My country and yours, the United States of America, is becoming a pariah to the rest of the world. It’s not just our continued wars in the Middle East, or that our government sanctioned committed torture (and for all we know may still sanction the use of torture, by American intelligence operatives or their foreign proxies. It’s not just our continued use of the death penalty, a practice abolished in many countries, or the fact that our nation imprison more people than any other nation, twenty-five percent of all prisoners held worldwide despite having only 5% of the world’s total population. It’s not just the wave of gun related incidents – shootings, murders, suicides, accidents – because of our national obsession with guns and gun culture.
Of late, the international community has taken note of what far too many people of color already know, that police and other law enforcement agencies in every corner of this country resort to violence and excessive force to brutalize communities, and to effectively dismantle political movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, as a first resort. Amnesty International has long condemned the use of brutal force by law enforcement in the US, and most recently labeled the the actions the Ferguson Police Department against protestors as human rights violations. Amnesty International, however, is a private organization, and its calls for justice in the US are routinely ignored.
However, now an independent body of the United Nations, its Committee against Torture, which monitors “implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” (a treaty of which the United States is a signatory, has also spoken out against our ever increasing militarized police departments, and their history of violence against civilians, in the Committee’s report on US compliance with the terms of the Convention, its first since 2006, and in particular the rash of fatal shootings of young black men:
(Reuters) – The U.N. Committee against Torture urged the United States on Friday to fully investigate and prosecute police brutality and shootings of unarmed black youth and ensure that taser weapons are used only in life-threatening situations. […]
The committee decried “excruciating pain and prolonged suffering” endured by prisoners during “botched executions” as well as frequent rapes of inmates, shackling of pregnant women in some prisons, and extensive use of solitary confinement.
The review cited deep concern about “numerous reports” of police brutality and excessive use of force against people from minority groups, immigrants and homosexuals as well as racial profiling and militarization of policing work.
It referred to the “frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal purusits [sic] of unarmed black individuals.”
Many Americans, particularly political conservatives, will dismiss this report out of hand, but it fairly represents how the rest of the world now views America. Not as the land of freedom and liberty, but as a land where police act with impunity on a regular basis to quash dissent and maintain the status quo, particularly when it comes to abusive and excessive force used against minority populations. The Committee’s report expressed not only concerns about the abuse of police power in America, but also listed specific policy recommendations:
In its 16-page report, the U.N. committee expressed concern about numerous reports of police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement, in particular “against persons belonging to certain racial and ethnic groups, immigrants and LGBTI individuals, racial profiling by police and immigration offices and growing militarization of police activities.”
• Ensure that all instances of police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement officers are investigated promptly, effectively and impartially by an independent mechanism with no institutional of hierarchical connection between the investigators and the alleged perpetrators.
• Prosecute persons suspected of torture or ill-treatment and, if found guilty, ensure that they are punished in accordance with the gravity of their acts.
• Provide effective remedies and rehabilitation to the victims.
Sadly, I do not foresee that any of the Committee’s action points will be acceptable to the policy makers in our local, state and federal governments. More’s the pity.
But it is clear that, in the eyes of the rest of the world, the United States is now viewed as a rogue nation, one which commits human rights violations both abroad and at home. In plain language, our county is in violation of international law (i.e. the Torture Convention) as determined by the very people who have been assigned the task of determining whether we are in compliance with our treaty obligations. This may not mean much to many Americans, but it is one more sign of the decline in our position in the world.
Ronald Reagan, in his farewell address, once famously claimed that America was a “shining city on a hill,” a reference to Jesus parable of the salt and the light in the Gospel of Matthew, a phrase that has long been popular among American politicians to describe our nation’s special place in the world.
…I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still…
For millions of Americans, and millions more people around the world, nothing could be farther from the truth. Someday, perhaps sooner than many think, our country will no longer be the first among nations, or be able to exert the political, economic, military and diplomatic power we have for much of the last century. What will happen to us then, when our power is diminished and other countries no longer accept America’s “special place” in the world? I am no prophet, but I fear a potential spiral into chaos and the rise to political power of those on the right who would terminate with extreme prejudice whatever remaining rights we still possess. Many people of color already live in that unjust and faithless America, one where their lives are sold cheap, their future is blighted and they awake everyday to despair, knowing that this country’s pledge of liberty and justice for all is a lie.
Ferguson is just the latest in a series of incidents that have exposed the foul rot in our society for all who have eyes to see. There will be more to come, that I do know.