U.S. President Obama has issued more statements condemning the government crackdown on Iranian protesters angry with the possibly fraudulent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency.
The BBC reports:
Mr Obama said: “The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days.
“I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.”
He said: “The United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not at all interfering in Iran’s affairs. But we must also bear witness to the courage and dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society.”
Mr Obama said of the allegations of meddling: “This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won’t work anymore in Iran.
“This is not about the United States and the West. This is about the people of Iran, and the future that they – and only they – will choose.”
Obama has already endured copious criticism on this issue from the GOP, whose leaders say the President has been too ‘soft’ on Iran since taking office. And the Supreme Leader of Iran has accused both London and Washington of meddling in Iran’s affairs and seeking to foment unrest for political gain.
The U.S. government finds itself in a delicate position with regards to the situation in Iran; from the outset, the Obama White House has pledged to take a less bullish, trigger-happy approach to negotiations with Tehran than the preceding administration. The U.S., already embroiled in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for which stateside support is rapidly dwindling, is struggling through its worst financial crisis in nearly a century. Even if Washington were sure that the Iranian election is fraudulent, it could offer little real support to Ahmadinejad’s opponents. Therefore, we can be relatively sure that what the President has to say about Iran will have scant resonance beyond the Beltway.
One thing that bothers me about diplomatic grandstanding on this issue is the question: What if it happened here? What if, rather than calmly accepting the Supreme Court-mandated first inauguration of George W. Bush, thousands of protesters had taken to the streets in New York, Washington, San Francisco, and elsewhere? Would the U.S. government had been as restrained as it now feels compelled to ask of Tehran? Judging by the harsh civic responses on record to political protests in places like Seattle and Chicago, the answer is probably ‘no.’ It seems unlikely that such questions will ever be other than hypothetical, as the U.S. fosters a society in which copious creature comforts tend to ensure merely theoretical interest in political developments among much of its population.
In a video message to Iran delivered to coincide with the spring holiday of Nowruz, U.S. President Barack Obama may have departed significantly from Bush-era policies by opening the door to constructive dialog between the two nations. But his overtures disappointed many and were less than warmly received by the government in Tehran largely because they seemed to embody a continuation of carrot-and-stick diplomacy oriented toward rewarding a sovereign nation for “good behavior” rather than truly engaging it as an equal.
The BBC reports on the response from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini:
Speaking to a large crowd in the holy city of Mashhad, Ayatollah Khamenei said Iran had “no experience with the new American government and the new American president.”
“We will observe them and we will judge,” he said.
“If you change your attitude, we will change our attitude.”
In the speech, which was carried live by Iranian television, he said Iran was yet to see such a change.
“What is the change in your policy?” he asked.
“Did you remove the sanctions? Did you stop supporting the Zionist regime? Tell us what you have changed. Change only in words is not enough.”
Matters were not helped, perhaps, in that Obama preceded his address by extending certain sanctions against the Islamic republic for one year, citing threats to U.S. national security.
Iran is due to hold presidential elections this summer. Former President Mohammed Khatami, a figure widely viewed as more open to reconciliation with the West, was at one point slated to run for reelection but then withdrew from the race. Whether or not current President Amahdinejad, seen as a foreign policy hardliner, is ousted from office, the U.S. and Israel need not expect the election to bring any major changes to the political climate.
It is good that the new White House is willing to engage in dialog with Tehran, but the fact remains that, if the U.S. wishes genuinely to create goodwill and a sense of cooperation with Iran, it must itself take steps toward enacting several policy changes:
- First and foremost, the U.S. must openly rethink its complete and unmitigated support for the government of Israel, particularly as it pertains to the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Since the U.S. is largely responsible for the arming and funding of Israeli military operations, and has traditionally backed Israel diplomatically against all odds, it is seen as a de facto partner in the blockades and military offensives which have recently crushed millions of innocent Palestinians in response to rocket fire from a relatively small number of militants. The U.S. could help matters by intensifying its commitment to a political solution for Palestine.
- The U.S. must recognize Iran’s right to develop peaceful nuclear energy, and must adopt a policy of “innocent until proven guilty” towards its suspicions that Iran might be seeking to develop nuclear weapons. There remains no concrete evidence that Iran is working towards a bomb, but the hysteria over the idea continues to mount as Israel considers using missiles to destroy enrichment efforts. Iran may be willing to accept reliance on fuel enriched outside its borders, but not for nothing in return.
