Thursday, December 19, 2013

What Prof. Juan Cole said

I had tweeted thusly: "America has gone from land of the free to land where govt listens to your phone calls and probes your body orifices at will."   But Prof. Juan Cole says it much better.

Americans think of themselves as brave rugged individualists who enjoy the liberties of an Enlightenment constitution. In fact, they most often are timid and cowed in the face of the world’s most powerful government, which increasingly acts like a medieval tyrant. Americans don’t seem outraged that the government is spying on them. The government has put 6 million Americans either in prison or under correctional supervision, and has the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world– more than Cuba, nearly twice that of Russia, and more than 4 times that of Communist China! Only 8 percent of inmates in Federal penitentiaries are there for violent crimes. In many states, former prisoners are stripped of the right to vote. These extreme penal practices of course primarily target minorities and function as a racial control mechanism. (Famously, penalties in the US for using cocaine powder, a favorite in the white suburbs, are much less than for crack cocaine, mostly used by poor minorities.)

Not only does the US have an enormous number of people in jail but they subject arrestees (people not convicted of a crime) to routine strip and cavity searches. Women are often forced to be naked in front of the other inmates and to spread their labia for a policewoman.

These practices have been challenged. The ninth district federal appeals court in California decades ago found LAPD routine body cavity searches unconstitutional. But last year, our Supreme Court– the same one that thinks corporations are people, that doesn’t think big money campaign donors should have to identify themselves, and thinks it is all right for traditionally discriminatory states to pass voter suppression laws against minorities– weighed in. It found constitutional routine strip searches even in minor traffic violations cases. A guy got a ticket. He paid it off, but it mistakenly stayed on his record. He bought a new house and went out with family to celebrate. He got stopped by police, who ran his registration and found the ticket. They handcuffed him in front of his family and hauled him off to six days in jail during which he was subjected to cavity searches. John Roberts thinks the whole thing perfectly reasonable.
Prof. Cole also notes something that seems to be along the lines of my thinking - that the English/American genius is to make bad behavior legal.
While police in India sometimes mistreat prisoners, they are behaving illegally when they do so. To have the official policy be to humiliate people routinely is outrageous to people outside the United States, especially where it concerns a woman diplomat who functions as a symbol of the nation.