Sunday, May 13, 2007

Crime and Punishment

At the end of last year, I was arrested. It was actually the week before Christmas, a fact that I was reminded of by every officer in booking("Want an extra mug shot for your mom's Christmas card?"). Now, I'd like to have a great story to go along with this, like I was involved in one of those drunken bar fights you see on TV all the time, or that I had been framed by a one armed man, but the truth is infinitely more mundane. I was driving without insurance. That's a misdemeanor in Alaska, and so I was handcuffed, put into the backseat, and taken to jail.. I should say that the arresting officer was very polite and even apologetic, but the officers in booking are complete douche bags. The man searching my pockets before allowing me into the jail was a diminutive, portly man who tried VERY hard to be intimidating but only tested my ability to hold in laughter. For the rest of my time in booking(I never went into the jail, I got out on bail before that happened) he would walk by and threaten me with violent cavity searches if I couldn't come up with 1,500 dollars in bail. Cash. Yes, 1,500 dollars for driving without insurance. That would only be the beginning of what is becoming a very large shakedown.

In court, following a long line of people there for similar offenses(some a bit more serious, but most traffic violations), the judge gave me 30 days in jail, 30 suspended(the point being that if any similar crime on my part were to occur, I would have to serve that jail time, and it's always on my record), around 1000 dollars in court costs(not counting the 500 to get my car out of impound), and 80 hours of community service. A little known fact: You have to pay for community service. I went to the Community Work Service building to sign up, and they wouldn't allow me to work until I gave them 85 dollars. What a fucking system. The next night I was watching one of those Dateline Internet Predators shows, which I normally don't care for(I'm all for exposing and embarrassing these sickos to the entire world, hell, I'm for doing more than that, but I think these shows are a little too close to the line between vigilantism and fascism), and they caught a man who had 4(count em, 4!) prior convictions, and was currently on trial for a 5th incident at the time. They followed his case through to sentencing, and he got a smaller fine than I did, no jail time, and 50 hours of community service.

What was my crime, essentially? Not paying the right people. And why do you think I(or anyone else) would commit this crime? To intentionally screw the government? Of course not, it's a matter of money. I didn't have the money to pay for insurance, and although I knew it was stupid, I went without. I'm pretty sure that's the same explanation almost everyone caught without insurance will give you. And what is the punishment? Horribly inappropriate fines that shouldn't be administered to people who can't even afford insurance, and community service. The community service is even worse, because for that you have to take time off work, and therefore earn less money. And on top of that you have to PAY for the privilege of cleaning up old beer cans along the side of the road.

I bring this story up not as to draw attention to my misfortune, but as an opportunity to touch on a greater problem with our society. I could easily use this to rant about the ongoing war against the poor in this country, but I'd like to try and illuminate a deeper, more distressing problem. Our legal system, as it is currently set up, is all about punishment, and very little care given to actually helping people. Even in those cases where someone is helped, the actual system is more about punishing the perceived wrongdoer. This ties back into my earlier post about torture porn, because I think this is the same thing, only in the 'real' world, not fictionalized on screen. Our entire culture, from children's tales on up, is about finding the person who's done us wrong and making them pay.

On a grander scale, take the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I'm not going to debate the morality of that event, but the outcome is something worth noting. I don't consider myself an expert on Japanese culture by any means(so all apologies if I offend anyone here), but I've seen my share of films, read my share of books, taken my share of college courses. I've read postwar books that deal directly with the outcome of those two horrendous bombings, and a funny thing started to become clear; there's very little anger pointed towards America. Here is a country that by all means should hate us; we completely obliterated two entire cities, and then forcefully changed their entire way of life. And yet nothing. A friend in Japan told me of an incident in which an elderly person came up to him on the street to thank him for the way the Americans treated Japan after the war.

As you can imagine this confused me, and I guess upset me a bit. My white liberal guilt almost demanded that someone be angry with us. Where was the outrage? The righteous anger at all that meaningless death? Well, it was still there, even if all you know of Japanese culture is Godzilla, the anger towards that horrible event is evident. It's just not directed anywhere that I would initially think of. There is a great anger, and a great sadness, but it's directed internally just as much as it is externally. The bombs dropped, and almost instantly the country of Japan had a moment of catharsis, a giant 'what the hell were we doing' moment. The sadness I sense when reading about the bombs dropping is one of 'how could we let ourselves get to this point? How could the world let itself get to this point?'

