capital punishment

Shame, Come Back!

Really good article by Neal Gabler in Politico today. In How conservatives lost their moral compass, America’s Republicans, Gabler writes, have decided that shame is some sort of liberal plot designed to hobble tough, robust Conservatism. Hence, Perry’s unseemly boast about his record-setting execution numbers. And Paul’s (theoretical) condemning of an uninsured 30-year-old man to death if he can’t pay for medical care.

As Gabler notes, the crowds at the debates cheer for this sort of nastiness.

An excerpt:

American history can be read as a series of episodes in which we reached what could be called a “tipping point” of shame — when our behavior became so egregious that we, as a people, decided to desist from our worst excesses, whether it was slavery or antipathy to immigrants.

Take civil rights. The majority of Americans, even outside the South, might originally have had little real enthusiasm for the civil rights movement. Most urged patience. It was only after the public saw the beatings during the Freedom Rides, the firehoses and police dogs at Selma and the church bombing in Birmingham that Americans were shamed into accepting the claims of African-Americans to equal justice under the law. Shame was the moralizing force.

Shame also defeated the hatred of Father Charles Coughlin, the famous “radio priest” who laid the Great Depression at the feet of Jewish international bankers, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who recklessly accused his critics of communist treachery. Both had reached that tipping point at which ordinary Americans felt these provocateurs had gone too far. Americans felt shamed.

There is a reason we have never previously had a hatemonger like Rush Limbaugh enjoy popularity for as long as he has. The reason was shame. You couldn’t find enough people, let alone a broadcaster, who wanted to be identified with that sort of viciousness. The initial enthusiasm for it eventually waned.

But that was then. Surely when a group can publicly cheer a man’s death for not having health insurance, the sense of shame is gone. It faded not only because liberals had subverted it by casting it as a conservative scheme to corset society, but because conservatives managed to delegitimize it. They attacked it as yet another elitist scheme, contrived to neuter strong conservatism.

Great stuff. I highly recommend reading it. I would only add that Gabler could be a little more inclusive.

I would stop short of saying this shamelessness is shared equally by liberals, but you’re not paying attention if you don’t see it across the political spectrum. Consider how giggly  the Secretary of State became when she sat down with Diane Sawyer to have a Just-Us-Girls chat about the death of Gaddafi (“We Came We Saw He Died”), or Obama’s joking about using predator drones to assassinate the Jonas Brothers. Ha-ha. You thought he was joking? Nope. Sixteen-year-old boys in foreign lands are legitimate targets these days. Or maybe not. Maybe Awlaki’s son, vaporized as he sat down to eat with some friends, was “collateral damage.” Obama won’t say,  because he doesn’t have to ask permission, and he doesn’t have to explain.

I wrote in an earlier post about the giddiness I notice when politicians like Madame Clinton play at being tough guys. In the last week, Ice T said she should be the next president and brought the tough-guy schtick to an entirely new level:

She did the Secretary of State job, she was a G, she held it down, she didn’t cry.

Set aside for a moment the patronizing “she didn’t cry.” This is a shout-out from Ice-T! Hillary Clinton an honorary “G”! I’m pretty sure that HuffPost piece has been printed out and taped up somewhere conspicuous at the Secretary’s office. Did it gave Hillary and her staffers another case of the giggles and high-fives all-around? I have a feeling it did.

True, the Democrats do not seem to revel in cold-heartedness (theirs is still a little school-marmish, “it’s for your own good” affect–see Albright, M.),  but let’s look at the bipartisan coldness that is at large in the land.

Start by taking a look at Adam Gopnik’s recent New Yorker piece on our sprawling, and growing, prison complex, and the ugly fact that, according to a 2010 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “nonviolent offenders make up more than 60 percent of the prison and jail population. Nonviolent drug offenders now account for about one-fourth of all inmates, up from less than 10 percent in 1980.”

Is that only the product of Republican mean-spiritedness? I think not. Is it possible for a situation like the one described by Gopnik to exist without broad support from politicians of all stripes?

For most privileged, professional people, the experience of confinement is a mere brush, encountered after a kid’s arrest, say. For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

As Gopnik notes, the fact that we’re sticking millions of our citizens down a hole for decades at a time is just the beginning. Absurd numbers of prisoners are singled out for solitary confinement. The very existence of even one “Supermax” prison is pretty much enough to indict our culture as broadly vindictive, even sadistic. There are dozens of  prisons with Supermax wings, and I would venture to bet they are in districts represented by politicians of both parties.

And, if you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the criminal justice system, not only will you be locked up, you will be pretty much on your own vis a vis preventing yourself from being raped. This should be the subject of much outrage, right? Uh, no. Gopnik again.

Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing.

Again, I’m not rejecting Gabler’s point. There’s no question: the state of “conservative” discourse has changed into something that is unspeakably ugly to behold. The past months of virtually non-stop debates have put this fact on dramatic display (while at the same time setting the range of topics for whichever candidate emerges from this clown/monster show to debate Obama).

There are of course significant differences between the parties, but a similar agenda gets enacted no matter who wins. Bold prediction: It will be More War, More Austerity and More Prisons for the foreseeable future. Three things few voters are clamoring for. And you’ll have a hard time finding a politician of either party willing to apologize for (let alone be ashamed of) that state of affairs.

If you can’t try ’em, fry ’em (and the crowd goes crazy!)

Marcy Wheeler writes:

That’s right, not just one, but two, Americans were summarily and extrajudicially executed by their own government today, at the direct order of the President of the United States. No trial, no verdict, just off with their heads. Heck, there were not even charges filed against either Awlaki or Khan. And it is not that the government did not try either, there was a grand jury convened on Khan, but no charges. Awlaki too was investigated for charges at least twice by the DOJ, but non were found.

