Reign of the Authoritarians
Recently, twenty one year old Kalief Browder, who spent three years in jail without even being charged with a crime, finally succeeded in killing himself. Browder was arrested in 2010 for stealing a backpack, and steadfastly maintained his innocence, refusing to accept the plea-deal arranged by his court-appointed attorney. Browder was subjected to brutal beatings by guards at Rikers Island (one of which was caught on surveillance video and garnered national attention), and all told spent some 400 hours in solitary confinement during his time there. Solitary confinement for stealing a backpack? Which, of course, he denied.
Kalief Browder’s tragic case illustrates all too clearly just how wholeheartedly America has bought into what The Weekly Standard referred to a few years ago as “Authoritarian Chic.” Just in the past few days, it was reported that Khairullozhon Matanov, who was merely a casual acquaintance of the alleged Boston bombers, had been criminally charged with deleting his browser history. Terrified of what has become a tyrannical legal system, Matanov pleaded guilty in the hopes of receiving a thirty month sentence. For deleting his browser history? Do such punishments really fit these “crimes?”
Heather Hironimus was jailed for objecting to the circumcision of her four year old son. James Evans was thrown into jail for the “crime” of posting lyrics from thrash metal band Exodus on Facebook. Virginia’s Kristin Holmes was charged with the “crime” of posing for a selfie on Facebook while holding a handgun. As if that wasn’t ridiculous enough, the Fraternal Order of Police declared that one could be charged for this same “Facebook Thugging” offense for merely swearing. Their spokesman, exemplifying the new authoritarianism, told NBC that there is “no such thing as a petty crime.” The misdemeanor charge against Holmes carries a maximum prison sentence of one year. A New York teen was recently arrested for using “threatening” emojis on Facebook. Indeed, when was the last time anyone even heard the expression “victim-less crime,” which was quite prevalent in the 1970s?
A Massachusetts man was arrested after people alerted the police to his Facebook post that read “Put wings on pigs.” Idaho’s Matthew Townsend was arrested and jailed for standing on the sidewalk near a Liberty Tax Service, holding a sign that read “Taxes fund terrorism.” After his initial hearing, Townsend was arrested a second time, when police banged on his door late at night, and charged him with making a “terrorist threat” in a Facebook post two nights earlier. There was nothing “threatening,” and certainly nothing “terrorist” in Townsend’s Facebook rant, which understandably outlined his frustrations over his rights being violated. An immature teen posted a photo of himself in a sexual pose with a statute of Jesus on Facebook, and was charged with desecration of a venerated object. People have been fired from their jobs for simply posting “I hate my boss” on Facebook.
A California prosecutor was actually going to charge rapper Brandon “Tiny Doo” Duncan with nine counts of “criminal gang conspiracy,” not for any actions he took, but for the content of his rap lyrics. Duncan could have potentially faced twenty five years to life for his “crime.” Fortunately, one of the rare reasonable judges who run our courts threw the charges out in March of this year. Another rapper, Deandre “Laz Tha Boy” Mitchell, was indicted on charges stemming from two gang-related murders. There was no actual evidence tying Mitchell to the murders, just the lyrics in his music. Former Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Alan Jackson glowingly referred to the ability of rap lyrics to “invade and exploit the defendant’s true personality.”
If anything, what passes for the Left these days is even more enamored with authoritarianism. Rochester Institute of Technology professor Lawrence Torcello, for instance, advocates imprisonment of those who deny climate change, declaring that they “ought to be considered criminally negligent.” Kent Hovind, imprisoned since 2007 for the “crimes” of opposing the concept of evolution and preaching a “young earth” philosophy, is in danger of serving one hundred years behind bars. The whole concept of “hate crime” and “hate speech,” not to mention “political correctness,” ought to be anathema to anyone who believes in the Bill of Rights. All violent crime is, by its nature, “hate” to one degree or another, and if anything is universally judged to be politically “correct,” that contradicts the entire notion of political discourse. As for “hate speech,” one either believes in the First Amendment or one doesn’t.
Since 9/11, the Justice Department has prosecuted more than 500 “terrorism” cases. One such case involved American-born Tarek Mehanna, whose primary “crime” was being a devout Muslim who vigorously objected to the way U.S. foreign policy was being conducted. After being tailed by the FBI for a few years, Mehanna was eventually charged with providing material support for terrorism, which Mehanna claimed was in retaliation for his refusal to become a government informant. Despite the lack of any evidence outside his widely-expressed political beliefs, Mehanna was sentenced to seventeen and a half years in prison.
Increasingly, anti-government activists have been targeted for harassment and prosecution by our authoritarian state. Aaron Swartz was either hounded into killing himself, or actually murdered, because of his outspoken beliefs and the ostensible “crime” of downloading academic articles from MIT. Jeremy Hammond was sentenced to ten years in prison for participating in an anonymous hack of private intelligence firm Stratfor. Journalist Barrett Brown was sentenced to sixty three months for simply linking to hacked material. Maintaining his sense of humor in the midst of such tyranny, Brown quipped, “They’re sending me to investigate the prison-industrial complex.” As Swarz’s family described it, their son’s ordeal was “the product of a criminal-justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”
Silk Road operator and outspoken critic of the war on drugs Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life without parole; the extremely harsh sentence almost certainly being more a reflection of his dissenting views rather than his participation in the drug trade. The failed war on drugs is the biggest reason for the explosion in America’s prison population. As The Economist once put it, “America locks up too many people for too many things.” America has the largest prison population in the world, and with the growth of private prisons in recent years, along with the unwavering support for authoritarian measures by our political leaders, there is no reason to believe that it won’t continue to increase. When proportioned for population, there are four times as many Americans in prison today than there were as recently as the 1980s. Can there really be four times as many American “criminals” as there were just thirty years ago?
