Why Is America So Mean?

“The 82nd,” the man ahead of me in the security line at the Kansas City airport said. He was 64 and white, very Hank Hill and not the kind of guy you’d typically see chatting up a skinny 20-year-old Latino dude. But they were both veterans. Common ground is a given.

“I was in the 82nd too,” the kid told the old man. I looked down. The kid’s legs were gone. He was standing on metal. Implausibly and heartbreakingly, white Converses adorned the tips of his prosthetic legs. High tops.

On the other side of the metal detector, I caught up with the young vet (Iraq? Afghanistan?). HomeSec was giving him the whole treatment: arms stretched out, the wand, stern expressions and stupid questions. The wand beeped and beeped. The TSA guy scowled. “I’ve got titanium all the way up my spine,” the kid explained.

You’re kidding me, I thought. After what he’s been through. After what he’s done for his country. I wanted to scream: Bastards! You should wave him around the checkpoint. Here, sir, we’d like to offer you a seat in first class. No, no, no charge.

I bit my tongue. Here in the land of the twee and the craven, I know when to shut up. That’s what we do now. Airports are nodes of high-intensity fascism in a nation settling into authoritarianism lite. Hassle the bastards and you might end up dead. I had a flight to catch, doncha know.

Have we, at long last, any decency?

In one respect, the three remaining presidential candidates say, “Yes, we do.” They’ve promised to close Gitmo.

What ought to happen to the nearly 300 detainees is obvious. Hand each of them an apology, a bag of cash–a million bucks wouldn’t be nearly enough for what they’ve been through–and a plane ticket home. Those who can’t return to their countries of origin because their U.S.-backed dictatorships would murder them receive a penthouse suite in the U.S. city of their choice.

I’d let them switch places with their guards and 300 top-ranking members of the Bush Administration for a couple of days first. No questions asked. Just get on the plane, and don’t forget your bag o’ cash.


Here’s how messed up, how separated from common sense justice the United States of America has become: We might close Gitmo. But we’re keeping the inmates!

“When it comes to closing Guantánamo, talk is cheap,” Columbia law professor Matthew Waxman tells The Los Angeles Times. Because, you see, the U.S. government has violated the victims’ rights so egregiously for so long that there’s no longer a legally appropriate way to process them.

“Especially vexing,” says the paper, “are scores of foreign detainees: Officials lack evidence to prosecute, but warn against setting them free.” It’s an 800-year-old Western legal principle called habeas corpus: you can’t hold a person in custody without charging them. Oh, wait–Bush got rid of that.

“Because there is little evidence against them that could be used in a U.S. court, government officials fear that a federal judge could order them freed,” the Times continues. Heaven forbid that we release people, even if there’s no evidence they’ve done anything wrong. What’s next? Taxing the rich?

“Then you would have 100-plus future sleeper-cell members unleashed in Kansas,” a “midlevel official” told the Times. No grain silo would be safe.

Gitmo inmates have been waterboarded, urinated upon by U.S. soldiers, violently force-fed and driven to suicide. Some of the “dangerous terrorists” (John McCain’s description) were 12 years old when Afghan warlords sold them to U.S. forces for cash bounties. They’ve grown up in Gitmo. When do we finally, at long last, decide that they’ve suffered enough?

Maybe we should just shoot them.

It’s not just foreigners. Even for its own native-born wretches, America couldn’t find a path to fundamental decency if it were lit up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

In ancient Rome, executioners abided by a rule: If they failed to hack off your head after three swings of the blade, they set you free. Not here. Men condemned to lethal injection wake up screaming; the guards administer more poisons and barbiturates.

Veterinarians abandoned the three-drug cocktail used to kill inmates in most states because they considered it cruel to animals.

Many death row prisoners are innocent. Sometimes they even manage to prove it before their executions. “At least 205 men and one woman nationwide have been exonerated through DNA evidence since 1989, including 53 who…were convicted of murder,” reports The New York Times. But what happens to those who are set free?

No compensation is enough for someone who serves years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. But society ought to come up with something.

There ought to be money. Millions and millions of dollars. So much that the victim of a judicial miscarriage never has to work again. It wouldn’t bring back the lost years, the shattered relationships and murdered moments. But it would be a start.

Then again, this is America. We don’t apologize, much less try to pay penance. Here’s $24 and a cheap suit. Too bad about those 15 years. Thank you for playing. Want compensation? Find a lawyer who’ll work for $24 and sue.