- The U.S. must work to end U.S. and U.N. sanctions against Iran. This could be made dependent on eliciting cooperation from Tehran on security issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the government may or may not be willing to give. But as long as such sanctions are in place, Iran is justified in feeling that it is being addressed as less than an equal, and little progress is likely.
In return, the U.S. should expect Iran to soften its support of Hezbollah and Hamas, to tone down its anti-Israeli rhetoric and provocative missile tests, and to become more receptive to cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, to keep realism on the table, we must remember that Iran reasonably views itself as a state under threat, surrounded on both sides by ongoing U.S. military operations and continually threatened by talk of missile attacks from Israel.
Obama’s latest move certainly signifies the hope of change, but it is not yet, for many, change we can believe in.
From our Local Interest Department:
In White Hall, Alabama—a rural community near Montgomery in which about one third of folks live below the poverty line–a state task force raided a bingo hall before dawn on Thursday, seizing more than 200 alleged illegal slot machines and “a large amount of cash.”
From the Associated Press via al.com:
A spokesman for Gov. Bob Riley says the Governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling organized the pre-dawn raid Thursday and are seizing machines suspected of being illegal slot machines.
No charges were immediately filed.
Collins Pettaway, an attorney for the charity that operates the bingo hall, says the machines are all legal and he is trying to get an injunction to block the seizure.
Whitehall resident Doris Gresham says she was in the gaming center when state troopers arrived about 5 a.m.
The bingo hall is located on U.S. 80 about 20 miles west of Montgomery.
The thought occurs to me that if the great state of Alabama could just let good folks like Doris yank the lever in peace, perhaps my state university wouldn’t be turning off the air conditioning in shifts and considering a hiring freeze, the roads around here might get serviced regularly and in reasonable time, and maybe the police could divert their valuable resources to fighting some real crime.
To those in the U.S. and elsewhere who have remained blissfully unaware of just how retarded certain segments of the American mainstream media have become in recent years, I proudly and yet regrettably present FOX News commentator Glenn Beck and his “912 Project.”
Beck’s power base is his nationally syndicated radio show, The Glenn Beck Program. He was also aired on CNN/Headline News between May 2006 and October 2008, billed as “an unconventional look at the news of the day,” to say the least. But Beck has risen to greater prominence through his prime-time FOX News program, which began airing in January, pretty much concurrently with the beginning of the Obama presidency. It is only from this new soapbox that Beck has begun pulling out all the stops. The headlining guests on Beck’s first FOX show were Karl Rove and Sarah Palin, for starters.
Glenn Beck describes himself as a recovering alcoholic, a man whose early life was liberally peppered with tragedies in the family. Beck says, essentially, that God “stalked” him and forced him to reform. For overcoming personal tragedy and hardship, I heartily salute and warmly empathize with Mr. Beck; but it seems apparent that this recovery has come at a considerable . . . err . . . mental cost. Here’s a small sample of his polemics:
Beck, who once asked America’s first Muslim congressman, on air, to prove that he wasn’t working for “America’s enemies,” who uses his platform to “crush” atheists and to debunk anthropogenic climate change as some sort of leftist hoax, and whose commentary most generally consists of tearful, emotionally charged laments on the deplorable state of American society—though probably not in the sense you or I would mean—is launching “The 912 Project.” We’ll let Beck speak for himself on this one. Here’s an excerpt from the project’s mission statement as displayed on theglennbeck912project.com:
This website is a place for you and other like-minded Americans looking for direction in taking back the control of our country. It is also a place to find information that will assist you in navigating the rough waters we face in the days, weeks and months ahead. . .
. . .This is a non-political movement. The 9-12 Project is designed to bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001. The day after America was attacked we were not obsessed with Red States, Blue States or political parties. We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created.
That same feeling – that commitment to country is what we are hoping to foster with this idea. We want to get everyone thinking like it is September 12th, 2001 again.
Glenn Beck is proud to invoke a state of tightly unified, pseudo-patriotic ecstasy in the U.S., as long as it operates according to the “9 Principles” (including “I believe in God and He is the center of my life,” and “Government cannot force me to be charitable”) and “12 values” (such as “reverence,” “thrift,” and “gratitude”) of his project. Which is to say, as long as everyone wholeheartedly agrees with Glenn Beck.
