Monday, 3 January 2011

Guilty until proven innocent

Crime drama/reality shows often pick up on cases where the accused perpetrator’s guilt is in doubt. This weekend, 48 Hours featured a Missouri case where the convicted murderer finally won a rehearing in which the judge immediately freed him after determining that they guy had nothing to do with the crime—for which he had spent 15 years incarcerated. A steady stream of DNA-related exonerations continues in Texas, including one just today.

Yet it’s remarkable that all this sympathy for mistreated individuals does not translate into its obvious policy implications: the defense of our legal protections as citizens in the face of state power. We don’t even discuss whether people condemned to our modern Devil’s Island at Guantánamo should get a fair hearing in a court of law because ‘terrorism’ is the new equivalent of being black in Alabama in the 1930s. You are guilty because of who you are.

The under-appreciated Soviet-era author, Vassily Grossman, wrote a chilling novel/memoir about the Stalinist terror entitled Everything Flows, a minor accompaniment to Life and Fate, his epic treatment of Stalin’s entire reign. It has some familiar material such as a fictionalized account reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which eventually was permitted to see the light of day. (Grossman’s work wasn’t—he wrote ahead of the de-Stalinization curve.)

But even more persuasive and equally terrifying is Grossman’s convincing description of how the survivors, those not picked up in the dead of night and put on trains for Siberia, adjusted their world views to get along. While not exactly believing that Jewish doctors were purposely infecting Christian babies or giving out poisoned medicines, many Soviet citizens were persuaded, or allowed themselves to feel persuaded, by the ‘confessions’ of the accused, which the news media trumpeted unceasingly. Peasants turned against their neighbors in the 1930s campaign against the kulaks and drove them off into exile and death, not stopping to consider how forced collectivization might lead to their own slaughter through starvation.

Memoirs or fictional treatments of genocidal murder like Grossman’s are depressing reminders than the bipedal race is an extremely dangerous species and periodically succumbs to induced, mass hysteria. We foolishly think we are safe from such upheavals, but consider what would happen now—given Obama’s utter disinterest in preserving our constitutional protections—if the Israelis go back to war in Lebanon or Gaza, and terrorist attacks ensue on our soil once again.

How much provocation would the country require before rabid crowds start to demand victims? How strong are our systems to withstand these pressures? Where are the political leaders willing to paddle against such a tide?

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