Farewell - Fairplay
Something awful seems to be happening to the traditional American sense of fair play and goodwill. The public response in support of the victims of September 11 notwithstanding, in general there seems to be a decline of empathy and altruism. Perhaps I am overreacting, but this deficiency seems to assume many forms.
What immediately comes to mind is our treatment of prisoners. I refer first to the great flap that emerged worldwide over the Bush administration's refusal to place the prisoners of war captured in Afghanistan under the rules of the Geneva Convention. They are "unlawful combatants," we were told; or they are "dangerous and our guards need to be protected"; or, in still another statement, "They do not deserve any better." I've always thought that the Geneva Convention provided commendable rules governing the treatment of prisoners of war, rules that all civilized nations should follow. The prisoners are being treated "humanely," we were told. Surely, we would want our own soldiers, if captured anywhere in the world, to be treated in accord with the Geneva Convention. How can we demand this in the future if we violate these rules today? President Bush relented after much criticism at home and abroad and grudgingly declared that Taliban prisoners would come under the Geneva Convention, but not members of the Al Qaeda. Many critics believe that this concession does not go far enough.
"The Quality of American Mercy Is Not Strained"
This cavalier dismissal of the Geneva Convention has disturbed civil libertarians in the United States and our allies throughout the world. So has the treatment of thousands of Arabs and Muslims in the United States, recently apprehended by the Justice Department and held incommunicado and without bail. They are "terrorists," says the administration; but how do we know unless they are indicted and put on trial and processed through the American system of justice? Will the infamous deed of September 11—which we all abhor—and the fear of future terrorist acts so erode our sense of justice that we will abandon our traditional adherence to democratic due process?
Perhaps there is something deeply amiss, for a similar vindictiveness is often displayed as well in our treatment of American prisoners, incarcerated for a wide range of infractions. The War on Drugs in particular has taken a vast toll on the American sense of balance, and its result seems close to the development of a police-state mentality. Bursting into homes at all hours to jail alleged drug offenders—even for possession or use of marijuana, for example—seems like an extraordinary overreaction. Drug offenders are considered "wicked." Not that I wish to encourage drug use, but shall we abandon our free society to rout out drug use while we permit cigarette smoking and the abuse of alcohol, the two most noxious drugs available? From all reports, brutality in American prisons seems to be intensifying. Has vindictive justice gotten the best of us? I was interested to see William Bennett, the paragon of Christian virtue, railing against sin recently at a convention of American conservatives, defending the harsh tactics of the drug police. Whatever happened to the quality of mercy among those who express the Christian faith?
Another painful sign of the retributive mentality is seen in the fact that we still exact the death penalty; indeed, the United States is the only democracy that does. Our European allies are offended by capital punishment, and many countries now are refusing to honor extradition to the United States if the accused would risk suffering the death penalty. It is highly questionable that capital punishment serves as a deterrent. Surely we need to deal with those who commit heinous crimes. I would myself recommend life imprisonment for such offenders without the right of parole. But should not one of the aims of incarceration be rehabilitation, and should not a civilized society exert efforts to educate and reform offenders so that they may be returned to society? Instead we seem to have an exaggerated sense that punishment is good for its own sake and that those who commit crimes deserve retribution.
It seems to me that what is happening in the United States is that we have been overtaken by a religious sense of retributive justice and that this has taken on exaggerated proportions. Surely one of the purposes of punishment and incarceration is to protect society from criminals. Granted, but beyond that do we need to provide cruel and unusual punishment? Whatever happened to compassion?
The Bloated Defense Budget
I am also dismayed that the end of the Cold War has not reduced our military budget. We seem so frightened by enemies, domestic or foreign, that we are willing to spend vast sums on armaments and reduce our expenditure on domestic programs, such as medical insurance for those who lack it. The United States has also reduced foreign-aid assistance throughout the world. The ministers of the wealthy Group of Seven nations have recommended that these nations donate 0.7 percent of gross national product for international-aid programs for the poorest nations of the world. The United States currently provides the lowest percentage, only 0.1 percent. Secretary of the Treasury Paul H. O'Neill is a strong opponent of this aid, one reason why the United States is now known as "Uncle Scrooge."
President Bush's proposed military build-up would exceed that of the Reagan years. The administration proposes to increase defense spending by $120 billion over the next five years—at a time, incidentally, when it proposes that taxes be reduced and the deficit increased. It is interesting that the United States now spends an estimated 50 percent of all arms expenditures in the world. The Religious Right seems to need demons, real or imaginary, to guard against—formerly they were Bolsheviks, socialists, left-wingers, liberals, secular humanists, child abusers, drug fiends; there are now terrorists in place of the anarchists of earlier epochs. H. L. Mencken wryly observed: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." How true this is of the American political scene today.
The America that we love has in the past defended democracy and human rights and offered aid to those suffering disasters worldwide. Has this America become a swashbuckling military power, pursuing a unilateral foreign policy insensitive to the views of the world—such as the abrogation of international treaties? Are we no longer the hope of the world, but a nationalistic state pursuing our own self-interests? Today Afghanistan is defeated. Will we follow the president tomorrow by putting out of commission Iran, Iraq, and North Korea? I fear that America will lose its cherished friends and allies throughout the world, and her self-respect, and pursue imperialist policies that may be turned against us in the future by new coalitions of adversaries..
Dr. Paul Kurtz is an Honorary Associate of Rationalist International, professor emeritus of New York State University at Buffalo and the chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism.