In ways little and huge, it is clear that we live in a nation, a culture and a society that is terminally ill.
The latest outrage — the execution of a Mexican convicted in Texas of the brutal slaying of a 16-year-old girl in blatant violation of a universally adopted international treaty that requires that as a foreigner he be able to notify his home country’s consulate of his case — is evidence of this sickness, which appears to have both physical and mental aspects.
As a journalist I have traveled widely in the world, often in police states like China or Laos, and I have always been confident that if I ran afoul of those police, at least I could count on the fact that the authorities would be legally bound to notify my embassy, so that I could get international attention and, hopefully, legal assistance.
This point was made, belatedly and not particularly assertively, by the White House in the case of death-row inmate Humberto Leal Garcia Jr. in Texas, but the politically ambitious governor of Texas, Rick Perry, who is contemplating a run for the Republican presidential nomination, figured killing Garcia was a good career move, and he just ignored the president. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, declined to intervene, claiming, absurdly, that it hasn’t got the power to order a state government to halt an execution.
That’s just pathetic–the kind of illogic you expect from the likes of Antonin Scalia. The Constitution clearly states that only the federal government can negotiate and sign international treaties, and that once a treaty is signed and voted on by the Senate it is the law of the land, ergo the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations is the law of the land. The state of Texas is in violation of that treaty, having arrested, tried, convicted and today executed Garcia without notifying his consulate of these actions. Clearly the state broke the law of the land, and the federal authorities had the right to call a halt to this atrocity. Yet none of the three branches of the government acted–a shameful ducking of responsibility to uphold the law. This means that any American who travels abroad, anywhere (and especially in Mexico), is at grave risk of being caught up in a dangerous legal situation, with the foreign government under no obligation to notify US authorities. (I’d sure think twice about traveling to Mexico now if I were a Texan!)
Then look at the Casey Anthony case. The woman, just acquitted by a Florida jury in a capital murder case where she was charged with murdering her daughter, never should have faced first-degree murder charges in the first place. Criminal neglect maybe, but not murder. The prosecutors had no evidence–not only of how the child had died, but that would have linked Anthony to the body. But this is America. Prosecutors want big trophies that are to be won in big media trials, and this one was a classic of the genre. The media piled on, ghoulish crime stalkers camped outside the courthouse trying to get a seat at the witch trial. Everyone outside the jury box was convinced she was guilty, guilty, guilty. And she walked. Why? Because in the one redeeming chapter in this sick saga, the jurors did their duty, and decided, in relatively short order, that the prosecution’s case was shot full of holes, and they could not say with a straight face that Anthony’s guilt had been proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
I would say that verdict makes me proud to be an American, but for the fact that a) the jurors are mostly being condemned by the public for doing the right thing and b) in most murder trials jurors are railroaded by lying, overly-aggressive and simply unprincipled and ambitious prosecutors who see their job as winning, not seeking justice. The conclusion of this case was shocking precisely because it was so unusual.
Here in Philadelphia, for example, the practice for decades has been for prosecutors to seek the death penalty in murder cases, even where it is wholly inappropriate, both in hopes that the mostly poor, and poorly represented, defendants will cop a plea to escape almost certain death, and because by making it a capital case, they get to pre-select a jury of people who are okay with the death penalty. Many studies have demonstrated that such pro-death penalty jurors tend to believe police witnesses, sympathize with the prosecution, and to not believe in the concept of innocent until proven guilty–making the prosecutor’s job easy.
I wrote a few days ago about the sickness of a government that would openly encourage a client state, in this case Israel, to attack, injure and perhaps even kill its own citizens — precisely what Secretary Hillary Clinton and the Obama White House have done with regard to the Americans aboard the US-flagged ship “The Audacity of Hope,” a part of the Freedom Flotilla seeking to sail from Greece to the open air prison camp called Gaza.
But it’s not just the US government that’s sick. As a people we are sick. What kind of human beings, after all, will accept the idea of 44 million of their own countrymen and women and children living in grinding, unremitting poverty? We know we have this many abjectly poor and that the number has actually risen by four million over the past year, yet most Americans — not desperately poor–appear to want to cut support for those suffering people, out of simple greed. Cutting taxes is more important to most of us than helping our neighbors–even their children.
We are, as a people, also singularly indifferent to the welfare of the rest of the world. How else to explain our yawning indifference to the massive number of civilians who are being killed in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Somalia by our bombs and rockets, not to mention by our armed men and women on the ground in Afghanistan? I should also add the millions of victims in Gaza and the West Bank, as their suffering is a direct result of US military aid to the nation of Israel.