But, wait a minute. The United States on September 12, 2001 was a nation in the grip of fear, hysteria, and uncertainty. The things which brought the country together during that time were compassion for the bereaved (good) and lust for revenge on the perpetrators (bad). Aren’t most of us taught as children that decisions made in confusion and anger tend to be . . . well . . . bad decisions? And isn’t an appeal to return to “9/12” at least in some sense a roundabout way of asking for another “9/11”?
Of course it is! Beck appeals to a certain segment of the conservative populace in the U.S., one which is undereducated, underinformed, and overzealous with respect to issues they don’t really even grasp. Such people can only operate meaningfully when there is a common enemy into which they can channel their frustrations, some of which are legitimate until they are so sorely mishandled.
Joanne Mariner, via Counterpunch, gives a full and insightful survey of human rights violations committed by the U.S. beginning on September 12. Is this the America to which Beck wishes to return?
Since September 2001, the U.S. government has been directly responsible for a broad array of serious human rights violations in fighting terrorism, including torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials. In many instances, US abuses were carried out in collaboration other governments.
To cite one example—albeit a particularly notable one—Pakistan’s intelligence agencies worked closely with the CIA to “disappear” terrorist suspects, hold them in secret detention, and subject them to torture and other abuses.
With Barack Obama’s term as U.S. president, the U.S. approach to fighting terrorism has changed. The scope of the Obama administration’s reforms is not yet clear, but it is obvious that the new administration wants to rethink many of the policies that were instituted over the past eight years.
This change in the U.S. approach is long overdue. What is called for, however, is not only for the United States to reform its own abusive policies, but also for U.S. officials to try to counteract the negative influence of past policies worldwide. As a brief review of US counterterrorism efforts will suggest, the human rights impact of the US-led “war on terror” has been felt across the globe.
There is great cause to be anxious and even outraged in the realm of current events. Why does the United States support rogue states such as Israel and befriend human rights behemoths like Saudi Arabia, while making bellicose overtures to Iran for brandishing its own rhetoric and pursuing a peaceful nuclear energy program? Why does it stand idly by through the Ossetias and Darfurs of the world, while plunging hundreds of billions of dollars and countless lives into Iraq and Afghanistan? But the moment we stop thinking critically, asking and researching questions, and start vegging out in front of the TV with twinkies and soda, we enter the fruitless province of Beckistan. Within those too clearly-defined borders, the important things to be concerned about are illegal immigrants, God in the classroom, and the Satanic bane of homosexuality.
Even Shephard Smith, FOX News anchor and veritable conservative posterboy, found time to ridicule Project 912:
I wanted to highlight two articles dealing with the oppression and mutilation of Gaza which have recently appeared in Counterpunch. Each of them has something interesting and powerful to say about the situation there.
I have never traveled to the Middle East, and have in my time met only a handful of Israeli Jews or Arabs, or Palestinians. Yet the events in that beleaguered realm weigh heavily on my mind each day. Wherever my government’s support and therefore my tax money is used to unjustly maim, kill, and otherwise deprecate fellow human beings who strive for only a small part of the comforts I enjoy in the warmth of my den, there my thoughts are turned inexorably.
Why does Israel wreak such havoc on Gaza? The mainstream press is devoid of meaningful answers. Is it because of the sporadic rocket fire on Israeli cities such as Sderot and Ashkelon? Not hardly; even within the context-bleeped framework of Israeli yarn-spinning presented in the media these days, this does not make sense. If Israel merely wished the rocket fire to end, she could find much less bloodthirsty and roundly devastating ways to achieve this than indiscriminately killing Palestinians four hundred-fold and risking the lives of Israeli troops in a potential ground assault. There would be no need to put an economic stranglehold on an entire population for years running, just to stop some rockets. Why, come to think of it, she could simply offer Gaza all that it has asked for: self-determination and a real end to the Israeli occupation.
Does Israel fear Hamas, and truly see no way forward while it operates? No—we can easily imagine that living under the threat of Hamas rockets is a terrible existence for Israelis in the country’s south, to be sure. But this is of no more real concern to the Israeli government than the threat of terrorism at home was to the Bush administration when launching its incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems to me that the largest threat posed by Hamas is that, for Israel, there will be no way backwards while it exists. Because, unlike the government of Abbas in the West Bank, Hamas has no appetite for the sugar dripping from the forked tongues of Israeli officials who would promise Gazans peace and give them only continued subjugation on terms that Washington and Tel Aviv see fit. Hamas will continue to call international attention to the travesties unfolding in the region, and will not shirk from defending itself against the occupiers, even when unfortunate and deplorable violence remains its only meaningful mode of self-expression among a world community which is all thumbs.