Ah, but there’s a catch: you need a law under which to file a lawsuit. 36 of the 50 states have laws that specifically prevent innocent ex-prisoners from going to court to seek the damages they ought to have been given without asking. Twelve of the remaining 14 have limits. (New York and Maryland do not.) California caps total payouts at a stingy $100 a day, up to a maximum of $10,000–even if they lock you up for 20 years by mistake.

As individuals, Americans are generous to a fault. They do the right thing, or at least they try. The disconnect occurs when we express our collective will, through our courts and government officials. Our laws and our politicians are mean, cheap and callous.


20 Responses to “”

  1. Edward Says:

    Imagine what government run healthcare would be like.

    As individuals, Americans are generous to a fault. They do the right thing, or at least they try. The disconnect occurs when we express our collective will, through our courts and government officials. Our laws and our politicians are mean, cheap and callous.

  2. Aggie Dude Says:

    collective will for anything but the pursuit of commerce is socialism, Ted

    And socialism is bad…mmmmkay. That’s why we can’t do anything right as a group….because collective action is commieness!!!

    Capitalism is ruthless…, nothing personal. And you know what? there is absolutely no way out.

  3. comsympinko Says:


  4. Anonymous Says:


  5. Anonymous Says:

    “Maybe we should just shoot them.”

    No, I’d rather shoot the torturers, their commanders, the CIA officers who “interpret” the “data” from the “sessions”, and let the poor bastards go (Omar Khadr first) because of how f’ed up the whole Gitmo process has been. Hell, I’d give the base to the Cubans, because the stench of National-Socialism hangs over it.

    – Strelnikov

  6. Anonymous Says:

    If they weren’t terrorists before we tortured them, I’m pretty sure they would want to be afterwards. Which is why they can never be released.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Not to mention the treatment our returning, disabled Veterans receive at the hands of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is supposed to be anti-adversarial to Veterans who make claims for service-connected disabilities. Several years ago, ABC trotted out an alleged DVA employee who claimed that most of the Veterans’ claims for PTSD were bogus. ABC never apologized for that unforgiveable insult to the American service personnel who were injured in the service of our country. ABC couldn’t be wrong, of course and the suits at ABC will probably find another Bush lackey to claim the same bullshit about returning Iraq and Afghanistan war Veterans. John McCain, who never fails to use his years in Hanoi Hilton to his political advantage, recently bragged (a la George W. ‘C-student’ Bush) that he was fifth from the bottom of his Annapolis class. I admire our war Veterans for having gone in harm’s way, but not everyone is a saint or right in what he/she does at home. Look at the shamelessly-bought-off Swift Boat Veterans. Years ago, American Congressmen were equating Veterans disability compensation with welfare. Those pricks never stop counting beans, and they get most of their energy from the time they didn’t spend in the uniform and service of our military. Think Dick ‘Five Deferments’ Cheney.

  8. Angelo Says:

    edward said america is too fucked up to do anything right.
    aggie agreed.
    I agree, too.

    great column, Ted.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    Where is Joe Stalin when we need him? Uncle Joe would have kept eliminating large chunks of the Department of Homeland Security until they started behaving… and then he’d keep it up just so they didn’t backslide. Odd that a nation has to be so rich to be able to afford “politicians that are mean, cheap and callous.”

    Alas, I meet far too many citizens who are just like these politicians and they are usually the ones that have had every advantage and really have nothing about which to complain. They may not have earned what they have but they seem to be keenly aware that they have something to lose if anything like justice were to prevail.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    “If they weren’t terrorists before we tortured them, I’m pretty sure they would want to be afterwards. Which is why they can never be released.”

    Omar Khadr was a young teenager when they captured him in Afghanistan…he is now in his twenties, and by all indications suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. If you had any brains, you would realize that most of the Gitmo prisoners are now mental wrecks, and the “real” terrorists they captured want nothing more than to go home. The war is a failure, the black prisons are a failure, and you are a failure, Anon., for not seeing that.

    – Strelnikov

  11. ted's archivist Says:

    Ted, you are confusing me. What, exactly, did the legless soldier do for his country?

    Isn’t he really just an idiot?

  12. Ted Rall Says:

    Joining the military is stupid.

    Treating people who join the military like shit is wrong.

    These above two statements are not in conflict.

    Not to add to the confusion, but part of why joining the military is stupid is that the government treats those who do like shit.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    I’ve always wondered if the detainees weren’t hostages: a warlord’s nephew, held as a means of ensuring cooperation.

    It would explain our reluctance to release their names, and the inclusion, against all common sense, of 12 year olds.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    aggie dude, you might be interested in “Self-Generating Money vs. Productive Wealth.”