I confess to not knowing about the halfhearted attempts at legally dealing with Awlaki and Khan, but it’s not surprising to see them overlooked in media coverage of Friday’s assassination.  It fits the big picture. We  couldn’t convict them in any court of anything, so let’s just blow their asses away!

So that is where we stand. Bringing to its logical conclusion a process started under Clinton, the current president has declared himself to be Emperor of the Planet. If he says you’re an Extra Special Evil Enemy, you’re dead, even if you’re an American citizen. This is not the first time Obama’s exercised the imperial prerogative to put names on a death list, but it’s the most high-profile instance. And to read the responses from media and politicians–mostly bowing to the somber need to rid our country of these fucking cockroaches–is to cry.

I don’t think much has changed since I wrote “First they came, the invisible whites, and dealt death from afar” nearly a year ago. Except that now the USA is in major “Fuck Yeah!” mode in zapping  terror leaders! And the efficiency of drone attacks has improved, uh, miraculously.  Top counterterror honcho John Brennan now claims zero accidental deaths from drone strikes.

He actually said this:

There hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop.

Yes, ZERO. Earlier a key figure said, in the pages of the Times, that the success rate was more along the order of one in fifty. Now it’s one HUNDRED PERCENT.

Did the science of targeting big-ass rockets at blurry shapes on monitors improve that dramatically, or did the government just decide to lie brazenly about it?

Take your pick, but you should really ponder this report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism before you do….

There have been a good few critical responses to the Awlaki killing, mostly focusing on the fact that we are now murdering Americans without due process.

Truly, that is appalling, but isn’t it a tiny nuance, compared to the fact that a nation, protected by massive oceans on either side and friendly neighbors north and south, is vaporizing any human beings on the other side of the planet –the targeted person(s) and whoever else happens to be nearby when the Hellfire missile explodes–and then claiming self-defense? Mighty America is defending itself from a preacher in YEMEN?!!!! Just let the crazy of that sink in for a moment.

The libertarians have been getting to me, I guess. Not their goofy belief in the magic benevolence of markets, but in their justified questions of what exactly empowers the state to kill anyone, whether it be a hapless poor person of color who can’t afford decent counsel, or renegade Muslim clerics, or indeed anyone in a country that is not massing its troops at our border.

I can’t counter the thought that all of these  decisions to murder arise not from an earnest desire to protect Americans (though I grant that might be mixed into the motivation), but mainly from considerations of domestic political expediency. The local DA has to appear “tough on crime” to win re-election, just as the president has to avoid the “soft on defense” tag to undercut the kneejerk criticisms on this account that are certain to come from the opposing party.

The low, dishonest decade hasn’t bottomed out yet.

Anyway, here is that earlier piece I mentioned above. Sadly, it’s even more relevant than it was last year.


“No kin to you undertaker”

I imagine the producers of these debates get together with the hosts afterwards and give notes, as they do in the theater. And I strongly hope they suggested to Brian Williams that, following Governor Perry’s ode to Texas justice, a follow-up question might have been nice….

It’s hard to imagine Mr. Williams and/or the producers were not familiar with The Texas Tribune’s database of all the executions in Texas under Perry’s leadership, including capsule summaries about some of the most controversial.

The summaries should be read in full, but I will excerpt just the first one to give a taste of what “ultimate justice” means in Texas.

Mental Incapacity

Kelsey Patterson was sentenced to death for the September 1992 shooting deaths of Louis Oates and Dorothy Harris in Palestine.

Testimony showed that without provocation, Patterson walked up to Oates, 63, the owner of Oates Oil Co., and shot him. He shot Harris, 41, when she came out to see what was going on. Patterson then went to a friend’s home nearby, stripped down to his socks and waited in the street for police to arrive.

Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist and popular prosecution expert witness who earned the label “Dr. Death” because he rarely found defendants too mentally unfit to face the death penalty, told jurors Patterson was sane at the time of the murders. At trial, Patterson testified at length about devices the military had planted in his head.

From prison, he sent incoherent letters to the courts, including a 2004 letter to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in which he wrote that he wanted to “conduct my legal work needed to stop the execution murder assaults injury execution date murder machines grave graveyard murder …”

Shortly before his execution on May 18, 2004, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended that Perry grant clemency, which Perry rejected. He worried that if he commuted the sentence, Patterson might be released on parole. Patterson’s last statement was a final testimony to his mental condition: “Statement to what? State what? I am not guilty of the charge of capital murder. Steal me and my family’s money. My truth will always be my truth. There is no kin and no friend; no fear what you do to me. No kin to you undertaker.”

Ta-Nehesi Coates has a good response, and an extremely re-tweetable one at that, reminding us of the bi-partisan nature of death penalty boosterism:

Apparently people were shocked by the applause here. The only thing that shocked me was that they didn’t form a rumba line. [!!!!!] It’s a Republican debate. And it’s America. Perry’s right–most people support the death penalty. It’s the job of those of us who oppose the death penalty to change that.

It’s worth remembering that no Democratic nominee for the presidency in some twenty years, has been against the death penalty.

This is still the country where we took kids to see men lynched, and then posed for photos. We are a lot of things. This is one of them.

Also, Ricky Ray Rector ring a bell?

And maybe this is a good place to remind people that the current president has, like his predecessor, granted unto himself the right to kill anyone on the planet, even American citizens, without even the faintest whiff of due process.

And typically these executions in distant lands do not involve lethal injections. They are more along the lines of missile attacks on the targeted person, as well as anyone who is unlucky enough to be in the general vicinity.

Fifty innocent victims for every successful hit. Makes Perry look pretty benevolent in comparison….

So let’s not get all “OMG what if this guy becomes president!” Please. In some respects, this guy already is.

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