Saturday, March 30, 2013

Throw Away the Key

Trey Smith

Willie James Sauls is unlikely to see the outside of a prison. Last fall a court in the state of Texas sentenced this 37-year-old man to 45 years in jail. His crime: he snatched the purse from an old woman.

In Norway, meanwhile, a court sentenced Anders Behring Breivik, a right-wing racist who slaughtered 77 people, mostly teenagers, and injured several hundred, to 21 years in prison, with an option for that detention to be extended by five-year increments if he is determined to be still dangerous. Otherwise, the 32-year-old, if considered rehabilitated, could be released at the age of 53.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Germany was rocked by killings committed by a radical left group called the Red Army Faction. Its members killed over 30 people, including the nation's attorney general and leading industrialists. Eventually its leaders were caught and convicted, but by 2007, almost a decade after the Red Army Faction had announced its own dissolution, those still in prison were pardoned by the country’s president.

It is beyond inconceivable to imagine a US president, governor or even a judge, releasing a prisoner from a US jail who had committed the kind of offenses committed by either Breivik or members of Germany’s Red Army Faction. It is, for that matter, hard to imagine any political leader in the US pardoning even purse-snatcher Willie James Sauls.

This is, after all, a country that just recently hounded a 26-year-old internet activist, Aaron Swartz, into committing suicide, after a federal prosecutor threatened him with 35 years in jail -- this for the heinous crime of stealing income from a company that was collecting revenue for making available academic papers for which the authors get not a penny (in a protest action he had publicly hacked an MIT server and downloaded hundreds of academic papers which the private contractor was charging for!). This is a country that routinely convicts the wrong people and locks them up for decades and doesn't even apologize if they manage to eventually prove their innocence and win release. It's a country that is holding people as "terrorists" at Guantanamo, without trial, for over a decade, knowing they never did anything wrong, simply because it doesn't have the courage to admit its errors.

Right-wing Americans love to call the US a “nanny state,” claiming that the federal government is always trying to pass laws regulating people’s lives. What the US really is, though, is a “puni-state” -- a nation that thrives on vengeance and retribution, and that rejects the whole notion of rehabilitation or character change (even while euphemistically calling its prisons "corrections" facilities).

How else to explain the prosecutorial passion for charging absurdly youthful offenders as adults?
~ from The United Police States of America by Dave Lindorff ~
While I have been encouraged by the growing numbers of Americans who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, there is no question in my mind that fundamentalist Christianity still has a strong grip on our society. Fundamentalists place a great deal of emphasis on the Old Testament (OT) and the OT reads like a blueprint for retribution and vengeance. The god of the OT isn't one to try to talk out problems; defy him and ZAP!

Of course, the emphasis on retributive justice cannot be laid solely at the feet of Christianity. Muslim nations often are just as severe, if not more so. It seems to be a problem of religion, in general. And it's not just religion in a sterile vacuum. It also goes hand-in-hand with economics.

As we certainly see in this nation, the explosion of prisons is big money. There is a small gaggle of corporations that are robbing public treasuries blind by encouraging lawmakers to lock up ever more people. So, it should not be surprising that the big wigs in the prison-industrial complex like to wrap their looting into the fabric of fundamentalist Christianity. They exhort the faithful to support retributive justice -- and the faithful lap it up like thirsty dogs -- while laughing all the way to the bank and back again.

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