The title explains my day’s beginning. A phone call engulfs me in the flames of hate: I spit out words of venom and vengeance upon the heads and souls and lives of people who have brought us to this moment even as I still restrain my words. My compassion has disappeared for the moment. I talk away the hate because the other person on the end of my call is calm. Then I tap, tap, tap my feelings to the written word. This is for me.
I have read stories every single day of people who have suffered, are suffering; I have read stories of torment. I have signed petitions. I have donated my pittance. Then I turned my brain to those who have inflicted that pain. Those inflictors of injustice and torture seemed to lack humanity or what I believed was humanity. I realized though that they had humanity. They were just the worst representatives of our humanity. How can we explain Hitler or Idi Amin? They were the worst of us, but they were of us. Some people behave badly over and over again and get away with it. No one ever calls them to task; perhaps they lack a level of conscience to even feel guilty or have remorse. Then there are those who get caught and are seen for who they are, and we disown them as anomalies of humanity. They do not belong to us.
Only a few days ago I watched a 60 Minutes segment about Riker’s Island in New York City. This is the place mentioned in every Law & Order series episode, a series I can no longer watch because it is full of fantasy about the way we think the police behave and the way we want to believe the justice system works. Riker’s Island is mentioned as a place to instill fear, and it seems, rightly so.
The US Attorney is investigating claims of civil rights offenses against inmates. The segment recounted the stories of two inmates who died in custody, one who laid in water and his own waste for days. The other inmate ate soap and was poisoned; he was dead by morning. Had these men committed crimes? Probably, but they had not yet been convicted. Was their sentence to be death? The guards’ behavior and actions are on record. They did not care that their conversations were videotaped. The did not care that a report was shown in the guard’s hand and then disappeared in an effort to hide the truth while the camera recorded every action. Why would they not care that the world could see their actions and hear their words? Did they believe citizens, other human beings, did not care how inmates were treated? Did they think we did not care if people in their care died from neglect and abuse? They had been treating prisoners in this way for years and getting away with it, so maybe we did not care unless that dead or injured inmate happened to be our son or daughter or husband or wife or friend. Was getting away with bad behavior the reason they were led to believe they had approval? What does that say about us when we allow ourselves to look the other way at injustice?
The reporter interviewed the head of the union for guards at Riker’s Island. He explained that the guards are not trained to handle mentally ill prisoners who often are not given their medications. He asked if they should not be given those medications? This brought up the medical contract in the jail. This has been an issue at the Allegheny County Jail also and resulted in a change of providers as it did at Rikers. It is always after the fact, a death or injury, that we suddenly want to take action and lay blame. As always it comes down to money. Money is certainly a consideration in health care for any of us but should not be the main consideration for any human being. I concurred with this man’s comments about training. His guards should be trained, and the inmates should be given their medications. This does not, however, excuse or explain the actions that we see on that videotape. How can lack of training explain not acting with a degree of human kindness or concern for another human being?
I am guilty also; I live with the guilt of knowing I have been apathetic to injustices happening all around me. I admit though that now I am often filled with an overwhelming desire to run away and hide and pretend I am not a part of this ugly humanity. Every time I get in my car I consider driving and driving and driving.
The US Attorney talked about a culture of violence and silence within Riker’s Island. That is a culture that can exist even within families. I heard someone once state ‘we are a family that sticks together’. I learned that truer words were never spoken. There is a culture that allows us to behave badly while others pretend they do not know or see it or perhaps simply do not care. They brush off injustice. They deny the lie. They have the security of their own group that lets them envelope themselves in a shroud of denial and hide from the truth. They gather strangers to their lie and feel vindicated when they persuade others to believe the lie as if they can turn lie into truth.
Today I write in anger at injustice and lies and people who feign goodness and righteousness. They are a part of our humanity though. I must accept their existence while I hate their existence. I am angry at myself and my son for being stupid. I am angry for our naiveté that we can not ever regain. I want that ignorance back, but it is lost.