The Guardian

The Guardian March 15, 2000

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

In the land of the "free"

Is the US a police state? Its government and media like to parade the 
USA as a bastion of freedom, but as of this year it now has two
million people in jail. According to the November Coalition, an 
alliance of US civil rights campaigners, justice policy workers and drug 
law reformers, the US now has a higher proportion of its citizens in jail 
than any other country in history.

Remember the propaganda the US used to put out about the Soviet Union and 
the other socialist countries? The picture was relentlessly painted of a 
society where the population lived in constant fear of arrest, where masses 
of people were imprisoned, where the police were all powerful?

Today, the USA comprises five percent of the global population yet it is 
responsible for 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Its militarised police 
force can shoot an unarmed man 41 times because he reached for his wallet -
- and get off scott free.

In New York city, one in three black youths is either in custody or on 
parole. Kevin Pranis, of the Prison Moratorium Project, says: "New York 
state is diverting millions of dollars from colleges and universities to 
pay for prisons we can't afford."

George W Bush, governor of Texas, and favoured candidate of the Republican 
right to be the next US President, is a staunch supporter of both the death 
penalty and stiffer sentencing for drug offences, although neither course 
actually reduces the amount of crime or its seriousness.

"Incarceration should be the last resort of a civilised society, not the 
first", says Michael Gelacak, a former vice-chairman of the US sentencing 
commission. "We have it backwards and it's time we realised that."

I suspect Bush would neither know nor care what Gelacak meant. Since Bush 
took over in Texas, the prison population has jumped from 41,000 to 
150,000. Most of this huge increase is the result of jailing people for 
possession of drugs, which they consume to escape the ghastly reality of 
life in the land of the free. 

Calling on state and federal governments in the US to "stop breaking up 
families and destroying our communities", Nora Callahan of the November 
Coalition says succinctly: "Prison is not the solution to every social 

A self evident fact, one would think, but perhaps only in a civilised 

Incidentally, when grandmother Karla Faye Tucker, then on death row, was 
asked by Talk magazine "What would you say to Governor  Bush?" she 
replied with the simple request "Please don't kill me."

"Don't kill me"

Bush went on the popular Larry King talk show and publicly mocked her 
("Please! Don't kill me.") She was recently executed by lethal injection. 
Should he be elected President, Bush will no doubt harangue and bully the 
rest of the world about "human rights", a subject on which he is clearly 

The initial period of public shock in the USA after the March 1 shooting in 
Michigan of 6-year-old Kayla Rolland by a class-mate saw several media 
commentaries on the way US children are familiarised with guns and killing 
people by the video/computer games they play. And now by the prevalence of 
paint-ball, which children are encouraged to play, just like adults do.

Paint-ball, which has the appearance of a training program for gun-nut 
militias, involves adults running around (usually in the bush but sometimes 
in an indoor "urban environment") dressed in military-style camouflage gear 
waging war against another team, using guns that fire balls full of paint 
that burst on impact.

It has become popular in the US (and here, although less so) as a method of 
executive relaxation and bonding! It is surely a symptom of the decadence 
of decaying capitalism that realistically practising how to ambush and kill 
people can be considered a good way for people to "unwind" and also an 
excellent way to build "team spirit".

Under these conditions, is it any wonder that a six-year-old boy would 
react to a playground argument by getting a gun from home and shooting the 
other child dead? US authorities don't seem to know whether to be more 
shocked by the fact that he did it or that only in the US could he "get a 
gun from home"  and know how to use it.

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