Treating Prisoners as Well as Farm Animals

The legislature in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is now considering passing Bill S.2232. Officially entitled, “An Act to ensure continued humane animal care in Massachusetts,” this commendable bill is designed to prevent cruelty and ill-treatment to farm animals. Here are some key excerpts:

The purpose of this section, subject to exceptions, is to prohibit the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.

(b) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a person is guilty of unlawful confinement of a covered farm animal if the person is a farm owner or operator who knowingly tethers or confines any covered animal, on a farm, for all or the majority of any day, in a manner that prevents such animal from:

(1) Lying down, standing up, and fully extending his or her limbs; and

(2) Turning around freely.

[snip]

(d) For the purposes of this section:

[snip]

(3) “Enclosure” means any cage, crate, or other structure (including what is commonly described as a “gestation crate” for pigs; or a “veal crate” for calves used to confine a covered animal).
[snip]

(6)”Fully extending his or her limbs” means fully extending all limbs without touching the side of an enclosure
(7) “Person” means any individual, firm, partnership, joint venture, association, limited liability company, corporation, estate, trust, receiver, or syndicate.
[snip]

(9) “Turning around freely” means turning in a complete circle without any impediment, including a tether, and without touching the side of an enclosure.
[snip]
(e) Any person who violates any of the provisions of this chapter is guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000).

This simple, yet precise bill raises the standards for the ethical treatment of animals that will, eventually, be slaughtered for food. Thus, while it is clear that the animals in question will most likely meet their demise intentionally, according to this bill, they should be treated humanely.

Perhaps I should say, “better-than-humanely” or “animal-humanely,” since as we know some tens of thousands of human beings, if not more, are currently confined and shackled in small cells, which certainly impede their ability to “fully extend their limbs without touching the side of an enclosure,” or to “turn around freely without any impediment, including a tether.” As we know, even when we choose to ignore it, our well-deserved sympathy for farm animals or house pets, or many other animals, often does not extend—even as a matter of federal policy—to human beings considered undesirable: imprisoned Black men and women, undocumented migrants or children, and mostly Muslim men who were casualties of American fear in the endless War on Terror—namely those who have been or still reside in Guantanamo.

Some significant portion of these prisoners are in solitary confinement in US prisons. The numbers, as the organization Solitary Watch (SW) states, are difficult to determine. Official numbers do not appear to include those who are undocumented and in “detention facilities”—including thousands of child migrants. None of these prisoners are likely to be granted the same range of unshackled movement, or even the same level of “animal-humane” treatment from their captors or guards. As a recent story by Katie Pavlich demonstrated, child migrants are expected to live inside caged facilities while the US government considers how to process them. The photos obtained on townhall.com show multiple children stuffed into chain-link cages with hardly any room to turn around “without impediment.” The slideshow at a CBS news website shows similar crowding and cages.

There are too many stories are out there about the subhuman treatment of pregnant prisoners who give birth while chained, with prison officials by their side. While there is a federal prison policy, passed in 2007, that prohibits shackling pregnant women, there are only a few similar prohibitions against state prison facilities, pertaining only to about 20 states. To its infinite credit, Massachusetts is among the most recent of states to pass such a policy. S.2063 was passed earlier this year, although its standards are lower than the humane animal care bill under consideration.

While S.2232, the humane-animal care bill, mandates unconditional freedom of movement for farm animals, Massachusetts’ prohibition against tethering pregnant prisoners onlymandates “the opportunity for a minimum of 1 hour of ambulatory movement each day.” Also, unlike a similar bill passed in California, the Massachusetts bill does not pertain to undocumented women. Plenty of other states have no such restrictions, as seen in this horrific recounting from the documentary Checkpoint Nation, of Maria, a woman who was taunted by an ICE official by her side in Tucson, Arizona, while giving birth.

