The most telling exchange for me was with an aide to Governor Ed Rendell; she was a respected activist acquaintance from the Philadelphia progressive community. A photographer colleague and I wanted to put together a film about the lives of veterans in Graterford prison. We needed permission from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, which is a bit like dealing with a Soviet bureaucracy. We had been working with a highly organized group of incarcerated veterans in the prison, some of the men doing Pennsylvania's unusual life-without-parole sentence for murder.
One Vietnam combat veteran of the famous Battle of the Ia Drang Valley -- Commer Glass -- was doing life-without-parole for a 1975 killing. Following a habeas corpus hearing, a federal judge had concluded Glass was "innocent" of first-degree-murder and guilty of manslaughter, for which he had served a more than adequate prison term. The fact he was African American and in 1975 had an abysmally incompetent lawyer who never even mentioned PTSD led to the judge's conclusion that his indictment and conviction for first-degree murder was an "egregious miscarriage of justice." The judge ordered Glass be re-tried or released. The third circuit court of appeals quickly dismissed the case in a four-page decision, suggesting that Glass' lawyer should have known about PTSD. The fact he was a lousy lawyer (it turned out, he was mob-connected, had disappeared in the witness protection program for snitching and was now dead) and the fact PTSD wasn't included in the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 1980 were irrelevant to the robed eminences of the Third Circuit. Glass is virtually blind and serving his 41st year.
Though the inmates were crying for exposure, the hurdle we encountered was the state bureaucracy's insistence its prohibition on filming inmates was to protect their privacy. We asked the Rendell aide for help in making some contacts in the capital, Harrisburg, so we might make our case. The Rendell aide said she was interested and would see what she could do. Then, I got an email: "He's a lifer?" I wrote back: "Yes. We told you that." I re-told her the story. We never heard from her again. It was clear she'd touched an electrified rail and gotten a jolt that told her we were politically dangerous. This was a progressive activist working for a liberal governor who published a book called A Nation of Wusses: How America's Leaders Lost the Guts to Make Us Great. The book is an echo of JFK's Profiles In Courage, a call for moral courage versus cowardly governing by polls. Rendell wanted politicians to stand up for what's right; he damns flip-flopping, pandering and avoiding the really tough issues. On the back cover, the book features touts by Sean Hannity, Bill Clinton and Chris Matthews. After the governor's job, Rendell become a paid MSNBC commentator. He even did TV commentary for football games. He's now a Hillary operative.
When he left office, Governor Rendell had the perfect opportunity to show he wasn't a "wuss" and to pardon a man like Commer Glass, who is one of a number of veterans, mostly from the Vietnam War, caught up in Pennsylvania's medieval life-without-parole sentence based entirely on vengeance without an iota of forgiveness allowed into the equation. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has its own hospice program with trained inmates working in a special hospice prison for dying inmates. Beyond the $50,000 a year in taxes it costs to keep an aging man in prison, the costs go up when you're caring for a dying man. Old and dying inmates lucky enough to have attentive families are kept from those families until they are handed to them as a corpse in a box. Now you can have him. Many of these men served their nation as infantrymen in the war for which President Obama just cited the bombing slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent peasants. The PTSD these men suffered serving in places like Vietnam often contributed to their crimes. Meanwhile, one of the main architects for the mass killing in Laos, Henry Kissinger, is honored by candidate Hillary Clinton.
The beloved WWII antiwar veteran Kurt Vonnegut would say: "So it goes."
Working to reveal, and undue, the atrocities of American history, great and small, is very frustrating work. It often feels like one is digging out the truth with a teaspoon. Once you un-earth a nugget of truth there's always a shiny dump truck with ten tons of self-serving bullshit to unload on the effort. Little or nothing is done. So like Sisyphus and his rock, you hold your nose and keep working that little spoon.
Coda: Getting Beyond the Silly Season
A presidential election may not be the best time to accomplish anything like justice in America. It's not called "the silly season" for nothing. Even more than normally, reality is shunted to the back of the bus. When such an extended struggle for power is played out on TV as a compelling reality show, who's got the time to give a damn about those who have suffered injustices at the hands of the American war machine or the American criminal justice system? You have to wonder whether it's a genius of the system to encourage endless electoral campaigns that keep real governance off balance. It becomes impossible to lobby governing leaders for change because they're always busy campaigning for their lives. We're doomed to listening ad nauseum to well-financed, slickly-produced food fights of petty nonsense. Meanwhile, militarism, corporatism and rising technology overwhelm the commonweal and violate it in the bushes.
Justice may be possible if people are willing to fight the way the Standing Rock Sioux are fighting in North Dakota today. The forces of repression, like all bullies, seek weakness and the easy push-over. So you want to make sustaining the status-quo as difficult and costly as possible for the bully. You want to avoid contributing to a vacuum of apathy and passivity.
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