... the people we believe ourselves to be? Kind, generous, ready to lend a hand? Free from prejudice, concerned for the well-being of others? Eager to share the freedom we enjoy with others who have less of it?
Two essays in today's New York Times "Sunday Review" section distressed me. Help Thy Neighbor and Go Straight to Prison, by Nicholas D. Kristoff, details the story of a man sentenced to 15 years in jail for the possession of seven shotgun shells, put aside to protect his children as he helped his recently widowed neighbor, and forgotten until discovered in his house by police; he was the victim of a determined prosecutor and one of those draconian mandatory sentencing laws many states passed so eagerly in the 1970s. The second essay, Fatal Mercies, by Frank Bruni, describes the needless, arbitrary prosecution of woman accused of passing a vial of morphine to a suffering, 93 year old father who wanted only to be allowed to take his own way out. In the same section, the lead editorial, California's Continuing Prison Crisis, is about the overcrowding crisis in California's prison system, brought about by the same 1970s rush to increase the severity of punishment for even minor offenders.
What have we become, in this past half-century? The changes in the justice system and in sentencing laws that we demanded in the 1970s suggest that we set more store by vengeance than compassion, and that our society is characterized more by mutual mistrust than common interest. But it's not merely the justice system: the politicians we elect and the policies they enact are as heartless as they are mindless, short-sighted, reflective more of personal greed and the assertion of individual rights than social responsibility. We demand ever greater personal freedoms on the one hand--to possess weapons, to cite but one example--and on the other, readily sacrifice them to corporate invasions on our privacy. We tolerate--even admire--the unconscionable wealth amassed by the few at the expense of the many. And cheating has become a way of life, not only in our sports but in our world of high finance. Outraged by the former, we content ourselves with a shrug of the shoulders at the latter. And that's not to mention our knee-jerk resort to violence, whether on the streets of Sanford, Florida or in the desolate hills of Pakistan.
The people who enable and empower such attitudes and behaviors are surely not the people we like to imagine ourselves to be. Such a people, it would seem to an impartial, outside observer, would be brutish, heartless, thoughtless, lacking in compassion, short-sighted, vengeful, unreasonable, unable to determine their own best interests. But, surely now, that couldn't be us...