In Jennifer Loewenstein’s piece, “If Hamas Did Not Exist,” the situation is summed up admirably:
Strip away the clichés and the vacuous newspeak blaring out across the servile media and its pathetic corps of voluntary state servants in the Western world and what you will find is the naked desire for hegemony; for power over the weak and dominion over the world’s wealth. Worse yet you will find that the selfishness, the hatred and indifference, the racism and bigotry, the egotism and hedonism that we try so hard to cover up with our sophisticated jargon, our refined academic theories and models actually help to guide our basest and ugliest desires. The callousness with which we in indulge in them all are endemic to our very culture; thriving here like flies on a corpse.
Strip away the current symbols and language of the victims of our selfish and devastating whims and you will find the simple, impassioned and unaffected cries of the downtrodden; of the ‘wretched of the earth’ begging you to cease your cold aggression against their children and their homes; their families and their villages; begging you to leave them alone to have their fish and their bread, their oranges, their olives and their thyme; asking you first politely and then with increasing disbelief why you cannot let them live undisturbed on the land of their ancestors; unexploited, free of the fear of expulsion; of ravishment and devastation; free of permits and roadblocks and checkpoints and crossings; of monstrous concrete walls, guard towers, concrete bunkers, and barbed wire; of tanks and prisons and torture and death. Why is life without these policies and instruments of hell impossible?
The answer is because Israel has no intention of allowing a viable, sovereign Palestinian state on its borders.
What role does the United States play in this terrible conflict which brings such misery to the lives of Palestinians and many Israelis? I haven’t the space or the energy to delve into a complete history of U.S.-Israel relations. But Washington’s support of Israeli hegemony and its persistent ideology of victimhood has been openly voiced at times, and even those whose only knowledge of world events comes from the usual suspects among media outlets are generally aware that Israel operates largely with American military equipment, American diplomatic support, and American tax dollars—a portion of which are directly funneled back into American arms dealers. Ralph Nader, in his “Open Letter to President Bush,” expresses his thoughts on the matter:
Your spokespeople are making much ado about the breaking of the six month truce. Who is the occupier? Who is the most powerful military force? Who controls and blocks the necessities of life? Who has sent raiding missions across the border most often? Who has sent artillery shells and missiles at close range into populated areas? Who has refused the repeated comprehensive peace offerings of the Arab countries issued in 2002 if Israel would agree to return to the 1967 borders and agree to the creation of a small independent Palestinian state possessing just twenty two percent of the original Palestine?
The ‘wildly inaccurate rockets,’ as reporters describe them, coming from Hamas and other groups cannot compare with the modern precision armaments and human damage generated from the Israeli side.
There are no rockets coming from the West Bank into Israel. Yet the Israeli government is still sending raiders into that essentially occupied territory, still further entrenching its colonial outposts, still taking water and land and increasing the checkpoints. This is going on despite a most amenable West Bank leader, Mahmoud Abbas, whom you have met with at the White House and praised repeatedly. Is it all vague words and no real initiatives with you and your emissary Condoleezza Rice?
Peace was possible, but you provided no leadership, preferring instead to comply with all wishes and demands by the Israeli government, even resupplying it with the still active cluster bombs in south Lebanon during the invasion of that country in 2006.
The arguments about who started the latest hostilities go on and on with Israel always blaming the Palestinians to justify all kinds of violence and harsh treatment against innocent civilians.
From the Palestinian standpoint, you would do well to remember the origins of this conflict which was the dispossession of their lands. To afford you some empathy, recall the oft-quoted comment by the founder of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, who told the Zionist leader, Nahum Goldmann:
‘There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz; but was that their [the Palestinians] fault? They only see one thing: We have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?’
Alfred North Whitehead once said: ‘Duty arises out of the power to alter the course of events.’ By that standard, you have shirked mightily your duty over the past eight years to bring peace to both Palestinians and Israelis and more security to a good part of the world.
I hope for the sake of all that the violence and hostility can end. Yes, that is my sincere wish, but it is not my highest hope. My highest hope is that a peace can be achieved without the usual price of humiliation, continued subjugation, and business as usual that has in the past been so carefully tacked on by Israel when dealing with her “attackers.” As history has amply demonstrated, peace at the price of sovereignty and the basic human rights of a people is a peace in name only. One can achieve peace by allowing one’s self to be beaten into submission. Peace is always viscerally preferable to violence, but one must ask: what does it mean?
