Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Injustice of the Justice System - C├ęsar

Last week, the Department of Justice teamed up with the FBI to announce the arrests of 11 environmental and animal rights activists. Accused of being domestic terrorists, these activists are facing up to 30 years in prison. The evil that these people allegedly committed? Property destruction. The government doesn't accuse them of hurting any human beings.

A few days later, four peace activists in Ithaca, New York, were sentenced for up to six months imprisonment in a federal prison and fined several hundred dollars. Their evil? As members of Ithaca's Catholic Worker community, these activists, known as the St. Patrick's Four, poured blood around the entrance of a military recruiting center.

In New York City on Friday, seventeen bicycle riders were arrested and spent the night in jail. Their crime? Such acts as not stopping at a red light, not riding in a bike lane, and disorderly conduct.

Meanwhile, an Army interrogator was found to have put a sleeping bag over the head of an Iraqi general, sat on his chest, and suffocated him. The man died in circumstances that sound a lot like torture. Last week, a military jury ordered that the interrogator be reprimanded, forfeit $6,000 in wages, and be restricted to his home, office, and church for two months. He wasn't even convicted of assault that, as any first-year law student knows, doesn't even require actual contact.

Back in New York, a few hours after the cyclists were arrested one cop shot another. The shooter was called to a bar where a fight was occurring. The cop who was shot was off duty; the only part of his uniform that he was wearing was his gun. Apparently drunk after a night of bar hopping, he got in a fight and pulled his gun on someone he thought assaulted him. The two officers who arrived at the fight scene apparently tried to get him to drop the gun. He didn't; they shot. Arrests? None.

Clearly there's something wrong with our country's criminal justice system. How can peace activists be punished more severely than someone who kills another person? As Catholic Workers, the St. Patrick's Four have devoted their lives to following Christ's teachings. The Catholic Workers have a long and noble history of nonviolence civil disobedience. Their goal was simply to use "what we have - our bodies, our blood, our words, and our spirits - to implore, beg, and order our country away from the tragedy of war and toward God's reign of peace and justice."

How can people who are accused of violating traffic laws while on a bike spend a night in jail while a cop who shoots someone goes home? The cyclists were participating in the monthly Critical Mass bike ride in Manhattan. The seventeen arrested on Friday were just the latest of the hundreds that the NYPD has thrown in jail since August 2004. For ten years before then Critical Mass had meandered through Manhattan's concrete jungle peacefully and orderly if at the expense of momentary inconvenience and irritation to motorists.

My point isn't that the cop or the soldier should get tossed in jail, too. On the contrary, I am sad that the conditions arose where they were placed in horrible situations in which their actions threatened human life. I hope that they receive assistance in dealing with the actions they've committed.

My point in raising these events is to ask: where's the justice in these systems?

I am concerned that our legal systems cheapen human life and inflate the value of commerce. How else should I interpret a nationwide search for political activists accused of damaging some office buildings, a car lot, and causing other random acts of property damage, while a man who degrades and dehumanizes another - in violation of domestic criminal laws and international laws of war - receives a reprimand? Where's the parity?

It's hard to write this, because as I try I feel my heart getting heavier. Maybe it's the rain falling outside; maybe it's the thought that as cyclists were being arrested in New York I was riding in Boston's Critical Mass; the realization that as activists say Ya Basta to the destructive decisions of our political parties (e.g., war, gas guzzlers, plundering of natural resources), I too say Ya Basta; or maybe it's the image lodged in my mind of a man with a bag around his head contemplating death, knowing that he will soon breathe for the last time. I don't think of them as an enemy, as a drunk, or as domestic terrorists. I think of them as people, human beings entitled to the same earth that I love and the same rights I enjoy.

Yet, through the barrage of words, sounds, and images that I digested as I read the headlines and scanned the internet, a simple message jumped out to me: destruction of human life, in the name of order, is permissible; obstructions to wealth, in the name of human life, are not.

Clearly I have resorted to an artificially polarized view of the world. The decisions made by each of us and the events that shape our world are infinitely complex. But what am I to think when justice becomes so thoroughly lost?

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