The past few weeks have been filled with remembrances of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and rightly so.
Horrific events such as those, which occurred on that day, stay in the mind. This is especially true for the families of those who died on that day, affecting the lives of the next generation and the next.
And, it is difficult to forget, when both politicians and the press keep up a drumbeat of recollections and programming that present images of the day and of the following days, usually culminating with video shots of the implosion of the World Trade Center towers’ collapse to the ground with untold volumes of toxic dust.
Politicians speak of America’s resilience and of its resolve and, usually, they mean that the resilience and resolve of the country are expressed in its mighty military power around the globe. They do this to garner support for more military and defense power in the national budget, which already contains more money every year than nearly all the other countries on earth, combined.
We remember the nearly 3,000 men, women, and children who were killed 10 years ago, but it is never in the context of what this nation did to other peoples, as a result of that day. In the heat of the national impulse to revenge, government officials in charge plunged the U.S. into two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, 10 years later, there have been hundreds of thousands killed (some sources calculate a million or more deaths), cities leveled, and cultures destroyed. That’s a crime of incredible magnitude that is discussed by few Americans. After defeat of the Nazis, the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1950 declared that anyone who is involved in “planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties…” can be charged and tried for “crimes against peace.”
There are former U.S. government officials who are careful about where they travel, because they have been accused of war crimes and could be brought to judgment by other than American courts. The invasion of Iraq, for example, is considered by many outside the U.S. to be a war crime, because that country did not harm the U.S. It was no threat to the U.S., yet we invaded and destroyed one of the few secular nations in the Middle East. Before the invasion, a decade of sanctions softened up the country, to the extent that the United Nations estimated that 500,000 children died as a direct result of the sanctions.
What kind of society could send its young men and women into a country where they could declare the City of Fallujah in Iraq a free-fire zone, killing indiscriminately those who are left inside, even using white phosphorus weaponry?
There might be a clue to what kind of society we might be. In the 19th Century, Dostoyevsky, a Russian writer and novelist, said: “The degree of civilization can be judged by entering its prisons.”
Today, the U.S. has more than two million souls in prison, more than any other country, including China and Russia. A look inside will show that a large percentage of inmates are people of color, even though they still make up a minority among all Americans. The law isn’t working for everyone…and, it is not blind.
Forty years ago, New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller gave the order to attack the yard in Attica prison, where about 1,000 of about 2,200 inmates in the prison had been holding hostages for four days. It, too, was a free-fire zone, with troops and law enforcement, along with prison personnel, shooting into the cloud of tear-gas in the yard, where 29 inmates and 10 hostages were killed. It is doubtful that any of the shooters could see what they were shooting at.
Early press reports were that hostages had had their throats slit, but that proved to be a rumor and far off the mark. The hostages had been shot. The inmates did not have firearms. Later, it was shown through testimony that many of the hostages were protected by some of the inmates, who had rebelled because of the prison conditions and were stirred to action by the killing of George Jackson, a young Black Panther, who was shot in the back in a prison in far-off California.
Why did the governor order an assault, instead of going to the prison to determine what the inmates were demanding, as the corrections commissioner, Russell Oswald, had asked him repeatedly to do? While no one can know what was in Rockefeller’s mind at the time, it became clear later that he wanted to become president of the United States and, perhaps, he needed to show that he was just as tough a law-and-order official as any in the Republican Party.
He also was the push behind the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, which were some of the toughest in the nation. Those laws were responsible, in part, for the explosion in the population of New York’s prisons, with many (mostly African-Americans and Latinos) receiving severe sentences for mere possession of marijuana and small amounts of other drugs. Even though he showed a tough demeanor, he still was known as a liberal Republican. His actions, taken for whatever reason, left many dead and wounded at Attica and did nothing to improve prison conditions in New York or elsewhere. His drug laws helped make certain that the “prison-industrial complex” in the U.S. would flourish and grow for decades, to the present. And, of course, he did not gain the White House.
These two tragic and important events do indeed tell us what kind of society we have. The tragedy of 9/11 was cynically used by Americans in power to initiate two wars of choice that, so far, have cost more than 4,000 American dead and tens of thousands wounded. The wars have inflicted untold damage to two countries and caused the deaths and disruption of millions of lives.
The endless wars that U.S. officials have initiated and perpetuated have drained our economic, political, and societal strength. For what? For oil and simply to use our power in the world, over those whose resources we wish to claim as our own. Conditions in our prisons are little different from what they were 40 years ago, although they are contained in newer buildings…with more glass and razor wire. That we have imprisoned more human beings than any other country on earth tells us something about our laws, how we administer those laws, and of our respect for fundamental rights under the U.S. Constitution.
Those are two significant events in American history, one observed with all of the ceremony that a national government can muster and the other, an event that most Americans would wish to ignore or forget because it involves people we would like to put out of mind.
The question remains: What kind of society are we?
BlackCommentator.com Columnist, John Funiciello, is a labor organizer and former union organizer. His union work started when he became a local president of The Newspaper Guild in the early 1970s. He was a reporter for 14 years for newspapers in New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.