Americans proudly believe we live in a nation of laws where no one — not corporate executives, celebrities or presidents — is above the law. A place where justice is applied evenly and consistently regardless of class, wealth, race, gender or any other factor.
All men are created equal here, and the U.S. justice system is designed to treat us all equally. Faith in legal equality binds us together as citizens and keeps order in wildly divergent communities across the continent.
The dirty secret we all carry, of course, is that Americans aren’t treated equally under the law. We’re reminded every day that there’s an “in” club and an “out” club, and our attitudes vary depending on whether we’re in or out.
When black people couldn’t vote or attend integrated schools, we rationalized the inequity because it wasn’t us. When poor people were mistreated, at least it wasn’t us. When gay people suffered, hey, it wasn’t us.
Immigrants? Not us. Middle Eastern-looking people? Not us. Americans tracked by warrantless surveillance? Not us.
Prisoners of war tortured? Not us.
It’s reminiscent of the famous Martin Niemoller poem about the rise of Nazism in Germany: “They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist … Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew … And then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up.”
Luckily, some Americans do speak up. They’re the country’s conscience, the ones who know the difference between what’s right and what’s expedient.
CityBeat often writes about these heroes: lawyers who defend the homeless, college students who help Death Row inmates fight wrongful execution, religious leaders who promote understanding, tolerance and empathy.
Another group of Americans has emerged to question our collective moral fiber — those seeking formal inquiry into the Bush administration’s embrace of torture in the war on terror. They must be heeded.
President Obama has waffled on whether he’d seek a “truth commission” after releasing internal Bush memos that supported torture by playing legal mumbo-jumbo with definitions of torture. Obama says he’d prefer to look forward than focus on the past.
By that logic, why even have a justice system? Why arrest someone for a murder that happened in the past? Why punish him for his crime when instead we could look forward to him becoming a better person?
In a recent interview on The Daily Beast web site, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a key figure in crafting the torture memos, says Obama shouldn’t have said the U.S. had “discontinued these techniques. They may be necessary in the future. And by disclosing it, (it) means you take them off the table and they can never be used again.”
Exactly. By putting criminals in jail, you try to take crime off the table. It’s called justice. And it applies to everyone.
CONTACT JOHN FOX: firstname.lastname@example.org