Similarly, the stories of men locked up in tiny cubicles for years at a time proliferate without limit. Listen to these comments by Anthony Graves, wrongly convicted and sentenced to death row. Graves spent 18 years imprisoned, 16 of them in solitary confinement. He has also likened his 8 x 10 cell to a cage fit for animals, prompting prison officials to taunt him like an animal. In similarly dehumanizing fashion, Khalif Brauder was held in solitary confinement, without adequate nutrition, in Rikers as a teenager for fraudulent reasons. Mahmud Abouhalima is imprisoned in a Supermax prison where he has been shackled and forced to live for years in a cage no bigger than 8 feet wide. Yet others tell of being imprisoned in cells that are even smaller, as in these answers to the question of how large a prison cell.

There are countless stories of men who have been beaten and tortured so badly their spines have been broken.

But every single story that is published about these sub-human standards of treatment—in light of S.2232, perhaps we should call them “sub-animalistic” standards—is met with contempt or indifference. Others cheer that these men and women (and children) are being met with appropriate, well-deserved or justifiable treatment. And this Old Testament attitude persists despite the countless—yes, countless—cases of wrongful convictions or, in our post-9/11 legal world, the normalization of the complete absence of proof.

Back in 1997, political philosophers Robert Goodin, Carole Pateman and Roy Pateman published a scholarly article entitled, “Simian Sovereignty.” In it, they argued that simians—apes, orangutans, chimps and others of that species closely resembled human beings, and thus should be able to live and co-exist side by side with human beings. Goodin et al. cited several philosophers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who argued for the close resemblance between human beings and simians. For example, they cite Lord Monboddo, as being “optimistic” that “the Orang Outang is, if not in the beginning, at least in one of the first stages of society, and in the progress towards a more civilized state.”

The premise of Goodin et al’s article was that simians most closely resemble human beings and therefore deserve to be treated in a superior fashion (as presumably human beings are). When I first read their article in 1997, I was rather skeptical of the comparison, because I wasn’t convinced of their premise. Today, I am still rather skeptical of the comparison, but for obverse reasons: the superior standards that they argue be extended to simians have not yet been extended to many who are supposed to fit into the category of”human”— particularly those who are undesirable, vilified or marginalized.

We are accustomed to thinking of human beings as autonomous, of being individuated, of—through long periods of Kantian story-telling—according them a certain level of respect, of ascribing them a certain dignified status, and by extension, a certain level of protection. In the Kantian story, humans exist between angels and animals, with their intellectual faculties rescuing them from the status of the latter. Their faculties are utilized to govern and restrain their material sides and impulses. Kant’s story continues to be a predominant linchpin in organizing our understanding of the world. In French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s posthumously published book, The Animal That I therefore Am, he points to Adorno’s stance that an idealist insults man by referring to the animal in him. It is certainly true that for many centuries to be understood as merely an animal was an insult. It was a condemnation of all that was unreflective, irrational, morally uncontrolled by one’s intellectual faculty.

There is a documented history that demonstrates how sympathy for animals is elicited much more prolifically and easily than is sympathy for others who suffer similar conditions to caged animals. We see it in this story, from 1994, about how orphaned mountain lion cubs elicited two and 1/3 times more donations ($21,000) than did the children ($9,000) orphaned after their mother was attacked by the cubs’ mother. Today, all 50 states have felony penalties for cruelty to animals.

Notably, in February 2006, a 38-year old man in Columbus, Ohio, was arrested for dog fighting, after officials found twenty-six wounded pit bulls confined in wooden crates. As the chief deputy sheriff reported then: “These dogs were kept in these things with no windows…It is still a phenomenon to me that people enjoy watching these animals suffer like this. It’s just so brutal.” I point to a case that is nearly 8 years old, because the sympathy (rightfully) expressed for the dogs—caged in crates with no windows–is still withheld from men and women and children  who are imprisoned in similar conditions: in Supermax prisons or in Guantanamo Bay or in immigration detention facilities.

