearing the case, who let the man loose on a measly $10,000 surety bond.

The line black folk in Southeast were being asked to swallow was that you can get charged with shooting some blacks, pay a cheap bond and be back home in time for dinner.

Can you imagine a black guy from Southeast going on a shooting rampage in a working-class neighborhood in say, Vienna, killing a white man and injuring two more, getting arrested and then being released in time for dinner?

These events, coincidentally, occurred in areas that are perceived as being "drug-infested." But while drug markets do exist there, so do thousands of law-abiding residents.

The problem, as residents continually complain, is that once a neighborhood gets such a label, everybody is treated as if he were involved in drugs -- and justice meted out by society takes on the aura of the drug dealers' street law.

Worse yet, it becomes a vicious cycle, as drug salesmen are encouraged to continue their brutal ways because of the way society treats people.

Residents in the Southeast neighborhood where the man allegedly went on a rampage are rightly concerned about the way the case was handled. A double standard is apparent, and drug hitmen are no doubt taking note.

Those women who thought they should have been told that an armed peeping Tom was loose in their neighborhood, are right to wonder why they weren't given some kind of warning.

When D.C. Council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8) holds a scheduled community meeting on Tuesday to discuss these incidents, residents should turn out en masse, for what is required now is that they, too, send a message that says they care about their lives, even if a lot of other people do not.