America’s Top Hypocrites

Was there ever a nation so marinated in hypocrisy as America? At home and abroad, President Barack Obama trumpets Uncle Sam's virtues and dispenses patronizing homilies to other nations on how to behave themselves and honor freedom and democracy. This last week, it's been Europe's turn to hear these self-righteous preachments.

A couple of weeks ago, Secretary of State Clinton attacked China, contrasting untiring efforts by the U.S. to encourage human rights around the world, at a time when the Chinese “are trying to stop history, which is a fool's errand. They cannot do it. But they're going to hold it off as long as possible.”

A week earlier, Obama signed an expanded trade pact with Colombia, where in 2010, 51 Colombian labor organizers were murdered, many of them by government-sponsored death squads. As Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO remarked, he doubted the trade agreement would be moving forward if 51 CEOs had been killed.

If there's one state in the Middle East where the U.S. surely has clout, it's Bahrain, which just happens to be the base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet. While Clinton was wagging her finger at China, details were surfacing of the ferocious repression of Bahrain's Shiite majority by Bahrain's Sunni rulers, backed by Saudi troops.

Masked squads raid Shiite villages at night. At least 27 Shiite mosques and religious meeting places have so far been wrecked or bulldozed flat. If this were Libya, Clinton would trumpet the repression as further justification for NATO's onslaught. Not so in Bahrain.

As my brother Patrick Cockburn reported here a couple of weeks ago: “Facing little criticism from the US, otherwise so concerned about human rights abuses in Libya, the al-Khalifa family is ruthlessly crushing opposition at every level … al-Jazeera revealed … that the Bahraini police has been raiding girls' schools, detaining and beating school girls, and is accused of threatening to rape them.”

Amid Obama's grandiose eloquence about freedom, he has effectively excluded Palestinians from his supportive embrace, and amid meaningless verbal froth collapsed yet again in the face of Israeli intransigence and the lobby here. U.S. diplomacy and strong-arming, supervised by Obama and Clinton, will of course be dedicated to efforts to hold back history and strong-arming the U.N. into attempting to do the same.

Wearisome though these exhibitions of the U.S.'s double standards abroad may be, they pale before the macabre spectacle of Obama and Clinton extolling the moral credentials of a country with a vast gulag of some 2.3 million behind bars — some 743 prisoners per 100,000 population, compared to Russia's 580, China's 186, England and Wales' 154 and India's 32. African-Americans, who are one-eighth the nation's population, are almost half its 2.3 million prisoners; and Latinos, about one-sixth of the U.S., are more than a quarter of those locked down. In America today, more than 7 million people are under correctional supervision.

At the start of last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state of California to reduce its prison population, currently running at 143,335, by more than 30,000. The state's prisons, at anything even remotely approaching standards not in violation of the Eighth Amendment, forbidding cruel and unusual punishment, can accommodate 80,000.

Not for the first time, the ghastly conditions of California's prisons have been unsparingly described: people with terminal cancer in spaces the size of telephone booths left to die without treatment or even painkillers, convicts crammed three tiers high in prison gyms … California rarely executes prisoners in San Quentin on death row. Informal executions are a different matter. A California court found that “an inmate in one of California's prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies.”

Everything awful about California's prison system is duplicated in other state penal systems across the country. One million of the 2.3 million prison population are inside for non-violent offenses, predominantly related to drugs. More than 800,000 are arrested each year for marijuana alone. Prison rape across the country is a given — at least 216,000 in 2008. Most of the rapists (according to the libertarian magazine Reason, which recently published an excellent special issue on the U.S. penal system) aren't other prisoners but corrections officials.

Gov. Jerry Brown has suggested nonviolent prisoners be sent from the state prisons to local jails, but California has no money to beef up these hoosegows to accommodate the flood of prospective inmates. Meanwhile, policies deriving from the '90s and before feed more and more prisoners into the system, many of them under the three-strikes law, which hands out 25-year sentences for a third offense as trivial as stealing a $2 pair of socks. In California, at any given time, about 140,000 are out on parole, which can be — and is often — revoked for the most trivial of reasons, swelling the prison population once more.

America's penal conditions make a mockery of the Constitution and foster crime, all against a backdrop of statistics — the FBI dispensed another batch last week — showing that crime rates have been steadily falling to levels unseen for a generation or more. America's current depression has not seen a surge in robberies and violent crime, as many expected. Attempts to prove the efficacy of harsh codes of imprisonment and sentencing speedily collapse under the weight of rationally assessed statistical data.

America's prison population and treatment of citizens and immigrants trapped in the judicial system are foul blots on our society and political culture — but not ones that Obama has shown the slightest interest in confronting. Indeed, his Justice Department is intent on adding more “mandatory minimum sentences” to the sentencing guidelines.

These days, it's conservative governors reeling in the face of budget-draining mandatory sentencing laws who are trying to shift resources into treatment programs and so forth. In this context, Reason cites Perry of Texas and Sanford of South Carolina before he left office and reports that “in the first few months of this year, Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama and Oklahoma have all hopped on the reform bandwagon. None of these states was carried by Barack Obama in 2008.”

As for Obama, how much more pleasant it is to lecture other nations, while running on a re-election platform currently based on dispatching a government death squad halfway round the world to Abbottabad on a lawless mission of revenge?