We seem to have arrived at a moment when the term “animal” no longer refers as accurately to the non-human animal. If anything, as we have seen over the last few decades, non-human animals are seen to resemble human animals more and more: dolphins can think and sing and feel; chimpanzees can communicate. Octopi have been discovered to wield and implement tools. These facts shatter the foundation of Karl Marx’s celebration of the singularity of human potential.

Yet, there seems to be an inverse disparity between our unadulterated love for animals and our shame and moral outrage in the face of mistreatment and cruelty and the relative lack of concern for human beings facing similar conditions. What are we to make of the seeming fact that certain human beings will not be recognized as having the same kind of protections afforded to animals? How do we understand both their status and their continued misery—a misery that continues and hears fewer objections, less outrage?

The strongest argument in favor of cruel treatment to prisoners is that they have been convicted of heinous actions, and as such, they merit such treatment. But that argument is easily undermined in the face of the fact that so many prisoners who are caged have never seen the inside of a courtroom for their supposed crimes. Most detainees in immigration facilities or in Guantanamo have neither been tried nor convicted, as we well know.

A more cynical reading would suggest that S.2232, pending in the Massachusetts legislature, only offers super-humane treatment to animals that will eventually be slaughtered and eaten, and as such, is not a real fix. But shouldn’t treatment of human beings who are vilified approximate the treatment of farm animals?  It is not too cynical to say that if we had a federal, uniform standard of treatment for imprisoned men, women and children matching the standards of S.2232, that would mark some level of progress in a world in which the US government professes to believe in human rights.

________________________________________

A version of this piece was published on truth-out.org today.

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School Massacres and Collateral Damage: Why the Double Standards?

Revised Version.

Updated 12/29/12 (below).

One of the predominant responses to my piece–about the amplified coverage of children killed by a lone shooter in contrast to the barely-existent coverage of those killed by US-led drone and missile strikes—was that these events were not “comparable.”  I am informed by journalists with a superior moral compass to mine that this is because events like the Newtown, CT massacre are the result of a deliberate shooting of children, whereas others—like the December 2009 US-led missile strike in Yemen, which killed 21 children who were part of a wedding party–are accidental, unintentional, and part of the collateral damage of war. Therefore, it is wrong—even infantile–to compare the events.

Those who share this position include Brendan O’Neill, a London Telegraph blogger, who besides accusing me of infantilism, attributed a position to me that I never suggested (“An American professor says it’s dumb to feel emotional about Sandy Hook but not about drone strikes”). Several journalists agreed that the two are incomparable, including Rosamund Urwin, an Evening Standard columnist who responded to my interview on BBC’s Weekend Radio Program(me). (32:30)

Urwin, responding to my position that it is horrific to have children die regardless of whether they die at the hands of a shooter or as the consequence of a missile strike, said: “I don’t think it quite sits well as a comparison simply because what you’re talking about is somebody setting out to do something versus unintended consequences.”

Let’s unpack that misconception, shall we?

Over the last twelve years, there have been more than 320 drone strikes. Over 300 of those strikes were conducted under the auspices of the Obama Administration (the most recent 2 strikes in Yemen over Christmas not included). They have killed between 2600-3300 people, of which over 800 were civilians (these numbers require us to believe that 2600 people were terrorists). Around 176 were children.*

These are hardly “unintended” consequences. If 1 or 3—ok, 5–drone strikes are launched, and others besides the “intended” targets are killed, it is more plausible to believe that the consequences are “unintended.”  It is easier to believe the position of former US Air Force drone pilot, Brandon Bryant, that by droning, he and his colleagues “were saving lives.” In fact, Bryant and his fellow drone pilots knew what they were trained to do: they were trained to kill—to “target” human beings, who were supposedly “terrorists.”

This is the story Bryant lived by until he could no longer hide behind the falsity. One day, Bryant launched a strike towards a site in Afghanistan, even as he saw a child walking around a corner. He and his co-drone pilot tried to convince themselves that they had killed a dog. But a dog has 4 legs, whereas this small figure had 2.  Bryant may have unintentionally killed that child. But there were many others who died at his hands.  Whether they were terrorists or unwitting victims—he, and we, will never learn.