We are sick as a nation in another way. It is clear to all except the willfully ignorant, that the entire Earth is dangerously overheating, and that absent dramatic actions to change our horrendously wasteful economic system with its obsession with endless “growth,” and our prodigious use of carbon-based energy, we are going to destroy not just ourselves, but most life on the planet. Yet polls show that roughly half of us don’t believe it’s happening (a percentage that is growing!). Never mind that the north polar ice cap is disappearing before our eyes, that the seas are rising at a record, and rising, rate, that the past decade has been the hottest on record, that violent weather events once seen only every hundred years, are now annual occurrences, that the seas are becoming dangerously acidic, threatening the whole plankton-based ecosystem, and that the icecaps on Greenland and in Antarctica are melting faster than any of the predictive models anticipated. Americans don’t even want to require the auto industry to make more gas-efficient cars. Look at the roads and the auto dealerships: People are choosing to buy big, gas-guzzling SUVs, though not one in a hundred will ever use them to drive off-road.
How can one explain the almost complete lack of concern and urgency among Americans about this looming disaster which threatens the very survival of our grandchildren, and perhaps even our children? How is it possible that the Big Issue in American politics today is concern about a budget deficit that is both readily solvable (by raising taxes on the rich and cutting outlandish military spending) and in any event not really a serious problem for another few decades, when we’re only perhaps at best a decade away from a runaway climate disaster that will be unstoppable?
What is particularly disturbing to me is the open celebration of ignorance that we have in this country. As I drive in the morning around my middle-class suburban neighborhood of Upper Dublin, just north of Philadelphia, I notice from the newspapers in the driveways, when there even are newspapers tossed there, a preponderance of a local suburban rag, the Intelligencer. It features local crime stories and other local stories, with almost nothing national, and except on the rarest occasions, nothing international. Few people seem to subscribe to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which itself is a god-awful paper anyhow these days. I read in a recent Pew study that nationwide, newspaper readership is down to 31% of the public, from 56% in 1991, and remember, those remaining newspapers have shed over 13,000 journalists over the 2007-2010 period, and are just shells of their former selves. (The Middletown Press, where I began my own career in Connecticut, once a renowned example of small-town quality journalism, has been converted into a free advertiser, with no journalists and no news content at all, and that’s a college town!)
Even the percentage of people who watch TV news for their information has fallen from 68% in 1991 to 58% today. And that’s not really all news either, or even mostly news. People are counting as news Fox News (a joke that) and CNN (not much better), and talk programs, including comedy shows, which are really opinion, not news. What does it say when an admittedly funny comic like John Stewart, and a blustery buffoon like Sean Hannity, are considered to be part of the newsmedia? Even the supposed bright side–an increase from 24% in 2004 to 34% today in people who get their news from “the Internet” or, god help us, from Twitter or on their cell phones, is not that great. Much of what is in the online media is rumor, is factually challenged, or is simply lies, and a lot of the rest is derivative opinion about news gleaned from the old-school media.
When I was a journalist in China, I spent a fair amount of time in the countryside and in smaller back-country cities, where I met and interviewed peasants and ordinary working people. I was struck by how much they knew about actual goings on in China, and even about the wider world. These people had a refreshing cynicism and a long-practiced ability to read between the lines of the official propaganda that they were spoon-fed by their state-owned newspapers and television. This is what is profoundly lacking among Americans: that down-to-earth realism and cynicism. Instead, we have here in America a lot of sheep who believe what they hear, and then a lot of others who, disbelieving the official line, turn to irrational conspiracy-mongering, much of which predisposes them to inaction and despair, instead of to resistance and rebellion.
How else to explain the stark contrast between the reaction of Greeks to the effort by the banks and the dominant European economic powers to steal their country out from under them (a national strike, riots in front of the parliament, major confrontations with the police), and the passivity of Americans as our own economic elite and their cronies in the two political parties engage in the same kind of theft here?
When I think back to the 1950s, ‘60s and early ‘70s, when Americans in their tens and hundred of thousands took serious action in the streets to end American apartheid, and to oppose its criminal wars, I can only shake my head in despair at how far we have fallen as a nation, a culture and a society.
I suppose if I were a Roman looking at my country back in 100 BC, I might have been saying something similar, and could have comforted myself with the thought that at least it would all eventually come crashing down, sparing the rest of the world the horrors of our malignancy. Unfortunately, in this case, while America too will surely come crashing down, destroyed by the limitless greed of its ruling elite, by its military hubris, and by the self-indulgence and ignorance of its citizens, in this case there can be no sense of relief in witnessing its self-destruction, as America will likely drag the rest of mankind and the world down with it.