The politicians and bureaucrats who administer the machinery of legally-sanctioned, state-sponsored homicide seldom have a sense of irony.
“April is the cruelest month,” wrote the American writer T.S. Eliot, perhaps the greatest poet of the English language of the twentieth century. This year, the state of Arkansas is giving those words a quite literal, macabre meaning. The state is racing to carry out an orgy of executions—eight in ten or eleven days—before the end of the month when one of the drugs it uses to put down the condemned—midazolam—hits its expiration date.
On several occasions, the lethal cocktail Arkansas intends to use has led to botched, extremely painful executions amounting to up to two hours of sheer torture. A state and a federal judge have issued separate rulings halting Arkansas’s gruesome end-of-the month snuff party.
Unfazed, the state, led by Asa Hutchinson, the Republican governor, is eager to carry out the carnage anyway and is appealing the judicial decisions. Eager enough to have conned the maker of one of the other two drugs in the cocktail—vecuronium chloride—into selling the state the product. It was done by placing the order using the license of an individual physician rather than the state. The subterfuge was meant to cast the false impression that the drug would be used for a legitimate medical purpose. McKesson Corporation bans the use of its drug for executions and has tried unsuccessfully to get the state to return the drug.
April may or may not be the cruelest month but the United States is the cruelest society among countries that follow the rule of law, pick their leaders through elections, are wealthy enough to provide a minimally decent standard of living to its poorest citizens and health care and education for all. Compared to its developed, democratic peers America is the cruelest society, not just in April but every month of the year.
The evidence is abundant and compelling. The United States stands out from other developed countries in its punitive zeal. How?
- Last holdout on the use of the death penalty.
- A safety net with holes so big an elephant could fall through it.
- No universal health care, no recognition of health care as a human right instead of a mere commodity.
- An educational system underfunded by state governments and increasingly segregated by class and race. This loads the dice for life in favor of the children of rich white people who attend the likes of Harvard and Yale. They often end up as highly-paid partners in major law firms or top executives in large corporations. The children of the 99 percent—black, white, and Latino—usually attend less prestigious schools or don’t go to college at all. The career paths of the children of the 99 percent have little resemblance to those of the offspring of the 1 percent.
- The highest number of police killings of civilians, including unarmed ones, many of them black, almost always ending in impunity for the officers, despite damning videos and eyewitnesses.
- The highest homicide rate.
- The highest rate of gun deaths, including homicides, suicides and accidents.
- The largest prison population in the world, surpassing even China, which is an authoritarian state and has almost five times as many people.
- Record inequality.
- More weapons of mass destruction and a larger military budget than virtually all other countries in the world combined.
The United States is the cruelest of the societies that came out of the Enlightenment. It gives me no joy to say it, it hurts, it is a very unpopular sentiment. But it is the truth.
Individual, ground level examples of cruelty are too numerous to do more than provide a small sample.
Last Sunday, the Miami Herald’s front page story reported on the imminent eviction from their home of a family with a daughter with cerebral palsy. Unconscionable, yes. Cruel, yes. Business as usual, yes.
The state of Florida’s prison guards responsible for the frying of an inmate in a hot shower were recently cleared of all charges. Cruel, yes. Business as usual, yes.
There are myriad other examples but not enough space. And things are bound to get even worse in the next few years because of: the election of a law-and-order president, code for unleashing the forces of repression; the Republican drive to heap even more punishment on poor and middle class people by downsizing, voucherizing and privatizing every program and provision that helps them; the ever expanding hunt for undocumented immigrants led by a formidable hound, a racist attorney-general; President’s Trump’s plan to throw even more money at the already bloated military budget to further enable this country to carry out its punitive tendencies globally and unilaterally.
The image of the United States as a cruel and punitive society is not the one the overwhelming majority of Americans have of their country. But it is an accurate one. Americans delude themselves when they believe blindly in their own unique benevolence as a people and a country. If not, why do most cheer when a president bombs, invades, or attacks another country and fume whenever an execution is averted?