Former Associated Press senior foreign correspondent and Essential Edge contributing editor Mort Rosenblum, who currently lives occasionally in the United States but primarily in France, sent the following dispatch on how America’s penal system has become a worrisome indicator of an increasingly sick society. This is part of Mort’s every-so-often Unplugged series.
Florence, Arizona – The back road up to Phoenix runs through funky old Florence, the seat of a county named Pinal. That means pine grove in Spanish or deer in Apache. In modern America, it ought to be spelled Penal. As kids, we breezed past the state’s only prison without much thought. It took some doing to end up inside. Winnie Ruth Judd hacked up two friends in a lover’s quadrangle. Her death sentence commuted, she went to the state hospital.
Today, stark desert mirages here reflect a nation in grave danger of losing not only its world standing but also its soul. If we do not take action now, we risk locking ourselves permanently behind walls of bricks and metaphor.
That small stockade is now a vast archipelago of walls and wire, one of 10 state prisons and six private ones, along with a federal penitentiary in Tucson and county jails such as Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s inhuman tent gulag. “Illegal aliens” who aren’t deterred by a high border wall and electronic sensors already in place end up in such hellholes as the nearby Eloy Detention Center, where 14 people have died, including five by suicide, over the past 12 years.
Elections for the White House, Congress and state governments turn around a range of issues, both lofty and little. In backwaters like Pinal, each of us can tune out media babble about moronic debates to ponder for ourselves what is at stake. Whether the Republican candidate is the blowhard buffoon or one of two Cuban-Americans who believe God grants us dispensation to screw our hapless and helpless, he will win in this red state that guts schools and builds more prisons.
After growing up around here, I went off to be a foreign correspondent. Now I look back home from across oceans and return periodically to see America shift its shape in time-frame snapshots. Today, I barely recognize it.
Those prisons are a symptom of our sick society. A bigger issue is who is not in jail. Our Dickensian wrath falls only on petty delinquents. Corporate executives and money manipulators commit crimes against humanity with impunity.
A real estate mogul afraid to show his tax return brags incessantly about his wealth yet gives a pittance to charity and hires the migrant laborers he excoriates. He quotes Mussolini and accepts a Ku Klux Klan endorsement. People who live on the edge gobble up his bullshit and chant, “USA.”
Two unseasoned senators preach the same flawed policies that spawned ISIS and created millions of desperate refugees they refuse to offer what our Statue of Liberty promises. Both laud hard-line Zionists who endanger Israel’s survival.
Decent people still make up a thumping majority of Americans. But as Bernie Sanders says, politics is not a spectator sport.
I drove past Florence the other day, stalled in heavy traffic behind an army convoy headed nowhere, doing nothing. We need a strong military. But without political pork barreling, ours could be twice as effective at half the cost. Monster SUVs and pickups with gun racks burned up cheap gas, the result of our “energy independence” that has caused a world glut, an economic disaster, and a turn away from clean fuels to reduce the carbon that poisons our air.
At a fancy restaurant up the road in Scottsdale, I remarked on these absurdities to a Republican friend named John. He shook his head sadly and edged the conversation away from painful politics. John grew up dirt poor, worked through medical school and retired as a wealthy purveyor of dental services. As a Texan, he knows Ted Cruz too well to vote for him. He sees Marco Rubio as a misguided zealot. Donald Trump horrifies him. He voted for John Kasich in the primary and now dreads November.
John sees terrorism as a threat but no cause for obsession. His son is a good cop who is put at risk by growing hostility to bad cops’ murderous brutality. As a church-going family man and a doctor, he wants medical care for everyone.
Republicans, Democrats and independents face the same challenge. We need leaders who respect their oaths of office, read the Constitution and understand that America achieved grandeur by enlightened compromise. Choosing a president should be the first wave of a people’s revolution. Mitch McConnell, who made good his boast to hamstring Barack Obama at the nation’s expense, now smirks as he vows to paralyze the Supreme Court.
Who, exactly, are we to accept such contemptible naked blackmail by people we entrust to lead us? There is a simple enough course: Elect Hillary or Bernie and enough Democratic legislators to name Obama to replace Antonin Scalia.
It is a step-by-step process. Throw the bums out of state houses. Scare the bejesus out of all those elected or hired to serve the citizenry. Then we can start on election reform and everything that our Constitution allows. This is not a partisan appeal. But watch the three serious Republican contenders fling feces at one another with both hands. If any one of them is right, the others are hypocritical liars. If not, they themselves are hypocritical liars.
Domestic policy is not my forte, but I’ve reported on the real world for a long time. All three are dangerous beyond description because none seems to understand the limits of military power or the vital nuances of statecraft. Cruz and Rubio deny climate calamity. Either big money pays them to be blind, or they just don’t get it. With their approach, we’d be cooked in less time than most of us even imagine. Trump is all that a humane, generous nation is not.
By now, most people who back any of the three are impervious to reason. The solution is to outvote them. We need that revolution. When our prisons are reserved for people who belong there, rich or poor, we can build schools to teach a new generation what a democracy is meant to be.
Find the nearest place you can to Pinal County and draw your own conclusions. Remember the Golden Rule: do onto others… And, before it’s too late, keep Edmund Burke firmly in mind: Evil happens where good men do nothing.
This personal Mort Unplugged list is for occasional diatribes from an old-hand correspondent. Drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org or click the Constant Contact sign-up link to join. Mort’s site is mortrosenblum.net. You can also find Reporting Unlimited on Facebook and, soon, on the Web. All comments are welcome — please feel free to share this at will.