    I liked the distinction between ‘derivative wealth’ and ‘productive wealth.’ There used to be some tax incentives along these lines, but I think they were phased out (capitol gains tax? I’m not much of an economist.)

    wfar (works_for_a_republican)

  15. Fred Says:

    Not so sure about the “joining the military is stupid” opinion Ted. For many it may well be the only viabe financial option, whether for college or to learn a skill without incuring huge student loan payments (trust me, you don’t want those… sigh).

    But in solid agreement with you that treating those who do so poorly is wrong.

    And, even though we differ on the first point, I too see no contradiction between your two opinions.

    We may not want to do what they did, but someone has to.

    And besides, you’re DEAD ON THE MONEY about the government’s disgusting treatment of vets! No “anti-troop” (if that is even what they are)blog-post or column can compare to the shameful actions of the government when it come to our vets (and, indeed, our frontline troops as well)!

    I bet even a great many high ranking, on-polotical, officers now serving would agree with that.

  16. Aggie Dude Says:

    There’s a reason we treat living casualties (Almost all combat veterans are at least psychologically scarred, and therefore in my opinion they are casualties) poorly and yet we immortalize those who die.

    Those who die don’t continue to cost us.

    Forcing people to compete over resources in a market based system for their very survival leads to this level of savagery, because it gives people ample justification for abusing each other (they have bills to pay, mouths to feed, the world is screwed up and it’s not their fault…etc..etc).

    We have a structural problem, and I think it’s a terminal disease.

    Putting an occasional band-aide on your cuts doesn’t cure the hemophilia, Ted.

  17. ellwort Says:

    A response from my sister, who’s devoted her adult life for decades to stopping state-supported murder. This is a note from a sister to a brother, so I’ll consider it private and not name her here. Beyond the correction, it’s essentially an amplification of Ted’s point:

    “Actually only a small minority were exonerated by DNA…but it’s generally right, and many more plead guilty to a lesser crime in order to get out. Therefore, not innocent, no compensation. “

  18. Ted Rall Says:

    Thanks, John and John’s sis. However, it should be noted that, as I wrote, the states limit compensation to those vindicated entirely.

  19. Anonymous Says:

    Strelnikov, you seem to have failed to realise I was being sarcastic. Of course they should be released. I think torture causes more terrorism and creates more who terrorists are angry about the torture when friends and loved ones are captured knowing what will happen to them.

  20. Anonymous Says:

    From another blog:

    American citizens in 2008 would not recognize America in 1968:

    In 1968, hospitals were non-profit.

    In 1968, public space and public facilities were widespread.

    In 1968, four times as many American citizens belonged to a labor union.

    In 1968, the idea that the word “liberal” was bad would have been ludicrous.

    In 1968, broadcast TV and radio airwaves were subject to the Fairness Doctrine: equal time for different points of view on public affairs.

    In 1968, high school civics was a required class.

    In 1968, two-income families were not necessary.

    In 1968, trade unionists made yearly wages that were better than most white collar workers. I don’t need to remind you what CEOs made in 1968 compared with 2008.

    In 1968, the minimum wage was at its highest, around $1.70 in 1968 dollars ($9.50 in 2007 dollars). This was 90% of the poverty line in 1968. That’s the highest the U.S. minimum wage ever achieved. However, minimum wage jobs were not as high a percentage of the U.S. workforce in 1968.

    In 1968, paperback books were a growth industry, because Americans read for leisure.

    In 1968, the United States had a middle class, artificially constructed by the policies of FDR, before those policies were dismantled by Reagan and Clinton. Where there is a middle class, there is leisure time. Where there is leisure time, there is participatory democracy and civic involvement.

    I fear the 1970s more than I fear 1968. The next Democratic president will almost certainly be destabilized with Iran hostage-crisis-style false flags, both to make Bush look good in retrospect, and to weaken the Democratic president. The next Democratic administration will not have 1990s OPEC offering cheap oil, nor 1990s Alan Greenspan setting up the chessboard with low interest rates. There will be no interest rates left to cut. The next Democratic administration will have Cheney sleeper cells and false intelligence feeds. The next Democratic administration cannot be permitted to succeed under any circumstances. The failure is already pre-designed: taxes must be raised, there is nothing left to deregulate, there is not much left to privatize, the military is destroyed, diplomatic credibility is in shreds, and neither a black man nor a white woman could afford politically to investigate and prosecute the crimes of the Bush Administration.

    When the foreshadowings and implications of 1968 are fulfilled in the U.S., they will likely look more like Chile 1973 and Argentina 1976.

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