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Cruel America | The Nation

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Cruel America

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Presidential campaign debates are designed to give the candidates an opportunity to express themselves to voters. But the audiences, too, sometimes make their views known. That happened in the Republican debates on September 7 and 12, in two episodes that have been much noticed. On the 7th, NBC’s Brian Williams asked Texas Governor Rick Perry whether at any time while presiding over the executions of the 234 people who had suffered the death penalty under his governorship (it has now risen to 235) he had “struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent.”

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Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

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Perry had slept fine. Texas, he said, has a very “thoughtful” judicial system. Then he went on to issue a kind of threat. He said, “If you come into our state…and you kill…one of our citizens…you will be executed.” The crowd applauded enthusiastically.

Williams, evidently taken aback by the demonstration, followed up by asking Perry what he made of the fact that his response had drawn applause. The governor was undisturbed, and repeated his threat: “Our citizens…have made it clear, and they don’t want you to commit those crimes against our citizens, and if you do, you will face the ultimate justice.”

That these were not the only possible sentiments regarding executions was made clear soon afterward. A mass movement, not only in the United States but in countries around the world, arose to oppose, unsuccessfully, the execution in Georgia of Troy Davis, whose conviction for murder twenty-two years ago had been thrown into doubt by new evidence, including the recantation of seven of nine witnesses. A petition signed by more than 600,000 people was presented to the Georgia parole board, which let the execution go forward.

At the GOP debate on the 12th, there was another public expression of enthusiasm for loss of life in Texas. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who favors repeal of President Obama’s health plan, what medical response he would recommend if a young man who had decided not to buy health insurance were to go into a coma.

Paul answered, “That’s what freedom is all about: taking your own risks.” He seemed to be saying that if the young man died, that was his problem.

There were cheers from the crowd.

Blitzer pressed on: “But Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?” Someone in the audience shouted, “Yeah!” And the crowd roared in approval.

A characteristic that these exchanges have in common is cruelty. Cruelty is a close cousin to injustice, yet it is different. Injustice and its opposite, justice—perhaps the most commonly used standards for judging the health of the body politic—are political criteria par excellence, and apply above all to systems and their institutions. Cruelty and its opposites, kindness, compassion and decency, are more personal. They are apolitical qualities that nevertheless have political consequences. A country’s sense of decency stands outside and above its politics, checking and setting limits on abuses. An unjust society must reform its laws and institutions. A cruel society must reform itself.

There have been many signs recently that the United States has been traveling down a steepening path of cruelty. It’s hard to say why such a thing is occurring, but it seems to have to do with a steadily growing faith in force as the solution to almost any problem, whether at home or abroad. Enthusiasm for killing is an unmistakable symptom of cruelty. It also appeared after the killing of Osama bin Laden, which touched off raucous celebrations around the country. It is one thing to believe in the unfortunate necessity of killing someone, another to revel in it. This is especially disturbing when it is not only government officials but ordinary people who engage in the effusions.

In any descent into barbarism, one can make out two stages. First, the evils are inaugurated—tested, as it were. Second, the reaction comes—either indignation and rejection or else acceptance, even delight. The choice can indicate the difference between a country that is restoring decency and one that is sinking into a nightmare. It was a dark day for the United States when the Bush administration secretly ordered the torture of terrorism suspects. On that day, the civilization of the United States dropped down a notch. But it sank a notch lower when, the facts of the crimes having become known, former President Bush and former Vice President Cheney publicly embraced their wrongdoing, as they have done most recently on their respective book tours. To the impunity they already enjoyed, they added brazenness, as if challenging society to respond or else enter into tacit complicity with the abuses.

And still there was little reaction. For in a further downward drop, President Obama, even as he ordered an end to torture, decided against imposing any legal accountability on the miscreants, and in fact shunned any accountability whatsoever. He did not even seek, say, some equivalent of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa after the end of apartheid.

There are many other signs that the downward path is well traveled. Our criminal justice system reeks of cruelty. The death penalty defies standards of decency accepted by all civilized countries. The incarceration of more than 2 million Americans—the highest proportion per capita in the world—is a frightening reflection on a country that seems to know of no remedy for social ills but punishment. The conditions of incarceration are fearful. Atul Gawande of The New Yorker has provided a horrifying account of the spread within the justice system of extreme isolation techniques that, many believe, amount to torture. Prisoners can be held in solitary confinement for years in small, windowless cells in which they are kept for twenty-three hours of every day. Many prisoners—as well as Senator John McCain, who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam—have reported that such isolation is more agonizing and destructive than physical torture. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment,” McCain has said. In many cases, solitary confinement leads to mental disintegration. An article in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law states that “solitary confinement…can be as clinically distressing as physical torture.” The difference between jail and solitary may be greater than the difference between freedom and jail, yet this punishment can be imposed merely administratively, by wardens. In 2010 more than 25,000 inmates were being held in these conditions.

One of them—confined not in the regular prison system but in military facilities—is Bradley Manning, the 23-year-old Pfc. suspected of leaking documents to WikiLeaks. Though a model prisoner, he was held for a year as a Maximum Custody Detainee, whereby he was subject to the twenty-three-hour rule, barred from exercising, kept under perpetual surveillance and, for a while, kept naked. At the time, he had not even been charged with a crime.

Gawande draws a connection between the abuse of Americans at home and the torture of foreign suspects in the “war on terror.” “With little concern or demurral,” he writes, “we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war.”

We might also draw a connection between these abuses and the current direction of budgetary decisions, in which, as in the readiness to deny healthcare to the dying, a pitiless will to deprive suffering people of whatever aid they may be receiving is evident. The list of cuts, achieved or proposed, on the right-wing agenda is too long to recite, but recent examples include the astonishing obstruction of assistance to recent victims of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee unless other programs are cut; opposition to extending unemployment benefits; defeat of the Dream Act, which would give immigrant children a path to citizenship; opposition to spending for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) as well as Head Start, and so on. It appears that no one is so unfortunate that he or she is exempt from spending cuts, while at the same time no one is so fortunate as to be ineligible for a tax cut. Budget decisions do not involve the death penalty, yet for many they are matters of life and death.

The cruelty of a society cannot be quantified any more than its reserves of decency can. Nor can either be legislated, though both can be manifested in legislation. For all that, there can be no doubt that basic decisions are silently made in the hearts and minds of millions that are prior to any laws, and probably more important. If they go one way, a movement of hundreds of thousands suddenly arises, seemingly out of nowhere, to protest a wrongful execution. When they go the other way, you wake up one day to hear, with a chill running down your spine, a room full of people cheering because several hundred of their fellow citizens have been killed.

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