Or, “21st Century Colonialism: an Introduction”
Saturday, December 27, a day when many revelers in the west were still feeling too full to take down Christmas decorations and were perhaps solidifying plans for a joyous New Year’s, has been called the bloodiest day in the history of Gaza since the beginning of the Israeli occupation over forty years ago.
Israeli air assaults have killed dozens if not hundreds of Palestinians, and this amid a years-long embargo imposed by Israel which has emaciated the Gazan economy and citizenry on every imaginable level of existence. The embargo followed the free Palestinian election of a Hamas-led government. Israel roundly blames Hamas for sporadic rocket fire against civilian targets in Israel, but collectively punishes 1.5 million Gazans in retribution.
Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, told reporters that Israel is determined to “change realities on the ground.” There are fears that the air strikes may be a prelude to a ground offensive, as Israel has called forth large numbers of reservists. Israel has bombed tunnels which were being used to bring minimal amounts of food and humanitarian supplies into Gaza from Egypt, citing suspicions that weapons were also being imported.
The U.S. government insists that Hamas is responsible for the bloodshed on both sides of the border, much as it once insisted that Native Americans could have avoided much violence and misery had they only been a bit more reasonable.
Unfortunately, violence will only beget more violence. It is my feeling that, while the devastation on both sides is deplorable, Israel is using an iron fist to subjugate those whose lands and sovereignty it has molested, people with a fighting spirit and a sense of self-worth that no machinery of war can conquer—people who have been deliberately put into a position in which guerilla fighting in the face of F-16 jets and U.S. billions is, they feel, their only hope of resistance.
The BBC reports:
Israeli F-16 bombers have pounded key targets across the Gaza Strip, killing at least 225 people, local medics say.
Most of those killed were policemen in the Hamas militant movement, which controls Gaza, but women and children also died, the Gaza officials said.
About 700 others were wounded, as missiles struck security compounds and militant bases, the officials added.
Israeli PM Ehud Olmert said the operation “may take some time”- but he pledged to avoid a humanitarian crisis.
“It’s not going to last a few days,” he said in a televised statement, flanked by Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Israel said it was responding to an escalation in rocket attacks from Gaza and would bomb “as long as necessary”.
Such comments from Israeli officials amply demonstrate that, if there is a Reign of Terror in Palestine today, it is Israel which wears the ugly crown.
In keeping with the holiday spirit of reflection and renewal, I wanted to share with you a few of my hopes for humanity. Some will cry “unabashed idealism.” Others will recognize real solutions that, combined with real attention, just might achieve real results.
- I hope that people will realize that consumerism is making a tiny percentage of the world’s population wealthy, a slightly less tiny percentage comfortable, and most of the world miserable—while wrecking all that is decent and wholesome in human values and destroying the planet in a blaze of absolutely needless waste.
- I hope that people will strive to respect and learn from one another by understanding this: the power of myth is necessarily stronger than and prerequisite to the power of divinity.
- I hope individuals and society will realize that a hungry, active, open mind is the best defense against being manipulated by unseen forces, to quote a popular term from economics—and that those forces are operating in new quarters and new ways all the time, with the singular goal of making money to the exclusion of all other concerns.
- I hope that people will come to grips with the fact that, if one views our planet as a functioning organic entity and not merely a collection of resources to be exploited, then one must realize that free market capitalism indeed promotes growth—in exactly the same way as does cancer.
- I hope that people will consider that a society in which obesity is a more pressing problem than hunger is not necessarily on the right track.
- I hope that the citizens of privileged nations will first realize how privileged they in fact are, and next realize that dissent against establishment corruption and misdirection is the highest form of patriotism and the world’s best shot at peace and harmony.
- I hope people will realize that science is only as trustworthy and as productive as the values of the society that guide it.
- I hope people will realize that religion is only as trustworthy and as productive as the values of the society that guide it.
- I hope that individuals will come to understand that their relationships with nature define, more than anything else, who they are.
- I hope that people will spread the message that institutions of authority must be directly challenged if they are to remain responsible.
- I hope more of us will choose love over fear more of the time.
- I hope it will become more apparent to more people that, if each of us does a little, together we achieve a lot.
