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Pretending to be Civilized in an Epidemic of Institutional Sadism

by Pierre Tristam

From the you-can't-be-serious department: Savana Redding was a 13-year-old honors student at a small Arizona middle school. In math class one morning the principal ordered her to pack up and follow him to his office. The principal interrogated her about a planner Savana had lent a friend, and a few ibuprofin pills sitting on the principal's desk, which were found in the planner. Savana knew nothing about the pills.

The principal then ordered her to the nurse's office for a strip search. Over ibuprofin pills. Not that it would make a difference if she were carrying crack. She was 13. She was being ordered to strip. Her parents were never notified. Savana did not consent to the search but complied in humiliating details. She was forced, literally, to shake her bra and her underwear, exposing herself in front of the nurse and an assistant. Nothing was found. I don't know what's more perverse: The principal's zero-tolerance stupidity over ibuprofin pills, the degrading search, or the fact that nine U.S. Supreme Court justices will hear this case next month to decide what limits, if any, there should be on school authority.

But this isn't authority. It's criminal abuse -- of authority, of the child, of human dignity. How do we come to this? Stupid question, considering the accumulating record of a society where ideals of justice and humaneness mix with the basest controls in the name of discipline and order. They're close relatives, those school officials who order a 13 year old strip searched, to those who have children Tasered, or to police officers who now use that instrument of torture as a routine means of subjugation, or to prison guards who do the same with restraining chairs. When the barbaric becomes routine, it's called protocol. What should be denounced and forbidden is accepted and debated.

The distance has vanished from there to a government so willing to torture, and a public so willing to implicitly accept that dissolution of principles, if it's willing to debate it. "Why can't we send them to be tortured?" George W. Bush had wondered about terrorism suspects in the early days of his war, according to a new book by Patrick Tyler, The New York Times' chief diplomatic correspondent. "Stick something up their ass!" Bush got his wish in the by-now familiar litany of terrorist behavior in the name of fighting terrorism -- torture and rendition, secret prisons, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the systematic policy of brutality approved from the top that muscled up the wars' enforcers.

That's all revolting enough. But it's all been offshore, an outsourcing of depravity over there so we wouldn't have to be depraved over here -- the unspoken parallel to Bush's dismal rationale of "fighting terrorists over there so we wouldn't have to fight them over here." That's assuming that depravity can be so neatly segregated so the rest of us can go about our civilized pretensions untroubled. But those excesses weren't exceptions. They were variations on everyday norms at home that made them possible.

Abu Ghraib was bad. Our domestic prison system is worse, from the unspoken torture of the solitary confinement of thousands (as The New Yorker's Atul Gawande argues in the current issue) to the stunning yet apathy inducing fact that 7.3 million Americans are in prison, on parole or under probation. It's a $47 billion-a-year industry, the opposite of "corrections," that exceeds China's entire military budget. Can that many Americans be so disproportionately more lawless than any other people on earth? On its face, the answer is no. Americans aren't. Their criminal justice system is -- the same system, unique in the world, that imprisons 13 year olds for life, carries out executions by conveyor belt (an average of 60 a year since 2000) and turns petty marijuana inhalers into felons swelling prison cells and budget deficits.

There is no off-shoring of these betrayals of civilized behavior, no way to segregate them from what we are as a culture and what we've made possible, abroad or in our own justice system and Taser-charged streets, and even our zero-tolerant schools, as Savana and many like her find out every day.

In "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," the crew of the Enterprise travels back from the 23rd century to 1986 America, either to save the planet or save the whales. There's a wonderful scene toward the end where Captain Kirk, Spock and Dr. McCoy are trying to save Chekov from the claws of 20th century health care. Dr. McCoy can't believe the hospital's wards of barbarism. To a woman on dialysis: "Dialysis? What is this, the dark ages? Here, swallow one of these." Chemotherapy? "Sounds like the (expletive) Spanish Inquisition." One of these days, I hope not so far as the 23rd century, we'll look back on this decade's epidemic of institutional sadism with as much horror as Dr. McCoy looked at 20th century medicine.

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