Sunday, October 14, 2007

Deadly Social Vulgarities

The daily barrage of cruel and unusual acts by police, school rent-a-cops, and swat teams is reaching a cultural tipping point. The cavalier tazing (in many cases to death) of unarmed civilians by teams of officers is obscene. The tazing of genitals, of shackling or bound suspects, of drunken fools all incapable of making the sick acts of officers stop has become a national disgrace and a national barometer of who we have become as a nation.

And in recent weeks an even more alarming piece of information has entered the debate. Drug testing is not being randomly performed on police, fire, and emergency personnel. In Boston, this has proven to be fatal.

The Boston Phoenix reports, The Problem with Heroes,
Even the hardest-hearted news consumer had to wince this past week when the private autopsy results of Paul Cahill and Warren Payne were leaked to some of the press. Cahill and Payne were, of course, the Boston firefighters who died in a restaurant blaze in August and were promptly lionized by the public and the press. While the Phoenix has not seen the autopsy data, Cahill, according to multiple news reports, had a blood-alcohol level of .27 at the time of his death, more than three times the legal limit for drivers. Payne, meanwhile, had traces of cocaine in his system (and marijuana, according to the Boston Herald), though it’s not clear whether or how much he was impaired when he was killed fighting the fire.

This was — and remains — a multifaceted story. There are the painful issues of whether Cahill and Payne’s alleged substance use contributed to their deaths and endangered their fellow firefighters. There are lingering questions about the scope of substance abuse in the Boston Fire Department (BFD), and why Boston does less to screen for substance abuse than many other cities. (The Globe reported that, despite a lax testing protocol, 10 percent of the department has been ordered into treatment in the past three years; according to a recent medical study, 10 percent of all US adults have problems with substance abuse at some point.) There’s even a freedom-of-the-press element: a judge’s ruling (dubious and quickly overturned, but all too characteristic of government opacity in Boston and Massachusetts) kept WHDH-TV from breaking news of the autopsy results on October 3.

But ultimately — at its core — this story is about our collective need for heroes, the press’s collusion in that quest, and the way we respond when those heroes fall from grace.
Here, our interest is to ensure that every professional in the school system who is in a position of authority to harm a child or fellow worker needs to be randomly drug-tested as well as given a periodic psychological screening to ensure that the acts of incredible cruelty that we witness daily in the media do not find their way into our schools and communities.

Today, Frank Rich writing in the NYTimes, reminds us,
Our moral trajectory over the Bush years could not be better dramatized than it was by a reunion of an elite group of two dozen World War II veterans in Washington this month. They were participants in a top-secret operation to interrogate some 4,000 Nazi prisoners of war. Until now, they have kept silent, but America’s recent record prompted them to talk to The Washington Post.

“We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,” said Henry Kolm, 90, an M.I.T. physicist whose interrogation of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, took place over a chessboard. George Frenkel, 87, recalled that he “never laid hands on anyone” in his many interrogations, adding, “I’m proud to say I never compromised my humanity.”

Our humanity has been compromised by those who use Gestapo tactics in our war. The longer we stand idly by while they do so, the more we resemble those “good Germans” who professed ignorance of their own Gestapo. It’s up to us to wake up our somnambulant Congress to challenge administration policy every day. Let the war’s last supporters filibuster all night if they want to. There is nothing left to lose except whatever remains of our country’s good name.
This country needs to find its way back to civilized behaviors. The sooner the better.

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