Sunday, August 23, 2009

Don't Hold Back

"This blog is not only my [Charlie Stross] personal soapbox, it's my public face. Folks who read what I post here may or may not thereafter buy my books. Consequently, these days I try to avoid writing about stuff that is likely to be controversial. Call it the chilling effect of capitalism; I can say what I want if and only if I'm willing to do without that portion of my book royalties that comes from the folks I piss off.

There are some folks I can do without, mind you. (If you're a BNP member or voter you can fuck off right now. I don't care if you don't buy my books; I don't want your bloody money.)

However, this comes at a cost. I don't like biting my tongue continuously. I have strong opinions on a number of subjects — including politics — and what use is a soapbox if I can't use it from time to time? ...
This brings me to my topic of the day: mercy, and the lack of it.
I've been suppressing the urge to explode angrily ever since Thursday, when Abdelbaset Al Megrahi was officially released from prison and flown home to Libya. His release — on compassionate grounds, as he is suffering from terminal cancer and has weeks to live. Mr Al Megrahi was serving a life sentence, handed down by a rather oddly constituted Scottish court for his part in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988 — the biggest aviation disaster ever in British airspace, and one of the biggest acts of terrorism of that decade.

What am I angry about?

Let's leave aside the fact that many people (including the UN observer at the trial) consider Al Megrahi's conviction to be a serious miscarriage of justice. (The allegations of fabricated evidence should to be taken seriously; the Flight 103 investigation took place in the middle of a very chilly period in US/Libyan relations, and we have seen since then that the CIA is a pliant tool in the hands of those who want to fabricate evidence justifying action against uncooperative Middle Eastern nations. The CIA is an intelligence and covert operations agency under political direction, not an independent investigatory/detective bureau; its emissions should be considered with the utmost skepticism.)

What makes me angry ... Well, to start with it's worth noting that the loudest denunciations came from the White House — an entity with no legal standing whatsoever in the Scottish judicial system. But we expect external interference from the White House: it's what the Imperial Presidency is there for.
What bugs me is the complete lack of comprehension of the quality of mercy that seems to have crept over the US political class this century.
Even if Al Megrahi is a mass-murderer, the fact remains that he is dying. It is long-standing policy in Scotland to exercise the prerogative of mercy when possible; in general, if an imprisoned criminal is terminally ill, a request for release (for hospice care, basically) is usually granted unless they are believed to be a danger to the public.
That's because the justice system isn't solely about punishment. It's about respect for the greater good of society, which is better served by rehabilitation and reconcilliation than by revenge. We do not make ourselves better people by exercising a gruesome revenge on the bodies of our vanquished foes. Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Minister, did exactly the right thing in sending Al Megrahi home to die.

Meanwhile, the angry spectators who're throwing scat come from a country where prison rape is endemic and tolerated to the point where it's a subject for cheap jokes.

American attitudes to crime and punishment are unspeakable; disturbing, mediaeval, and barbaric are some of the adjectives that spring to mind. But above all, the word that most thoroughly applies is merciless. The commission of a crime is taken as an excuse to unleash the demons of the subconscious, however dark, however disproportionate, upon the perpetrator. Once labeled a criminal, an individual's right to fair treatment is utterly expunged, and any violation or degradation, however grotesque, is seen as something that they brought on themselves.


Well, let's pan across the political landscape and look at another current cause celebre that provides a window into the darker corners of the American psyche; the issue of healthcare reform.

I've been watching the war of words with increasing disbelief for the past month, trying to get my head around the reason why so many loud, vocal citizens seem to be so adamantly opposed to something that's in their own best interests — the US healthcare system is utterly dysfunctional, even for those with health insurance costs are spiraling out of control, and the current system is becoming a major drag on economic productivity — many business start-ups abort because the founders can't obtain healthcare, many novelists of my acquaintance are in serious financial trouble or are terrified of giving up the day job (that comes with insurance), and so on. The current mess is responsible for 22,000 avoidable deaths per year — a 9/11 scale catastrophe every six weeks.

And yet we hear rhetoric about death panels, idiotic allegations that Stephen Hawking would be dead if he lived in the UK and was dependent on the NHS (this just in: Stephen Hawking is British and, er, alive because of the NHS), and so on. What's going on?

What's noticable is that the 'debate' isn't about the need for healthcare, or about actual medical issues. It's about ideology, and outlook ...

Near as I can work it out from over here (caveat: I've spent somewhere between four and eight months of my life in the USA — this doesn't make me an expert) there is a small but significant proportion of the US population who hate the poor and want them to die. (Or at least to go somewhere where they're invisible and can't act as a perpetual reminder to the haters that their own security is at best tenuous.) I'm not sure why there's this hatred — my personal feeling is that it springs from numerous sources: from prosperity theology (if you're poor it's because you're ungodly and deserve to suffer), insecurity, lack of empathy, or a combination of these factors in different people. Other observers have different theories: M'Learned Friend opines that it's because the American conservative movement rejects Rawls's preconditions for justice. (That doesn't go far enough for my taste; they also seem to want to reject the entire concept of the Social Contract.) And then there's the growing tendency towards eliminationist rhetoric against socially sanctioned out-groups. (Arguably the endorsement of maltreatment of convicts is an emergent part of this trend, feeding into and normalising it.) .

The subjects vary — crime and penal policy, healthcare, don't get me started on foreign policy — but there is an ideological approach in America that is distinguished by one common characteristic: words and deeds utterly lacking in the quality of mercy.

There is a cancer in the collective American soul — a mercy deficit that has in recent years grown as alarmingly as the budget deficit. Nor is it as simple as a left/right thing: no political party has a monopoly on merciless behaviour. Rather, a creeping draconian absolutism has cast its penumbra across the entire arena of public discourse, tainting every debate, poisoning and hardening attitudes across the board.
Calls for revenge on a sick and dying man are part and parcel of the pathology, as are shrieks of outrage against the mere idea of subsidizing healthcare for the indigent or unlucky, or rough talk about 'every now and again ... pick[ing] up a crappy little country and throwing it against the wall just to prove we are serious'.
Mercy, it would seem, is a scarce commodity in the Empire.
Are you ashamed yet? If not, you're part of the problem.
(And by the way, I don't want your money.)"
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