American Brutality

An iconic image from Abu Ghraib.

Eric Garner dies in a choke hold.

Two press releases that came within days of each other lead me to wonder: how far does it have to go before we realize what we've become?

Americans have long known about the horrors of Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison where US Army and CIA personnel subjected prisoners of war to treatment Americans normally assume is the province of demented fascist regimes. Two days ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report detailing abuses committed by the CIA that go far beyond the stories we've heard from that hell hole. This came just four days after a grand jury failed to indict an NYPD officer for killing an asthmatic African-American using a department-prohibited choke hold.

At first glance, these two stories have little in common: Abu Ghraib was in Iraq, while Eric Garner died on Staten Island. The prisoners abused at Abu Ghraib were believed to be war criminals; Eric Garner was detained for allegedly selling cigarettes without a license. The torturers at Abu Ghraib were soldiers and intelligence officers; Eric Garner was killed by domestic police officers. The victims at Abu Ghraib were Iraqi Arabs; Eric Garner was an American citizen.

For all their differences, though, these two events say something significant about the American ethos in the 21st century: we are becoming a people who don't just tolerate, but embrace, the violent treatment of suspects. What ever veneer of civilized restraint we may have had in the 20th century has worn thin to the point of vanishing; and a significant number of our national leaders approve.

Republican voices, in particular, have been almost completely unified in decrying the report on CIA torture, insisting, in lock step with former Vice President Dick Cheney, that torture is an effective means of ascertaining vital information, and that the suspicious nature of official CIA victims--almost all of whom are suspected of ties to terrorist organizations--vindicates any moral quandaries that may ensue from having Americans torture foreigners. The lone voice in opposition, as always, is former prisoner of war and current Senator John McCain, who endured many rounds of torture that ultimately maimed him for life while a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. He can say in all honesty that any information gained through torture is suspect, because torture victims will say whatever they have to to make the pain stop.

Meanwhile, much closer to home, there is the Eric Garner decision, which comes quickly on the heels of the Michael Brown decision. American police are killing black men with little or no justification, and grand juries are letting them get away with it. Meanwhile, conservatives are insisting that these victims "had it coming" for engaging in petty crimes, both involving cigarettes.

Now seriously, people: is a stolen or illegally hawked cigarette really grounds for the death penalty? And since when did street cops become Judge Dredd, deciding for themselves who is innocent, who guilty, and executing the verdict of death whenever they deem it appropriate?

Going a  little further back, we can see that conservatives, with the backing of the NRA, also succeeded in downplaying the horror of Sandy Hook, in which 20 children and 6 adults died in a mass shooting at an elementary school. This could have been the impetus for sane gun legislation, but the outcry from the right was so great that it quickly lost its power to move majorities.

As a nation, we've grown inured to violent news stories, just as we've lost interest in serious cinematic wrestling with war ethics, preferring our movie shootings to be clean and heroic. We imagine that's how police shootings are, as well, a violent miscreant picked off before he (and it's almost always a male) can harm anymore innocent victims.

In fact, though, police are 21 times more likely to shoot African-Americans to death than their white counterparts. Add to this the common perception among persons of color--often grounded in real-life experience--that being stopped by a policeman is bad news for them, and you may begin to understand that there's a real problem here.

My personal experience of dealing with police, by the way, has generally been one of being let off easy. I've been lectured and even berated by traffic police for speeding and, in one case, coming too close to a stopped motorcycle cop, but I've always been let off with a warning. I suspect that has a lot to do with me being a middle-aged white man driving a boring middle class sedan. But that's not the point of this essay. What I'm writing about here is how Americans have come to take in stride the use of vicious, even lethal force in our name.

Whether they're "defending democracy" in Iraq or "protecting and serving" in a black neighborhood, our troops and peace officers have been torturing or shooting first, asking questions later, if at all, and the conservative voices in the media and Congress have backed them up. It's considered unpatriotic to question the application of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on suspected terrorists, or of lethal force on suspected criminals.

