THE UNITED STATES OF CRUELTY
We are cheap. We are suspicious. We will shoot first. It does not have to be this way. Like Lincoln before us, it is time to do something about it.
By Charles P. Pierce
A while back, we noted the story of the toddler who was severely injured when, during a drug raid, a local SWAT team came busting in and someone threw a flash-bang grenade into his crib. Well, his mother has written a chilling first-hand account of what happened to her son, and to her, during their encounter with one of our insanely militarized police forces.
My husband’s nephew, the one they were looking for, wasn’t there. He doesn’t even live in that house. After breaking down the door, throwing my husband to the ground, and screaming at my children, the officers – armed with M16s – filed through the house like they were playing war. They searched for drugs and never found any. I heard my baby wailing and asked one of the officers to let me hold him. He screamed at me to sit down and shut up and blocked my view, so I couldn’t see my son. I could see a singed crib. And I could see a pool of blood. The officers yelled at me to calm down and told me my son was fine, that he’d just lost a tooth.
This didn’t happen in Mosul. This didn’t happen in Jalalabad. It happened in Atlanta. Keep this in mind.
In related news, up in Detroit, we discover that drinking water is considered to be a privilege, especially if you’re poor. And, if you happen to be in arrears, it’s time to pull yourself up by your thirsty bootstraps.
There are 323,900 DWSD accounts in Detroit. Of those, 150,806 are delinquent. Some of those delinquencies are low-income customers who are struggling to keep their utilities on, said some who work in providing assistance to those in need. “The need is huge,” said Mia Cupp, director of development and communications for the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency. “There are families that have gone months and months without water.” The group is among a handful of local agencies that provide assistance to those who need help with their water bills. The Water Access Volunteer Effort, a Detroit-based nonprofit, is another. Going without water can be dangerous, Cupp said. “You can only imagine, how do go to the bathroom? How do you take showers? How do you clean yourself?” she said. “You can’t conduct the normal daily things that you would do.” The organization has very limited resources. Cupp said the group raised about $148,000 during a charity walk; that money could go to helping people pay water bills.
There is a new kind of systematized cruelty in our daily lives, in how we relate to each other, and in how we treat our fellow citizens, and, therefore, there is a new kind of systematized cruelty in our politics as well. It is not as though there haven’t been times in the history of our country in which cruelty was practiced for political or pecuniary advantage. It is not as though there haven’t been times in our history when the circumstances in people’s lives did not conspire cruelly against them, or when the various systems that influenced those lives did not conspire in their collective cruelty against their seeking any succor or relief. There was slavery, and the cruel war that ended it. There was the organized cruelty that followed Reconstruction, and the modern, grinding cruelty of the Industrial Revolution and the Gilded Age that followed it. There were two World Wars, the first one featuring a new era in mechanized slaughter and the second featuring a new era in industrialized genocide. There was the Great Depression. There was McCarthyism, and the cruelty that was practiced in Southeast Asia that ended up partly dehumanizing the entire country. There always has been the cruelty of poverty and disease.
But there is something different abroad in the politics now, perhaps because we are in the middle of an era of scarcity and because we have invested ourselves in a timid culture of austerity and doubt. The system seems too full now of opportunities to grind and to bully. We have politicians, most of whom will never have to work another day in their lives, making the argument seriously that there is no role in self-government for the protection and welfare of the political commonwealth as that term applies to the poorest among us. We have politicians, most of whom have gilt-edged health care plans, making the argument seriously that an insurance-friendly system of health-care reform is in some way bad for the people whom it is helping the most, and we have politicians seriously arguing that those without health-care somehow are more free than the people who have turned to their government, their self-government, for help in this area. In the wake of a horrific outbreak of violence in a Connecticut elementary school, we have enacted gun laws now that make it easier to shoot our fellow citizens and not harder to do so. Our police forces equip themselves with weapons of war and then go out and look for wars to fight. We are cheap. We are suspicious. We will shoot first, and we will do it with hearts grown cold and, yes, cruel.
We cheer for cruelty and say that we are asking for personal responsibility among those people who are not us, because the people who are not us do not deserve the same benefits of the political commonwealth that we have. In our politics, we have become masters of camouflage. We practice fiscal cruelty and call it an economy. We practice legal cruelty and call it justice. We practice environmental cruelty and call it opportunity. We practice vicarious cruelty and call it entertainment. We practice rhetorical cruelty and call it debate. We set the best instincts of ourselves in conflict with each other until they tear each other to ribbons, and until they are no longer our best instincts but something dark and bitter and corroborate with itself. And then it fights all the institutions that our best instincts once supported, all the elements of the political commonwealth that we once thought permanent, all the arguments that we once thought settled — until there is a terrible kind of moral self-destruction that touches those institutions and leaves them soft and fragile and, eventually, evanescent. We do all these things, cruelty running through them like hot blood, and we call it our politics.
Because of that, the daily gunplay no longer surprises us. The rising rates of poverty no longer surprise us. The chaos of our lunatic public discourse no longer surprises us. We make war based on lies and deceit because cruelty is seen to be enough, seen to be the immutable law of the modern world. We make policy based on being as tough as we can on the weakest among us, because cruelty is seen to be enough, seen to be the fundamental morality behind what ultimately is merely the law of the jungle. We do all these things, cruelty running through them like a cold river, and we call it our politics.
It does not have to be this way. After the greatest exercise of systematized cruelty in the country’s history, Abraham Lincoln gave the greatest speech ever given by an American president, and in its greatest passage, he called hold, enough.
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
On one of the cruelest nights of 1968—which was a very cruel year; indeed, a year the cruelty of which eventually would claim his own life—Robert Kennedy stood in the dark in Indianapolis and offered a similar gathering hymn.
And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.
The time for camouflage is over. Cruelty is cruelty. It should be recognized as a fundamental heresy against the political commonwealth and wrung out of all its institutions. That is the only way out.