The Heathlander recently posted links to annual reports by various human rights organizations to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review concerning the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The article which includes the links represents the views of Richard Falk, a UN human rights investigator recently relieved of his position because of his “hostile views” toward Israel. The findings of a few of these reports are summarized below.
The State of Israel was founded in 1948, carved chiefly out of what had been colonial possessions of the United Kingdom. While many support the existence of a Jewish homeland, particularly in the wake of the events of the Second World War, fewer agree that these particular lands should have been ceded to the control of relatively new Zionist immigrants rather than to the Palestinian ethnic groups which had resided there for centuries. The Zionist settlers believed that they enjoyed a religious “right of return” to the area according to scripture, a controversial notion which, even where accepted, is not generally held to entail such brutal disregard for the sovereignty and basic human dignity of Palestinians.
Since 1967, Israel has occupied lands which were ceded to the Palestinians under a U.N. agreement, pursuing what many feel are policies of expansion, oppression, and apartheid against Palestinians. Additionally, Israel, which possesses without acknowledgment the sole known nuclear arsenal in the region, continues to threaten other surrounding powers—particularly Iran—which have criticized its occupation of Palestinian lands and cruel treatment of Palestinians. At one point or another, it has occupied lands belonging to all of its Arab neighbors; yet the Israeli government continually represents itself as an innocent victim of anti-Semitic violence, refusing to acknowledge that such violence, while unfortunate and deplorable, represents desperate guerrilla-type self-defense on the part of the disenfranchised Palestinians.
In 2006, Hamas, frequently described as an “Islamic militant” or “terrorist” organization due to its sponsorship of guerrilla activities against the Israeli military and some civilians, won free elections in Gaza. Since then Israel has aggressively boycotted the government in Gaza using blockades, military incursions, and other harmful and violent means which amount to collective punishment of Gaza’s 1.5 million citizens. The West Bank, in contrast, is now presided over by a U.S.-backed government.
The United Nations has, on too many occasions to count, reprimanded Israel and called for an end to these atrocities. Such proceedings are routinely boycotted by Israel, the United States, and sometimes a few other member states, while being overwhelmingly supported by the majority of the international community. The United States provides billions of dollars in financial and military aid to Israel annually, and is characteristically quick to defend Israeli hegemony and expansionism in the region in the name of self-defense.
The following are direct or paraphrased excerpts of just a few of the many 2008 reports to the UNHRC concerning conditions in Palestine. For the full set of reports, visit this page. These documents represent merely the latest additions to a huge book detailing many of the atrocities visited against the Palestinian people according to a pattern of U.S.-sanctioned abuse which stretches back for decades.
Science-fiction author Charles Platt published this piece in BoingBoing describing a visit to see his penpal Son Tran, a homicide convict and inmate in Texas jailed for gang-related killings at age 17. Not only does Platt describe the prison environment with the vivid eloquence of a seasoned narrator, he reminds us of the idosyncracies and absurdities inherent in the medieval penal system flourishing in what is supposed to be one of the world’s more enlightened states:
This gets me back to the case of Son Tran. Imagine yourself aged thirteen, feeling angry and estranged from your fellow students because you’re Vietnamese-American. Imagine that you are approached by some older kids who are themselves Vietnamese. They invite you to join their club, and for the first time in your short life, you are freed from your feelings of alienation. You find acceptance.
Of course, there’s a price to pay. It’s like joining the army: You go through a process of indoctrination and desensitization, during which you bond with your comrades-in-arms and learn to obey orders.
The scenario that I’m outlining does not excuse the crime. It merely suggests that someone who was not yet an adult, and became infatuated with gang culture at a very impressionable age, should not be judged as harshly as, for example, a serial killer who has committed multiple crimes over ten or fifteen years. After a decade in prison, the serial killer may still represent a severe risk to the general public while the younger man may not, and a system that refuses to take this into account wastes human potential and wastes our money. Even when the state reaps some income on the side by forcing prisoners to do menial work for no pay, incarceration remains an expensive proposition.
The United States has the highest prison population, as a percentage of the general populace, of any nation on Earth, according to a King’s College, London study—762 per 100,000, more than half again as many as Cuba and about six times as many as China.
Platt notes that, from about 1925 to 1975, the U.S. prison population stayed near the international average. Since then, it has mushroomed. Platt suggests that reactionary social conservatism and a sensationalist media coupled with large building and maintenance budgets makes our penchant for lock-ups possible and helps give vigor and vitality to a culture of fear and retribution.