It could be argued that there is nothing new about the shooting of black civilians by white police officers; that, in fact, there's an unbroken line running from the horrors of slavery right up to the street cop applying a choke hold to an unarmed man. It could also be argued that the principle of "just war" has never been consistently applied by American strategists, and has really only been window dressing to assure American citizens that our troops are more moral than those barbarians who oppose us. The cynic in me wants to say this is absolutely the case, and that any pretense we may make to being a more moral people than the Nazis, the Soviets, the Viet Cong, the terrorists, is all just a crock of excrement, and like them, we'll do whatever it takes to win. The same cynic observes the old joke that a Democratic is just a Republican who's never been mugged, that we're only really progressive with regard to matters of criminal justice so long as we are not, ourselves, victims of crime. I can aver to truth in both those caveats. At the same time, though, I set them aside, because Ronald Reagan was right about America: we should be a shining city on a hill.

And that is where the conservative supporters of violence, both domestically and overseas, prove themselves to be the true traitors to the ideals of America. The city on the hill is concerned first and foremost with justice for all. That may be uncomfortable when it means letting a petty criminal get away with his stolen cigarillos, or admitting that there's just no way to get the information we want out of that probable terrorist, and in fact we have to let him go. Freedom isn't free, as veterans are fond of saying: sometimes truly valuing freedom means letting bad guys get away with what they've done, because the alternative is becoming someone we really don't want to be: a nation that tortures, a police state that rules by the bullet rather than the court.

We are not the first to face this quandary. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible went on at great length about how Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations, a state that had Torah written on its heart, whose king was just, whose priests were pure, and whose religion was all about love and mercy. The Chosen People frequently fell short of those ideals. They still do; otherwise, Palestinians would be living peaceably among them, or have their own state.

We who call ourselves Americans have the same mandate hanging over our collective head, though in the place of the Torah, we have the Constitution. Our founding documents were about freedom and civil rights, and we have, over time, always been working to expand those rights, extending them to more and more marginalized minorities. That the minorities of color have consistently suffered inordinate abuse from the police flies in the face of our high calling. That our intelligence and military apparatus would engage in practices we associate with fascist regimes and terrorists makes a sham of it. And that our elected officials, those sworn to defend the Constitution, would not just jump on the band wagon, but assemble it themselves, says a great deal about the poor choices of the low-information voter.

We can reverse these trends. We can step back from the government-sanctioned violence in our streets, disarm our police, park their urban assault vehicles, downgrade or even confiscate their weapons. We can respond with revulsion to the torture performed in our name and demand our legislators--even the Republican ones--legislate it into a federal offense. 

And by "we," I mean all of us with a line to a Congressperson who would rather sweep CIA abuses under the rug, and who is too much under the influence of military contractors to scale things back. I know it's many days late and dollars short, but simply by voting for progressive candidates who oppose torture and favor police reform, we can begin to turn this around.

It starts closer to home than a simple ballot, though. Do you spank your children? I understand the urge: in many ways, children are uncivilized animals, in desperate need of breaking. Whether as a parent or as a teacher, I've had my moments when what I wanted most was to turn a defiant naughty child over my knee and dole out some primitive justice, not because it will ultimately facilitate any change in the behavior of the child, but because it will simply make me feel better to spank a bottom until my hand stings.

Which is why I will not, cannot do such a thing. Lashing out with a hand, a paddle, a weapon may momentarily feel like a good solution to an intractable problem: waterboard that terrorist, choke that rude pedestrian, put a bullet in that cheeky teenager, and for a moment, we feel like we've made a difference.

Except we haven't. What we've done is set ourselves and our nation a step back toward the frontier. We've made ourselves no more civilized than the perpetrator we're attempting to correct, and in some ways even less civilized: with great power, as Stan Lee taught us, comes great responsibility.

Those supposedly conservative voices who seek to do this to our nation, to peel away the progress we've made toward becoming a shining example to the world, need to hear the voices taking delight in our hypocrisy. We are being criticized by China. North Korea is wagging its finger at our embrace of torture.

If we truly believe that our highest calling is to be the nation that, more than any other, embraces civil rights and defends freedom, then these two events must be the herald of a new birth of liberty. We're better than that, you Republican reprobates. The most American reaction we can have to the deaths of black men at the hands of police, and the torture of foreign citizens by American intelligence agents, is shame and the sincere commitment to do better next time.


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