Our rate-of-imprisonment tops the world, with over 700 prisoners for every 100,000 residents, or one out of every 104 American adults. We’re number one! According to statistics from 2013, if present tends continue, one in three black males will go to prison at some point in their lifetimes. Prison sentences for black males are nearly 20 percent longer than for whites charged with the same crimes. As The New York Times described it, “Americans are locked up for crimes- from writing bad checks to using drugs- that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.”
Despite the abuse of excessive measures like solitary confinement, polls show that many Americans think prison life is “too easy.” They also believe that, in spite of the fact over sixty percent of American prisoners were convicted of non-violent offenses, the main purpose of our penal system is to remove violent criminals from our streets. No politician ever has been elected on a “soft on crime” platform. There are lots of people in this country who would like our justice system to emulate those in some Third World nations; to castrate rapists, or cut off the hands of thieves, for instance. Many of these harsh, draconian “three strikes, you’re out” and mandatory sentencing laws were passed during the 1990s, while the “liberal” Bill Clinton was in office.
Overall, Americans today seem fine with our harsh, authoritarian justice system. In the past, we all seemed to recognize that prison was a place reserved for the truly worst among us, those who were too out of control and violent to be allowed to remain at large in society. As we can see from the myriad of videos online capturing the overreaction and brutality of police officers all across the country, those who enforce the law appear to be focusing on trying to turn normal human behavior into something criminal. Their “shoot first, ask questions later” policy appears to mesh perfectly with the iron-handed approach of prosecutors and judges who think nothing of taking away years, even decades, of someone’s life for things that wouldn’t have been considered “crimes” even twenty five years ago, and shouldn’t be considered “crimes” now.
We can only imprison so many people. Even with the dearth of jobs available for Americans, someone has to run our civilization while the elite count their riches and the prisoners break their rocks. No one with a public platform appears to be concerned about civil liberties at this point. With the decreasing level of empathy so many Americans seem to hold for those less fortunate than them, I realize that I’m going against the grain here, as I nearly always do. Those who are enamored of this new authoritarianism would obviously change their tune if they or someone they love ran afoul of those who are enforcing it. When their own interests are involved, everyone wants a lenient judge, an understanding prosecutor and a sympathetic jury. No one wants the book thrown at themselves, or those who are dear to them.
I think it would be very useful, and potentially revolutionary, to have all prospective police officers, prosecutors and judges spend a month or so in a maximum security prison. They wouldn’t have to go to the only “Supermax” prison presently in the United States; maximum security would serve just fine, to give them a first-hand experience within the system they are sending others to endure. My guess is that they’d be transformed by just this bit of time behind bars, and perhaps become more enlightened and more thoughtful in how they approach the prosecution and sentencing of their fellow citizens.
Every time a new law is passed, new potential criminals are created. We already know from the work of Project Innocence and other organizations that there are an untold number of totally innocent Americans behind bars, some of them serving very lengthy sentences. Considering the visible evidence of police abuse that we see on new tapes posted online daily, and the “win first” mentality of prosecutors under our adversarial system of justice, any juror should have to be presented with irrefutable evidence of an individual’s guilt in order to responsibly determine their fate. You know, like the documented beating death of homeless Kelly Thomas. That entire crime at the hands of police officers was caught on tape. And yet the jury found the officers not guilty. If those officers weren’t guilty, then not a single person in our prison system should have been convicted.
Ultimately, we get the kind of system we deserve. Decades of “hard on crime” rhetoric have finally caught up with us. Since this is evidently what most of us wanted, the system has become more “hard” than ever. The only time you ever even hear “innocent until proven guilty” now is when a celebrity or some other rich individual is being accused of something. For the common riff-raff, it’s five minutes or less with a court-appointed public defender, whose only concern is working out a plea bargain. Don’t bother to even maintain your innocence, unless you can afford a real legal defense team.
Our justice system should logically be about….justice. The fact that most of us fear interacting with it, on any level, tells you all you need to know about how “cool” authoritarianism is. Thousands upon thousands of tragic examples exist, or once existed, of innocent individuals who became ensnared in an unshakable set of circumstances, and lost their freedom because of the corrupt machinations of our legal system. We all ought to remember the Golden Rule, as well as its compatriot “There but for the grace of God go I.” When was the last time you heard someone quote that timeless chestnut?
Authoritarianism has become so entrenched in this country that is has become impossible to satirize. Barney Fife was a wonderful character on The Andy Griffith Show, and much of the humor was derived from his absurd “by the book” response to law enforcement. But now that we can see such overreaction first-hand, by real law enforcement officers, it isn’t so funny. Saturday Night Live featured a great skit about police during its first year, with the punchline “stop or I’ll shoot” being yelled just after the cops had fired their guns. SCTV had a wonderful sketch about the “Library Police” going after those with overdue books. In recent years, however, we’ve read stories about real people with overdue books being visited by the police.
“Click it or ticket” campaigns to enforce a law that wasn’t on the books until twenty five years or so ago, “piracy” charges against people downloading files being shared willingly by others, unconstitutional roadblocks- what is next? Shooting litterers? Life sentences for jaywalkers? Felony charges for being annoying? If they keep inventing new laws, and meting out harsher sentences, few of us will be left in the outside world. Maybe that’s the eventual goal; a world full of literal prisoners, who must do what the robots can’t, for the pittance incarcerated workers typically receive.
The new authoritarianism is emblematic of just how wrong a turn America has taken. It’s laughably ironic that so many Americans still see Orwell’s 1984 as an important, cautionary tale. Even Orwell, I think, would be astonished at the modern world. Is this really the kind of world we want?