In taking the measure of the European conquest of the New World, when so many indigenous people were eliminated by sword, gunfire, and disease, we note that the invading Europeans did not practice human sacrifice. The Aztecs, for all their high-culture accomplishments, routinely offered up live human beings to appease their gods. The cult was so brutal that the conquistadors, by comparison, could think of themselves as a civilizing force.
By extension, ever since, we descendants of conquistadors have felt certain of our moral superiority. Yet in recent years, the high-culture United States has embraced the extreme form of a primitive cult by which a few are scapegoated for the sake of the many. Human sacrifice, modern American style, is the revivified cult of capital punishment, ritual killing carried out in the magical belief that society, as a result, will be safer and more just. But human sacrifice has also come to describe the entire American approach to the maintenance of social order. What else could it mean that the staggering number of 2 million people are imprisoned in this country? This is so even though many represent no physical threat to others and many are innocent. If the mortal pressures of death row are leading to the repeated discovery that murder convictions are all too easily obtained against those who are not guilty, that finding applies across the entire spectrum of prosecution, meaning tens of thousands of innocent people are wrongly in prison.
When other recent news events demonstrate, say, that the antiblack prejudice of many white police officers is so ingrained that not even black police officers are safe from it, or that law students in Illinois can solve mysteries that had baffled procedure-bound lawyers and judges, or that the inclination of federal agents to twist the law to their own purposes can make those agents silent partners to murder, how can worried citizens not ask fundamental questions about a judicial system administered by those same bigoted police, corrupted agents, and constrained judges? At the mercy of ''corrections departments'' that have abandoned correction in favor of revenge, a new sacrificial class of human beings is now offered up to a god who will devour anyone, guilty or not. Last week the scandal of innocents on death row prompted Governor George Ryan of Illinois to suspend executions, but that scandal is just the tip of the iceberg, with most of the problem still invisible to most politicians. George W. Bush's callousness about the people he executes is old hat by now, but Ryan's announcement was marked, only a few days later, by Illinois native Hillary Clinton, who, in an interview prior to jumping into New York's Senate race, as a New York Times report put it, ''went out of her way to note her support for the death penalty.''
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Not only people on death row have been tied to this altar. As death penalty survivor Paris Carriger said in Boston last week, ''We're getting this huge hole in our society, a hole made up of people who don't fit anymore. Not just the ones in prison, but their children and parents and nieces and nephews who know now that this society isn't for them.'' What is 2 million multiplied by the people who love those 2 million? Such a question forces another: What else is going on here? In the Soviet Union, criminals and dissidents were condemned to the Gulag, but we see how that massive camp system served an unconscious purpose in a deeply troubled culture. Onto those outcasts a fiercely repressed people projected everything they secretly hated about the inhuman regime all were living under. Instead of attacking the regime, they attacked its misfits. Thus, the Gulag, that ''huge hole'' in Soviet society, was a Soviet form of human sacrifice. It was simultaneously the Soviet abyss and the epiphany of Soviet evil.
It is not necessary to equate the Soviet Union and the United States to see that the unprecedented American prison system is equally an epiphany of something deeply wrong. Human sacrifice indeed. Most prisoners are guilty as charged, but what of the many who, years later, are ill, elderly, or mentally unbalanced? What of the nonviolent young? What of the overwhelming disproportion of black and brown among inmate populations? And all of this for what? Prisons built to prevent crime train criminals. Prisons built to make society safe make society cruel. A social order built on vengeful punishment makes violence a social norm. Then why have prisons mushroomed so, and why is the nation's thirst for the blood of the executed so unslaked? We are using convicts for a psychological purpose which, if we acknowledged it, would shame us. We have adopted the Aztec intuition as our own, but with a difference. When, out of irrational anxieties about a world they neither understood nor controlled, the Aztecs led sacrificial victims to their fates, they called it worship. We do the same and call it justice.