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American 'values' cast a global shadow

THIS HAS BEEN the year of American democracy. The values of this nation have never been more dramatically on display before the world. "Freedom" has been the watch word, from Operation Iraqi Freedom to the coming Freedom Tower at Ground Zero in New York. In a period of enormous stress, America has pulled itself together, freshly defined its beliefs, and begun to press them on others. Washington aims at nothing less than the propagation of US notions of civil order and social justice everywhere. And why shouldn't citizens be proud? But this vision throws a shadow. Contradictions of American idealism have also been manifest with rare clarity this year -- and not only in wars abroad. A signal event took place in Massachusetts as the year approached its end. A jury made up of citizens of one of the relatively few states that outlaws the death penalty nevertheless imposed it in the federal murder case against Gary Lee Sampson, the brutal killer of Jonathan Rizzo and Philip McCloskey. As advocates of the death penalty hoped, this decision in the heart of a community that has long rejected capital punishment -- the last execution in Massachusetts was in 1947 -- speeds America's complete return to frontier justice.


Even in a period when the fallibility of the death penalty has been repeatedly exposed, roughly two out of three Americans still support it. In Texas, George W. Bush personally supervised the executions of 152 people -- and is proud of it. That the blood of this slow-motion massacre on the president's hands is a political asset says everything about current American values. Where once leading Democrats opposed capital punishment, now, as the Globe's Brian C. Mooney reports, they (i.e. the Clintons, Gore, Dean, Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards, Gephardt, Clark) support it. As the world's democracies go in one direction on this question, the United States goes in another.

This grisly embrace of death is only part of the year's story of crime and punishment, American style. In August, the rapist of children, John J. Geoghan, was murdered by a fellow inmate at a prison in Massachusetts. As Geoghan's crimes had led to the exposure of the abusive secrets of the Catholic Church, his punishment led to revelations of what America's "criminal justice system" actually involves. Sadistic treatment by guards and a lawless culture in which prisoners are allowed to prey on each other -- are these exceptions or the rule? In America there can be no question of an outright acceptance of torture, and US sponsorship of democracy abroad insists on that (or did before the war on terrorism). Yet the US prison system, with many abusive guards and unchecked sadist-inmates, effectively assumes torture as part of punishment. If Geoghan were not notorious, his fate would have gone unnoted.

But the year just ending marked other milestones toward a reckoning with the real meaning of American democracy. In late October, in a speech in Fall River, Robert A. Mulligan, chief administrative judge of Massachusetts, noted current characteristics of US criminal justice. The American prison population recently went over 2 million for the first time, putting the United States ahead of Russia as the world capital of incarceration. Add to that number those on parole or probation and the total under "correctional" control grows to 7 million. Thirty years ago, one in 1,000 Americans was locked up; today, almost five are. In famously liberal Massachusetts, the prison population has grown, since 1980, from under 6,000 to almost 23,000. In 2003, for the first time, the amount of money Massachusetts spent on prisons was more than what it spent on higher education.

These statistics accumulate a punishing weight falling more on African-American males than anyone else, and from that springs the year's fundamental epiphany. Justice? Democracy? In the United States, according to Judge Mulligan, one in three African-American males between the ages of 20 and 30 is "under correctional control." In places like Baltimore and Washington, more than half are. The number of African-American men in college is less than the number of those under supervision of the courts. And why? Such facts reveal far more about the way justice is administered in America than about the moral character of any group.

Mulligan, for one, points to the "war on drugs" as key, a war that has seen the rate of imprisonment of drug offenders jump by 700 percent since 1980; a war that depends on narrowly targeted law enforcement and on mandatory prison sentences. In 2002, 80 percent of those receiving such sentences were minorities. The war on drugs has been disproportionately a war on young black men.

2003. The death penalty set loose. Prison populations setting records. Effective torture as part of punishment. A system of racial injustice that rivals slavery. American values across the world. Please.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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