As to the Obama Administration and the US Air Force—it is their business to know how precise their tools are. They are completely familiar with the consequences of imprecise “targeted” killings. The murders of hundreds—perhaps thousands– may not have been the “purpose” of these US cruise missiles and drone strikes, but they were hardly “unintended.” When 180 (or more) children die because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—through no fault other than that they had the chutzpah to be born to Pakistani, Afghan, Yemeni, Somali, Filipino parents who live in the same vicinity as “suspected” terrorists—this is hardly unintended. POTUS, his advisers, and the US Air Force, are well aware that the consequences of remote drone strikes is widespread “collateral damage.”

Indeed, that is the point of using the term “collateral damage”:  it allows the US government to sterilize and transform into a technical, impersonal statistic the macabre, bloody, material effects of an imperial war to “root out” terrorists indiscriminately.  What makes the obfuscation even more predictable and still as heinous is that the hunt for terrorists is conducted in parts of the world where, as Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary and head of the National Economic Council understood, 3rd world residents are worth less than 1st world lives.

The “collateral damage” is much more widespread than the approximately 3000 who were killed through “targeted drone strikes.” The damage is reflected in the children who die in raids, women who are raped, families who are shot by US soldiers in Afghanistan. The damage is evidenced by the children who are fatherless, the women whose husbands and brothers and fathers are taken away–for “good cause”–since, as we know, according to the Obama Administration, all men over the age of 16 “are potential militants.”

As the Der Spiegel profile on Bryant describes:

Many Afghans sleep on the roof in the summer, because of the heat. “I saw them having sex with their wives. It’s two infrared spots becoming one,” he recalls.

[Bryant] observed people for weeks, including Taliban fighters hiding weapons, and people who were on lists because the military, the intelligence agencies or local informants knew something about them.

“I got to know them. Until someone higher up in the chain of command gave me the order to shoot.” He felt remorse because of the children, whose fathers he was taking away. “They were good daddies,” he says.

If the Obama Administration tells us that the unfortunate deaths of civilians and children are “accidental” and yet necessary in their hunt for terrorists/militants, then apparently we are supposed to accept these deaths as part of the “costs of war.”  Never mind that we haven’t declared war in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Philippines, or Mali even as the US is directing tens, even hundreds, of drone strikes towards people living in these countries.

Never mind that the mainstream American media is uninterested in covering the human impact of drone and missile strikes on the families whose relatives are maimed and killed by those drones. Never mind that we never learn the names of the children who died, unless someone like Julian Abagond spends hours trying to recover them.

Never mind that these strikes are uncompromisingly illegal according to international law—and being used in place of due process, where suspected “militants” or “terrorists” should be brought to a courtroom to see if there is enough evidence for an indictment, let alone a trial. Never mind that the “war” in question is informal, undeclared, and unilaterally pursued by a Democratic President (who was just re-elected for his remarkable human rights sensibilities, as evidenced through his multiple awards, such as the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, and the 2008 and 2012 Time Person of the Year Award).

Remember, once upon a time, the most visible distinction between the two US political parties was that the Democrats were supposed to be the stronger observers and advocates of human rights and international law. Once upon a time.

It is an interesting spectacle to observe as mainstream journalists and US politicians become remarkably earnest and forgiving about excuses that come from governments and elites.  They insist that it is untoward, indeed impolite–the concept of unethical isn’t even on the table–to ask for 1) journalistic coverage of the casualties material consequences of US foreign policy and 2) governmental accountability when it comes to the deaths of civilians in the course of a unilateral attack on a population in the name of “security.” How shocking it is—shocking!—to suggest that after more than 300 drone strikes that have killed more than 3000 people, including many civilians and children, perhaps the U.S. is not completely unaware of the widespread death and havoc they are causing through the constant use of drones that “target” alleged terrorists.