Juxtapose that with how we respond when faced with national crises. September 11th was a horrible event, absolutely horrible. It's something that took me a very long time to come to grips with, but what affected me more than the actual event was how we as a society reacted. Where Japan stepped back and took a more passive approach while healing those wounds, we immediately responded like a shaken hornet's nest. Without even waiting to fully verify who was attacking us, we were calling for war on a handful of countries, all middle eastern. We didn't even bother to think of a reason why we might be under attack. Quick; what is the officially stated reason Al-Qaeda attacked us? Has one even been issued? Has our government even bothered to tell us WHY these people hate us so much? And no, 'because they hate freedom' doesn't count. With no information, no reason, we are ready to strike out and risk everything to get vengeance. That attitude is confused an awful lot with justice.

So, culturally, what is it that separates us from Japan? What causes our reactions to be so completely different? You could argue that Japan, for all it's harsh and draconian rules offers everyone a position. Everyone in Japan has a place to fit in, and a goal premade for them. This is a sensation foreign to almost every American. We have more freedoms, but have the anxieties and mental disorders to match. You could also argue that our religion is to blame, that Christianity is, in essence, all about punishment. From God in the old testament to Jesus being punished for our sins. It's ingrained since birth that everything requires vengeance. You could argue many things, and honestly I'm not sure what I think the culprit is.

As a country we have somehow allowed our feelings of power and masculinity to get tied up with our feelings of victimization. White Americans, who have everything, and have faced no real historical persecution, are constantly complaining about their existence being whittled away by outside influences, Affirmative Action or the NAACP. We like to pretend we're being persecuted because it makes our strength(or the perception of it) all the more impressive. In an individual this type of behavior would be seen as a cry for attention, but what do we call it when it applies to an entire country? This is a dysfunction that I believe is killing this nation.

Always playing the victim role, it's still seen as a sign of weakness to offer or accept help. People like to laugh at all of the mis-spoken phrases our President uses, but take a closer look at what he's actually saying. Whenever he speaks of social improvement or humanitarian undertakings he stutters and uses the wrong words, but listen to him talk about punishing our enemies and he's very lucid and well spoken, showing where his priorities lie. Look what happened with Hurricane Katrina. There was an outpouring of offers for aide, but Bush denied most of them. Venezuela has offered many times to donate oil to the lower income families in America who need it, but has been blocked several times(he's gotten around that by selling at a discounted rate to low income families who apply). On the other end of that spectrum, we view the help WE give with disdain as well, both to those giving it and those receiving it. Welfare is a prime example. Many hate the agencies that make welfare possible, and there's a social stigma associated with receiving it. I myself received aid from the government in the form of Denali Kid Care when Amber was pregnant through my daughter's first year or so, and without it we wouldn't have been able to afford the nice family practitioner we now have, and my daughter may not have had the healthcare she now enjoys. The point is, neither I nor my girlfriend were lazy, drug addicted, or any of the other descriptions used for welfare recipients. I, at the time, was working as a manager at a retail store and 2 other part time jobs.

The point is, this cycle of punishment is one of the main causes of this rift in our culture today. Things are no longer as much about race as they are about class. Our entire society cultivates a mistrust and often hatred of our neighbors for the most inconsequential things. I'm going to borrow(steal) an analogy from a man who is far more knowledgeable about this than I am. Imagine America as a tree, and imagine you put a wedge into that tree's trunk, causing it to branch off in two directions. Now the tree keeps growing, and may become quite great, but with that wedge the two sides of the tree keep growing in different directions. And we all know what happens then; the branches snap.

This Social Darwinism, a concept upheld by many republicans whether they know the phrase or not, is one of the most asinine ideas I've ever heard, and yet it pervades almost every aspect of our culture. The entire point of a society is the advancement of every individual in the group. Without helping our neighbors, society doesn't advance.

(To Be Continued....)


Rik Tod said...

I was having a similar (though not nearly as focused) discussion with a co-worker on the American fixation on revenge motifs just yesterday afternoon. I find it amazing in my own personal life, that if someone drops even a minor insult my way, I become consumed with gaining vengeance in a slightly larger way. Hell, you can even see this attitude as the genesis of our national "road rage".

It goes farther than that. For a nation that has always seen itself as a bringer of peace to the world, we have had relatively little of it on our own shores. The subjugation of African slaves which led to an eventual freedom that led to little actual freedom and a lot of torment and violence, the veritable genocide of the Native Americans, and the manner in which, especially today, immigrants, legal or otherwise, are treated all point up a society which, not just via racism, creates the need for vengeance against those who haven't even done anything. We are always looking for scapegoats in advance of a problem. Not to downplay the Holocaust, but our government is guilty of crimes, perhaps not packed as tightly into a short period as the Nazis, but certainly in an equally large measure when accordioned out over our entire history. That most of these groups tend to make up a majority of the "poor", the war on which you point out, only puts the punctuation on this.

