One Nation, Under a Heartless God
Why Is America So Mean?
"The 82nd," the man ahead of me in the security line at the Kansas City airport said. He was 64 and white, very Hank Hill and not the kind of guy you'd typically see chatting up a skinny 20-year-old Latino dude. But they were both veterans. Common ground is a given."I was in the 82nd too," the kid told the old man. I looked down. The kid's legs were gone. He was standing on metal. Implausibly and heartbreakingly, white Converses adorned the tips of his prosthetic legs. High tops.
On the other side of the metal detector, I caught up with the young vet (Iraq? Afghanistan?). HomeSec was giving him the whole treatment: arms stretched out, the wand, stern expressions and stupid questions. The wand beeped and beeped. The TSA guy scowled. "I've got titanium all the way up my spine," the kid explained.
You're kidding me, I thought. After what he's been through. After what he's done for his country. I wanted to scream: Bastards! You should wave him around the checkpoint. Here, sir, we'd like to offer you a seat in first class. No, no, no charge.
I bit my tongue. Here in the land of the twee and the craven, I know when to shut up. That's what we do now. Airports are nodes of high-intensity fascism in a nation settling into authoritarianism lite. Hassle the bastards and you might end up dead. I had a flight to catch, doncha know.
Have we, at long last, any decency?
In one respect, the three remaining presidential candidates say, "Yes, we do." They've promised to close Gitmo.
What ought to happen to the nearly 300 detainees is obvious. Hand each of them an apology, a bag of cash -- a million bucks wouldn't be nearly enough for what they've been through -- and a plane ticket home. Those who can't return to their countries of origin because their U.S.-backed dictatorships would murder them receive a penthouse suite in the U.S. city of their choice.
I'd let them switch places with their guards and 300 top-ranking members of the Bush Administration for a couple of days first. No questions asked. Just get on the plane, and don't forget your bag o' cash.
Here's how messed up, how separated from common sense justice the United States of America has become: We might close Gitmo. But we're keeping the inmates!
"When it comes to closing Guantánamo, talk is cheap," Columbia law professor Matthew Waxman tells The Los Angeles Times. Because, you see, the U.S. government has violated the victims' rights so egregiously for so long that there's no longer a legally appropriate way to process them.
"Especially vexing," says the paper, "are scores of foreign detainees: Officials lack evidence to prosecute, but warn against setting them free." It's an 800-year-old Western legal principle called habeas corpus: you can't hold a person in custody without charging them. Oh, wait -- Bush got rid of that.
"Because there is little evidence against them that could be used in a U.S. court, government officials fear that a federal judge could order them freed," the Times continues. Heaven forbid that we release people, even if there's no evidence they've done anything wrong. What's next? Taxing the rich?
"Then you would have 100-plus future sleeper-cell members unleashed in Kansas," a "midlevel official" told the Times. No grain silo would be safe.
Gitmo inmates have been waterboarded, urinated upon by U.S. soldiers, violently force-fed and driven to suicide. Some of the "dangerous terrorists" (John McCain's description) were 12 years old when Afghan warlords sold them to U.S. forces for cash bounties. They've grown up in Gitmo. When do we finally, at long last, decide that they've suffered enough?
Maybe we should just shoot them.
It's not just foreigners. Even for its own native-born wretches, America couldn't find a path to fundamental decency if it were lit up like Times Square on New Year's Eve.
In ancient Rome, executioners abided by a rule: If they failed to hack off your head after three swings of the blade, they set you free. Not here. Men condemned to lethal injection wake up screaming; the guards administer more poisons and barbiturates.
Veterinarians abandoned the three-drug cocktail used to kill inmates in most states because they considered it cruel to animals.
Many death row prisoners are innocent. Sometimes they even manage to prove it before their executions. "At least 205 men and one woman nationwide have been exonerated through DNA evidence since 1989, including 53 who...were convicted of murder," reports The New York Times. But what happens to those who are set free?
No compensation is enough for someone who serves years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. But society ought to come up with something.
There ought to be money. Millions and millions of dollars. So much that the victim of a judicial miscarriage never has to work again. It wouldn't bring back the lost years, the shattered relationships and murdered moments. But it would be a start.
Then again, this is America. We don't apologize, much less try to pay penance. Here's $24 and a cheap suit. Too bad about those 15 years. Thank you for playing. Want compensation? Find a lawyer who'll work for $24 and sue.
Ah, but there's a catch: you need a law under which to file a lawsuit. 36 of the 50 states have laws that specifically prevent innocent ex-prisoners from going to court to seek the damages they ought to have been given without asking. Twelve of the remaining 14 have limits. (New York and Maryland do not.) California caps total payouts at a stingy $100 a day, up to a maximum of $10,000 -- even if they lock you up for 20 years by mistake.
As individuals, Americans are generous to a fault. They do the right thing, or at least they try. The disconnect occurs when we express our collective will, through our courts and government officials. Our laws and our politicians are mean, cheap and callous.
How did a soft-hearted people wind up making such a hard-ass country?
Ted Rall is the author of the new book "Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?," an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.
© 2008 Ted Rall