On the other hand, Urwin suggests that “Western media” has a tendency to “fixate on people like them [Americans?].” She cites the case of Hurricane Sandy, which had passed through Haiti before waging a path of destruction in New Jersey, noting that media coverage of Sandy on Haiti was non-existent, whereas the focus on New Jersey dominated the media.

But if we abide by Urwin’s standard for media coverage—namely that even accidental deaths should be covered by Western media—then there is even less reason to exculpate American media from covering drone/missile strikes which resulted in hundreds—thousands– of “accidental” deaths.

Perhaps the unspoken assumption here is that I, like O’Neill and Urwin, should spend little to no time considering the immorality of deaths when caused by Western governments—because that would force us into a discussion of whether illegal drone strikes are ethical or even legitimate. It might force us into a discussion of American imperialism, and its ever-voracious appetite to invade, conquer, terroritorialize, and ‘civilize’ ‘backwards’ countries by exploiting the rhetorical goals of “national security,” “saving Afghan women,” “democratizing” other countries (some of which have a higher standard of due process than even the US). In the meantime, O’Neill and Urwin might have to explain the increasing hatred and contempt that Pakistanis, Yemenis, Afghans, Iraqis have for the US—proliferated by the continual invasion and destruction of their communities, children, spouses, fathers, uncles, brothers, lives, livelihoods, infrastructures, and knowing full well that the US has no intention or capacity to compensate them for the devastation of their lives.

When did the standard of accountability drop so low, such that—even after slavery and colonialism are supposedly atrocities of the past–Americans easily forgive their government when it wages an ever-expanding unilateral assault on countries that have never officially been declared enemies of the US–never even declared to be at war with them?

It is indeed a double ethical standard to insist that individuals who use assault rifles to shoot children are evil, heinous, mentally ill, and should be locked up, surveilled, tracked, and pre-emptively policed via an FBI database, while simultaneously exculpating the American government from addressing the “unintended” consequences of US foreign policy.

As we know, the Obama administration has killed–unaccidentally–multiple US citizens, some of them under the age of legal consent, as in the case of Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi.  Al-Aulaqi was a 16 year old US citizen who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen. He was killed 2 weeks after a US-led drone strike killed his father, Anwar Al-Aulaqi, considered to the “no. 2” leader of Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Shouldn’t the Obama Administration explain the circumstances that led to young Abdulrahman’s death? Some civil rights lawyers think so, strangely enough.  As Hina Shamsi and Vincent Warren, of the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, respectively, wrote several days ago:

In court, government officials provided no explanation at all. Their response boiled down to an assertion that the government has the authority to kill Americans without having to account to any court for its actions.

Is a US federal court is also misguided to agree that the US must show evidence for Abdulrahman’s death, even if, as one unnamed Obama official suggests, it was accidental?  Again as Shamsi and Warren argue:

 But the U.S. Constitution requires due process when life is at stake. The government cannot be permitted to deprive an American child of his life without any judicial review, even after the fact. More broadly, thousands of people have been killed by U.S. drones in a program that began in 2002 and has expanded dramatically under the Obama administration.

The Obama Administration disagrees that it should be accountable for any such activity—before or after the murder of Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi. But perhaps if American media were to cover this consequence of US foreign policy as aggressively as they did the Newtown massacre, the Obama Administration might eventually feel compelled to give some answers.

As it stands now, it is acceptable to ask for accountability only from lone individuals who are not part of the US political elite. To the latter—whether Republican or Democrat—we give Peace Prizes, consultancies, and their own shows on MSNBC. No accountability needed, because the thousands of deaths by drones—as the President’s men and women tell us—are accidental. Nothing else need be said.

Forgive, forget, and address only those facts that serve power well and are convenient.

____________________________________________

*In Pakistan. The number of children who died in Yemeni and Somali drone strikes under Obama Administration: 28-36. No data on children killed in Philippines or Mali.

Update: Col. Morris Davis, former Guantanamo chief prosecutor, pointed out in response to this column that “collateral damage” legally excludes CIA drone strikes. Also, interestingly, “collateral damage” would include legitimate military targets in the U.S.:

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