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Voices / Column

Are we really the greatest nation on Earth?

A pause to reflect on some serious flaws in the American culture

Elayne Clift writes monthly about politics and social issues.

Saxtons River

Often, politicians and others like to glorify American democracy, history, principles and actions. They wallow in soliloquies espousing the United States as the best, brightest, and most innovative country in the world. They beg the question: Why would anyone want to live elsewhere?

Well, besides our inability to stop gun violence, our treatment of the poor (many of whom are children), our crumbling infrastructure and inadequate cell-phone service, our denial of climate change, the Koch brothers’ political power, our shameful maternal and infant mortality rates, our damaged educational system, and our institutionalized racism, here are three reasons: capital punishment, torture and, now, the betrayal of veterans.

State-sanctioned execution is legal in many states. While a 1972 Supreme Court ruling suspended capital punishment, once it resumed in 1976, more than 1,000 people were executed by 37 states where death at the hands of the state was legal at the time.

We are among the few countries that currently allow the death penalty, including China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen. More than 140 countries have abolished capital punishment in law or practice. Together, the U.S. and these four countries carry out more than 90 percent of the total capital punishment executions in the world.

* * *

In a recent blog post on the National Interest, Paul Pillar noted that “the United States is distinctly in a minority in regularly using death as a criminal punishment.”

Texas proudly takes the lead in executions. Pillar quotes a Houston lawyer on the state’s efficiency: “I think Texas does it as well as Iran.”

To quote Amnesty International, “Capital punishment does not work. There is a wealth of mounting evidence that proves this fact.”

Here as elsewhere, the organization says, the death penalty is discriminatory and used disproportionately against the poor, minorities, and members of racial, ethnic, and religious communities.

And the risk of executing innocent people has been dramatically highlighted by DNA testing and the release of wrongfully incarcerated individuals. We also know that the death penalty disregards mental illness, even though international law prohibits executing “the insane.”

A recent botched execution in Oklahoma and the Missouri case of a stayed execution because the accused man suffered from a medical anomaly that would have meant an excruciating death by lethal injection have again raised the issue of capital punishment as an immoral act.

A recent editorial in The New York Times pointed out that death by lethal injection became the standard method because hanging, firing squads, and the electric chair were deemed too “barbaric,” not because the state was taking a human life.

The reality is that state executions take place in shameful settings, at night, behind closed doors. If Americans actually saw what happens, they would be horrified. As the Times editorial said, “There are no clean executions.”

* * *

Capital punishment is not the only torture sanctioned and carried out by the United States. Amnesty International writes — and others concur — that “in the years since 9/11, the U.S. government has repeatedly violated both international and domestic prohibitions on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in the name of fighting terrorism.”

The UN Convention Against Torture defines torture as “the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining [] information or a confession, or punishing, intimidating or coercing [someone].

“No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture,” the convention spells out.

Torture is always illegal.

* * *

Cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment (CID) is also illegal under international and U.S. law. It includes any harsh or neglectful treatment that could damage a detainee’s physical or mental health or any punishment intended to cause physical or mental pain or suffering, or to humiliate or degrade the person being punished.

Yet in the years since 9/11, the U.S. government has repeatedly violated both international and domestic prohibitions on torture and CID in the name of fighting terrorism.

An argument can be made that the appalling lack of care for veterans by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also constitutes CID. Recent news reports suggest that things are worse than we yet know.

John Dickerson of Slate and CBS News said it best: “What makes the VA scandal different is not only that it affected people at their most desperate moment of need — and continues to affect them at subpar facilities. It’s also a failure of one of the most basic transactions government is supposed to perform: keeping a promise to those who were asked to protect our very form of government. The growing scandal points out more than just incompetence,” he wrote in Slate, referring to lies told by administrators.

That is perhaps the most frightening piece of the VA scandal and reveals its moral connection to capital punishment and torture. The common denominator is obfuscation, often coupled with contempt, carelessness, incompetence, and a total lack of compassion — all of which add up to cruelty and suggest that this might not be the greatest place on Earth to live.

At the very least, it should give one pause to reflect upon serious flaws in American culture, including its incipient violence, whether by execution, torture, or sheer neglect.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #261 (Wednesday, July 2, 2014). This story appeared on page D1.

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