As for the rest of the world, while we certainly have had a hand in bringing temporary peace to certain scenarios, even in the most benevolent of situations, it is not without our government bargaining to get better positioning for the next proposed global "conflict". In our efforts to provide "peace", we have actually shown ourselves to be even worse than a "warrior" nation; we are a nation of warrior-businessmen, and the goal is not really "peace" but rather a "piece of the action".

To wit: Iraq. We go in, ostensibly to depose a dictator, which on paper sounds solid and serves as our President's "revenge" for 9/11 (even if it is misplaced), and then verbalize our commitment to bringing "democracy" to the region. We end up igniting a civil war, and we have an administration afraid of saying they were wrong, so we end up locked into a grim situation years past its planned resolution. But, because we are businessmen, war traditionally turns a profit for someone down the line, and since the Prez and his cronies are all tied into the companies that will profit from this -- the oil companies, who have had record profits throughout this action, and Halliburton -- gosh, they somehow seem reluctant to get out of there. They don't give a crap about the lives that are being lost, because for the most part, those lives, both American and Iraqi, represent the poor. Our government is, indeed, the ultimate in shakedown artists.

We can't just look at a frozen flagpole and say, "Hey, my tongue will stick to that and it will hurt immensely to remove it." We, as a nation, have to lick the flagpole. And then we will blame the flagpole for causing us pain, and swear vengeance on the flagpole. Our nation is severely crippled right now, and the damage is largely internal, and practically all of it psychological. Most of our imagined need for vengeance is declared in a series of wars: The War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, The War on Terrorism. Our immediate reaction is to declare "war" on something. It's never, "Hey, let's discuss this rationally, and let's hear all sides and then try to talk it out"; no, it's "War!" As far as I can tell, all the War on Drugs has done is put more people in prison, has hardly lessened the amount of drugs in our society, and by way of putting more in prison, has only added to the War on Poverty problem.

The War on Terrorism has been focused largely on the Middle East, and we seem to have forgotten that no so long before 9/11, the largest terrorist act in our country was committed by our own countrymen. Timothy McVeigh killed 168 of his fellow citizens in Oklahoma City in 1995. His motivation: revenge. Supposedly for the government's involvement in the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents, but surely it was a revenge deeply ingrained in his American soul since, well as you put it, Aaron, "children's tales" on up. While his vengeance was concentrated against the government, the aftermath barely touched the government at all, and ultimately only served to hurt, what he probably never considered in his revenge-addled brain, and the same people he was getting vengeance for, the common people. Both physically (it wasn't just federal workers who died) and in the national psyche. And the immediate reaction to the bombing? Revenge. We executed him.

As a side note: when you spoke of the Japanese aftermath of the bombings in WWII, you mentioned "even if all you known of Japanese culture is Godzilla". Gojira is actually probably one of the more upfront public examples of the post-bombing self-loathing that the Japanese felt in those days. The monster, created or revived by nuclear blasts and radiation, initially attacks as the Japanese are partying, and then completely trashes Tokyo. While they seek to destroy the monster and cease his rampage, there is no talking of actual vengeance against the creature, because the mood is one of "we asked for this".

Perhaps it is time that Americans looked into this attitude, because we are not liked very much as a nation anymore. We need to fix ourselves internally. We need to stop blaming others, and start blaming ourselves.

P.S. Sorry to hear about your problems with the man keeping you down. Give me a call if you need to talk it out.

The Working Dead said...

Your comments are completely spot on, and many of them are ideas I had wanted to put forth, but was either unable to adequately convey them, or had edited them for space and time.

I agree that our nation has committed an extended list of travesties, but I'd put forth that almost every country has done that. The problem with OUR travesties is that we spent years denying and/or glorifying them, and now that we realize it's wrong try and put a band-aid on it, but don't make any real attempt to change things. You can't change history, what's done is done, we need a little less apologizing and a bit more action. The best thing we can do is try and learn and move on, to not make the same mistakes. That's not an attitude that has been embraced by the American public yet. Still, in the end I am hopeful. I'm a hopeful pessimist, I guess. I always think and expect the worst, but in the end I truly believe we as a society will move past this.

And regarding my problems with the law; In the end it's pretty minor, and aside from raising my ire occasionally, it's no real big deal. I'm pissed off, yes, but in my daily life(aside from the community service), it really has little effect. Plus now I can tell people I was arrested, maybe finally I'll have some 'cool' points.

Karena said...

Your so awesome.I love the thinking you make me do.