Volume 79, Number 30 | December 30 - January 5, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Talking Point

Sandwiched: Somewhere between home and abroad

By Alphie McCourt

It had been a hot June Saturday in New York City. This was the kind of weather which usually afflicts us in late August. In the early afternoon, Lynn, my wife, and I did some errands. At three o’clock we went to a deli up on Broadway. Lynn had a hot dog. I ordered a corned beef sandwich, ate half and brought the other half home.

In the early evening, Lynn went to the kitchen to prepare a salad. I sat in my daughter’s room, still cooling off. Allison was sitting on the couch.

With the twilight coming on, my mind wandered and I brooded aloud.

“The U.S. is beginning to resemble Britain, in another time,” I said to Lynn, to Allison and to the cat. “The U.S. is coming to represent the only stability in an increasingly explosive world. And our own society is not too stable. It will be very difficult to create stability abroad when we can’t seem to find it at home.

“Our prisons are a case in point. They are a blot on our conscience and a blight on the landscape of our democracy. All too well do we know what happens in our prisons. Along with the prison authorities, we must turn a blind eye to gang control, drug dealing, rampant racism and rape as a way of life, not to mention the festering religious fundamentalism which grows like weeds within prison walls.

“But the situation in our domestic prisons is always overshadowed by more-pressing matters. There’s the economy, one or another war, the Academy Awards, the Super Bowl, the space shuttle or some governor who got into trouble because he had sex with his black socks still on. A few years ago, prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib took the headlines for a while. After that it was detention without trial in Guantanamo Bay, and now the forthcoming civil trial of a number of accused detainees, which is to take place in Manhattan.

“As firm believers in human rights, we are duty bound to concern ourselves with human rights violations, everywhere in the world. We certainly are. More important, we are Americans, and Americans have a big heart and we are genuine in our concern. The world was horrified by what happened at Abu Ghraib and we will be judged by what we do with the prisoners housed in Guantanamo. Once again, the world is watching.

“And while we’re doing that, maybe we should give some attention to the abuses in our domestic prison system. We are told that we have the highest number of prisoners of any nation in the world and the highest percentage of prisoners per capita. Why don’t we do something about it now? Are we too busy or too distracted? Or is it because we consider the majority of prisoners to be inferior to us or that they are the wrong color or the wrong class? Do we believe that they deserve to be treated like animals? Some people do, but most people believe in justice and a fair deal. Are we indifferent? I don’t think so. I think we are just distracted, with too much to deal with in our personal lives.

“In line with that, I think we are suffering from fatigue, that we are worn down and worn out by the immediacy, by the intensity and by the sheer volume of all the demands made upon us. Stretched, at home, to the limits of our endurance, from abroad, at the same time, we are both beseeched and besieged. There are only twenty-four hours in the day and, as they say, the squeaky wheel gets the oil.

“I’ll tell you, Lynn, the abuses and deficiencies within our prison system are a major problem. But we could deal with them. Yes we could but, unfortunately, these problems are only symptomatic of so much that is amiss in our society. We need to pay more attention at home, to establish priorities, to make everything a priority. And we must begin now because, if we continue to focus all our attention elsewhere, one day we will pay. Our chickens will come home to roost and they will be bigger than eagles, larger even than elephants.”

“You are right,” Lynn said. “Yes, indeed. I agree with you, one hundred percent. Absolutely. Couldn’t agree more. Now, about the sandwich: That half a sandwich you brought home? Do you remember where you put it?”

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