Last Sunday, on the second anniversary of the massacre of children and teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School — an occasion that seemed to draw only the most muted observance — the former vice president of the United States mounted a vigorous defense of the official use of torture. At the same time, tens of thousands of demonstrators continued marching in the streets of Washington, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Berkeley and many other cities to protest the police use of fatal force against unarmed black men.
Does that opening paragraph conflate too many disparate threads from today’s headlines? No. Our front pages and news screens present a fairly horrifying picture of a society soaked in bloody violence. We live in an extraordinarily violent culture, and we appear to be powerless to stanch the hemorrhage that is draining the life from communities across the nation.
Our national addiction to violence fuels the injustice that destroys life, diminishes survivors and degrades the authority of those who approve of the use of violence as a way to keep the peace. When law enforcement authorities become increasingly violent, disrespect for the legal system mounts as the pervasive sense of injustice and fear grows rapidly. Rather than legal violence being a deterrent, in fact, the disproportionate use of lethal force by police officers becomes a flashpoint for civil unrest and even anarchy. If we’ve learned nothing else from the cycles of history, surely we’ve learned that official violence always triggers a backlash, sometimes a violent backlash, sometimes growing into a revolution. Aristotle and Plato had a few things to say about this a few millennia ago — have we learned nothing?
Official violence against black men in the United States is a scandalous shame for a nation that claims to stand for equal justice for all. The injustices pervading this particular moment in American history are manifest: titans of the banking industry — who only quite recently undermined the world economy resulting in untold economic miseries for millions — now get to rewrite the laws to protect them from further governmental rebuke while a black man doing nothing more serious than selling loose cigarettes is choked to death by police who ignored his repeated plea, “I can’t breathe.” A black child waving a toy gun on a playground is gunned down immediately while members of Congress shamefully take millions from the National Rifle Association as private stockpiles of guns and weapons grow unchecked. The NRA’s response to a classroom full of dead first graders mowed down by an assault rifle? “The only think that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Explain that logic to the mother of Tamir Rice, a child with a toy gun killed by the real gun of a supposed “good guy” — a police officer sworn to protect people from harm. God help us.
Now comes former Vice President Dick Cheney, saying he’d do the whole torture thing all over again. The official violence that agents of the U.S. government inflicted on suspects is a revolting tale of wanton immorality. But Cheney says it was all quite justified by the horror of September 11. Jumping gleefully into the bloody pit of horrific acts against humanity does little to protect this nation, and only fuels the radical hatred and mindless determination of terrorists to do even more harm. The rise of ISIS is a mutation of Al Qaeda, a more virulent strain of the deadly cancer of terrorists who wantonly destroy lives. Yes, we must stop them — but not at the loss of our own moral compass, at the expense of our hard-won free society that should exemplify the ideals of justice and peace.
To their credit, the U.S. Bishops as well as the Vatican have roundly condemned the U.S. use of torture. Catholic teachings on the sanctity of human life are very clear on this point. What’s interesting is that too many politicians who try to co-opt the Catholic vote with “pro-life” positions have no problem with torture, the proliferation of guns and opposition to immigration reform.
Hatred of “the other” is a sickness abroad in many parts of our land these days, fueling the racial injustices that never really went away despite the claims to a “post-racial” society upon the election of Barack Obama as president. Indeed, President Obama’s success has seemed to evoke some kind of primal hatred in some quarters, a level of deep hatred that goes well beyond political arguments.
Opposition to immigration reform and the clear and relentless attacks on the simple idea of fairness and justice for undocumented children is more evidence of the inhumanity that runs rampant in too many corners of our nation today. Almost all of us trace roots to other countries, and our ancestors suffered many of the same ugly and violent attacks. Yet, today, too many opponents of fair and just immigration reform seem, at best, ahistorical when it comes to manifesting any basic understanding of respect for the human dignity of all people regardless of “papers.”
Here again, the U.S. bishops have been staunch supporters of immigration reform, reinforcing the consistency of the Church’s teachings on human life with a clear commitment to treating all people with justice, compassion and fairness
Our nation will not know true peace unless and until we establish a more moral plane of justice for all human beings who inhabit this land. Justice is not for a few at the expense of the many. Justice is not for those who can afford to buy it. Justice is not for the perfect among us. Justice is for everyone — yes, even for the guy with his little street business selling selling loose cigarettes, for the student who does not quite have all the right papers, for the child on a swing pretending to be a police officer with a toy gun. True moral justice is not about “getting mine, too” but rather, defending everyone’s right to life, to liberty, to a modicum of happiness, economic security, domestic tranquility and appropriate levels of security and defense. Quite simply, justice will never happen at the end of a gun, on a waterboard or in some dark place of rendition where agents of our government suck the life from other people in the name of defense.
“We, the People” have a moral responsibility to insist that our government exemplify the moral ideal of human dignity and justice for all. Rather than resorting to wanton, lawless violence against human beings, our government agents must be people who can exemplify our best values, develop humane and sensible solutions to even the most complex of social problems, and manifest well-formed conscience when it comes to making choices about the need for the use of weapons as a last resort, not a first impulse, when it comes to defense of self, community and nation. We need to demand that our leaders work harder and more urgently to reset the national moral compass toward the true north of justice and peace for all people.