Journal Entry

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Inalienable

Says Rumsfeld: "The building of a free state in Iraq has proceeded probably with fewer lives lost and certainly no more mayhem that we endured here in the United States 228 years ago when we were going through it."

The interesting thing about this comparison to me -- since you've brought it up, Donald -- is that our Founding Fathers were considerably riled up about issues like arbitrary arrest, arbitrary search and seizure, confinement without access to counsel, and cruel and unusual punishment. It was perhaps their major complaint against King George, why they were willing to risk their lives and their sacred honor.

Nor did they see human rights as the narrowly defined privilege of citizens of a certain state, or something that one extends to allies, nor even as something which could be forfeited by criminals or rebels. They regarded them as inalienable.

At least they claimed to: in practice they were slaveholders, of course. But within their admittedly narrow idea of who was a full human being, they did not regard human rights as a gift of the state, nor as a gesture to your friends, but as an intrinsic possession.

When the rebels of 1776 took up arms against King George, they did not have any uniforms. If they were captured today -- under our government's current, narrowly circumscribed view of human rights -- they would be regarded as "enemy combatants" and not accorded the protections the Geneva Convention extends to prisoners of war. They could be held indefinitely, without bail, without counsel, and interrogated in a cruel and unusual fashion.

The horrific abuses at Abu Ghraib prison are appalling. I wish they were the aberrant exception that the government claims they are.

But in a way more frightening than that overt, obscene abuse is the relatively antiseptic and controlled endless detention at Guantanamo Bay -- because there, the government has fiercely defended the denial of any shred of due process for detainees. "Enemy combatants" can be jailed indefinitely simply on suspicion for the duration of hostilities -- which in the case of the "war on terror" means forever. There is no burden of proof for the prosecution. There is no need of prosecution at all.

I don't think the world is seeing aberrant, oddball, one-time abuse. I think the world is seeing the fruit of America's addiction to security through incarceration, and of America's waning interest in human rights.

One of the Army Reserve guards charged in the Abu Ghraib abuse is a prison guard in Virginia. There are plenty of reports that abuse is widespread in our own prisons -- and it shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The repertoire of standard American jokes about going to prison (and being someone's bitch) is rooted in the institutionalization of rape as a means of prisoner control. Prison is an enormous and booming industry in America, and prison companies have plenty of money to lobby for ever longer sentences for ever more trivial crimes (shoplifting a second time is a felony in California).

From the annual report of Corrections Corp of America, a company with a billion dollars of annual revenue:

"Our management team is pursuing a number of initiatives intended to increase occupancy through obtaining new and additional contracts....The average annual growth rate of the prison population in the United States between December 1995 and December 2002 was 3.6%...the number of federal inmates increased 5.8%....Further growth is expected to come from increased focus and resources by the Department of Homeland Security dedicated to illegal immigration, stricter sentencing guidelines, longer prison sentences and prison terms for juvenile offenders..."

These are good strategies. Incarcerating juvenile offenders is a great way to turn them into adult offenders and further increase occupancy. Turning misdemeanors into felonies, lengthening prison terms, and mandatory sentencing for nonviolent crimes (like drug possession) are excellent ways not only to fill beds, but to make reintegration into society much harder, thus increasing recidivism. Ka-ching!

Accordingly, Corrections Corp lobbies for tougher laws through the ALEC.

Prison labor is also a booming industry. Dell has just now gotten in trouble for it, but Nike, TWA, Microsoft, Victoria's Secret, Honda, K-mart, and Target appear to use prison labor too, often avoiding minimum-wage laws, unions, and environmental and health regulations.

It is this second America -- the new plantation system, fueled by corporate profits, guaranteed labor by increased criminalizing and ruled by brutality -- that brought us the Abu Ghraib crew. Our disinterest in human rights abroad and our thirst to punish and incarcerate increasing legions of our fellow citizens at home are of a piece.

America is not a nation based on ethnicity or country of origin. America is a nation based on the idea of human rights. For America, abandoning this notion means descending into barbarism.

It is worth rereading the declaration that the enemy combatants of 1776 made.

Some of their complaints against the George of their day seem oddly relevant in Iraq just now:

"Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us [and] protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States"

"depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury"

"transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences"

A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

And worse -- increasingly, it is the people whose character is marked by a longing for tyranny.


Posted by benrosen at May 12, 2004 10:51 AM | Up to blog
Comments

Yo Ben,

I'd been reading articles recently about the parallels between Abu Ghraib and prisons in the states, but I hadn't seen anything about Corrections Corp. Interesting. Disturbing. And sort of scary, too.

Posted by: Nancy Proctor at May 12, 2004 10:02 PM

Corrections Corp. is one of the bigger ones, but there are a whole lot of such companies. Prisons are a big industry.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at May 13, 2004 01:21 PM

Of course, Prince George had the excuse that he was a complete babbling lunatic. I wonder what excuse George Bush can come up with.

Posted by: Patrick Samphire at May 18, 2004 11:44 AM

Ooooo, the Neocons and their puppet Prez make me sooo *mad*! They're the worst thing to happen to this country in a long, long time.

Posted by: law at May 18, 2004 05:51 PM

george bush was a crazy president

Posted by: adidasi at January 30, 2010 04:35 PM
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