Guilt and Shame:
The quicksand on which the US justice system operates.
For the first
time in the nation’s history,
more than one in 100 American adults is behind bars,
according to a new report.
York Times “1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind
Bars, New Study Says” 2-28-2008
He who fights against monsters should
see to it that he does not become a monster in the
process. And when you stare persistently into an abyss,
the abyss also stares into you.
Nietzsche in Beyond
Good and Evil (1886)
When anti-crime crusader former
Attorney-General and Governor of New York, Eliot
Spitzer, was implicated in a prostitution ring, we
were given a spectacular example of how zealous crime
fighters are often really fighting their own inner
demons. Since the colonists of our “new world,” an
ostensibly religious people, used the public humiliation
of pillories, whipping posts, stocks and branding
to display wrongdoers and enforce strict moral codes,
our judicial system has been more about punishment
and shame than prevention and rehabilitation.
There is something almost biblical in the zeal with
which we deal with crime. Our methods are highly ineffective
as the following statistics indicate:
States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost
a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
United States leads the world in producing prisoners, … and
in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer
than prisoners in other nations.
Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized
nations say they are mystified and appalled by the
number and length of American prison sentences.
States has, for instance, 2.3 million criminals
behind bars, more than any other nation, according
to data maintained by the International Center
for Prison Studies at King’s
York Times “Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other
April 23 2008
Instead of facing our little
and big feelings of guilt realistically, we are relieved
when someone is punished for them. We are not strong
enough to resist the incessant images and appeals
of our culture’s media — crime,
sex, deception and destructive behavior — that
entertain us and sell us a self-image with which we
are not completely comfortable. Thus, we are subconsciously
relieved when someone actually acts out our dark thoughts,
desires and fantasies and then is caught and punished.
We feel vicariously that the evil temptations have
been removed from our life and psyche, and that we
are again moral and safe.
This is the profile of the bully
society that needs a victim to affirm its superiority
and bolster its self-esteem. Those who are filled
with self-doubt and even question their moral strength
need a scapegoat to relieve them of their sins. They
act aggressively against those who are deemed a threat
to the self-image to which they aspire. Instead
of facing themselves with a responsible, objective
program of reaching their goals, bullies need scapegoats
to blame for their failures, and take attention away
from their own shortcomings.
The fact that we produce so many
criminals is not so much an indication that we have
so many “bad” people,
but that as a society we need “bad” people
to show how the rest of us are good by contrast. We
have so much doubt, guilt and shame that someone has
to pay. On the international scene, our aggressive
foreign policy and torture of political prisoners are
fulfilling the warning of Nietzsche above: we are becoming
monsters while fighting monsters.
So many of our crime fighters,
from the County Sheriff to the Attorney General to
the Judges are elected or appointed by elected officials,
that the culture of justice and punishment perpetuates
the fears and psychology of righteous bullying that
pervades our collective psychology. “Tough on crime” is
a virtue for a society in which people hypocritically
deny their own tendencies while taking no action
to deal with them in mature objective ways. It is
a quick fix to punish transgressors instead of providing
them the ways and means of improving their lives.
The American Ethic laid out in
the documents at the foundation of our nation’s
government was basically optimistic about the human
potential. Thomas Jefferson and other enlightenment
thinkers crafted a social order based on the values
of the Age of Reason:
They believed that human beings
-- once they were freed from superstition, their
irrational religious and cultural heritage, and from
material poverty -- could express their true good
nature, seeking cooperation and mutual assistance.
Similarly, they believed they could construct a social
order that would respect fundamental human rights
based upon the dignity of individuals and their freedom
to shape their lives as they saw fit and the protections
for personal property.
Heritage Program of Temple University
The disgraceful state of American justice and incarceration
is evidence that we have not yet realized the promise
of the foundations of our society. We are still dominated
by medieval thinking obsessed with instilling fear,
guilt and shame. The political dramas in campaigns
for public office continue to appeal to these emotional
short circuits that disable clear thinking. We will
not realize our potential, our abundant intelligence
or the great human resources of innovation unless we
extract ourselves from the obsolete quicksand of our
guilt and shame and face reality.
Richard V. Sidy