Contempt of court

Lynch mobs, the death penalty, and torture in the US military: a history

The US military tortures. Will that help us find the truth? Even more surprising than the torture itself is the pride that the torturers seem to take in it. In the photos they upload, they smile for the camera as though they were on family vacation.

In an e-mail to the author, US historian Michael Pfeifer defines "rough justice" as part of American culture, as "harsh and ritualistic punishment that satisfies collective prerogatives regardless of legal niceties […] from the death penalty to the degrading and ritualistic punishment administered by some American military personnel at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere"

The Nazis kept meticulous records on actions that any sensible person would have tried to hide. Of course, no sensible person would have done such things to begin with. Now, US soldiers are publishing their crimes on the Internet, and the Bush administration (especially Dick Cheney) is openly supporting torture. But Americans are not keeping meticulous records about their war crimes like the Nazis did; as US General Tommy Franks put it in a different context, "We don't do body counts." Unlike Nazi bookkeeping, the records of the crimes that US soldiers commit are private - voluntary, bottom-up leisure pastimes. These photos are not intended to document what happened where; rather, they are part of the pleasure that the soldiers take in torturing.

So while the Nazis were cold-blooded, US soldiers seem to get a kick out of war crimes. What does this "cultural" difference tell us?

Lynch mobs in the Wild West and in the South

If we go back some 150 years, we see some continuity in how Americans take the law into their own hands, including the pleasure they take in humiliating their victims. When most people hear the word "lynch," they probably think of a black man hanging from a tree somewhere in the South, but in reality lynching was common practice in the Wild West even before it became a popular sport in the Reconstructed South.

In California and Texas, the legal system was fairly weak in the mid-19th century, and lynch mobs sometimes could not wait for the law to provide justice. Often, the victims were horse thieves, and most of them were not black. Lynch mobs not only formed to apprehend a criminal because the sheriff didn't have time to get there; they also sometimes took a suspect that the sheriff had already arrested, for instance by demanding that the lone sheriff release the victim from the local jail so that the mob could take care of him.

Lynch mobs not only took the law into their own hands, but they also had a macabre fascination with the humiliation of the victim even after he had died. While the dead body was still hanging from the tree, people would tear off a piece of bark or a leaf. The infamous case of Dr. John Eugene Osborne http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Eugene_Osborne is typical of some of the most outlandish practices: in 1881, he took the dead body of a lynched man and soaked in the salt solution so he could remove the man's skin to make shoes and a cap out of it. 11 years later, when Osborne was elected governor of the new State of Wyoming, he is said to have had these shoes on.

When the South lost the Civil War, white Southerners then took up lynching to keep "uppity" blacks in their place. Around 80% of the people lynched in the South were black, but they were not generally charged with theft, but rather with murder or rape. Often, it sufficed for a rape charge if a white person found that a black man had violated the honor of a white woman. Lynching had now taken on a racist and sexual component.

As late as August of 1955, an adolescent like Emmett Till could still be lynched grotesquely in Mississippi for violating the honor of a white woman. On a trip from Chicago to visit family, the apparently impertinent Till made a pass at the 21-year-old white wife of the owner of a store he was in, asking her for a date and then trying to put his arm around her before finally saying "bye baby" when he left - or he may have whistled at her; it is no longer clear. At any rate, a few days later his body - unrecognizably mutilated (photos and history here) - was found in a river.

Many Americans looked on in shock and hoped that Mississippi would let justice prevail in the courtroom. But when Till's family charged two white men with murder - unprecedented back then in Mississippi - the white jury found the men not guilty because, as they put it, the prosecutor had not sufficiently proved the identity of the victim. In all likelihood, the defense attorney's concluding remarks to the jury did not hurt either:

Your fathers will turn over in their graves if [Milam and Bryant are found guilty] and I'm sure that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men in the face of that [outside] pressure.

Winning the case did not, however, stop Milam and Bryant from allegedly admitting they had committed the murder a few months later.

The case of Emmett Till still makes headlines today although the two men accused of the crime are now dead, as is Till's mother. For instance, a few years ago a documentary was made about Emmett's death, and on November 23, 2005 the FBI completed the renewed investigation of the case that US Attorney General Ashcroft had refused to revisit (one of his assistants decided to take on the case). The FBI's report on the latest investigation is expected by the end of 2005.

Police brutality, the death penalty, and "legal lynching"

Lynching was not the same everywhere in the South. Where blacks made up the majority of the population, lynches were not as common, and cities like New Orleans practiced police brutality instead (which still plagues the city) to protect the old order. Culturally, New Orleans is a bit of an island, and this is also true of lynching: people living there did not resort to lynch mobs as often as they did in the surrounding area, where something as harmless as miscegenation could get you killed. Jefferson Parish, which borders New Orleans to the west, was a bastion of lynching, as a contemporary cited in Pfeifer's "Rough Justice" puts it:

"Jefferson Parish of which Gretna is the county seat seems to have a great antipathy to the nigger in general and are daily shooting and lynching them: without apparent cause."

At the end of the 19th century, the racially mixed couple Charlotte and Patrick Morris were killed in their houseboat moored in a canal in Jefferson Parish. Had they been docked a few miles further down in Orleans Parish, they might have been able to lead more peaceful lives.

Proponents (or at least apologists) of lynching argue that lynching is more efficient: no court or sheriff has to get involved, and justice is served more quickly - and at no cost to the taxpayer. In addition, courts in the US speak on behalf of the people. Why take a roundabout route in such clear cases? The impatience with due process and the tendency to want to take the law into your own hands is found all over the US. Only in New England did the death penalty replace lynching relatively early on.

For due process to be a true alternative to lynching, courts had to reach guilty verdicts more quickly (= more efficiently) and not shy from the ultimate penalty. At the end of the 19th century, the electric chair was touted as a more humane way (compared to lynching) of putting the worst criminals to death, as was the gas chamber a few decades later. Of course, quick guilty verdicts for blacks charged with committing some crime against whites constitute legal discrimination, but the elites in New England were willing to pay the price to stamp out the embarrassment of lynching. After all, New England elites were never really worried about giving blacks equal treatment.

Today, the US justice system remains far from colorblind. As Pfeifer puts it at the end of his insightful study: "capital punishment in the United States carries the profound legacy of lynching". One in eight Americans is black, but three fourths of all inmates serving time for a drug-related crime are black. And yet, according to official statistics whites commit drug-related crimes just as frequently as blacks per capita.

New England began doing away with the death penalty around a century ago, adopting what Pfeifer calls "legal lynching." As in Europe, due process was simply more firmly established in New England. But when "transplanted Europeans" entered the frontier west of the Mississippi or the enslaved world of the South, they, too, fell prey to barbarian anarchy.

In 1920, a group of Texans had no problem posing for the camera next to the body of a lynched man, but unlike some US soldiers in Iraq they are not smiling for the camera

It was easier to get rid of the death penalty in Europe, where there was no tradition of taking the law into your own hands - the powers-that-be had been too firmly established since the Middle Ages. Admittedly, the Nazis recruited their first members from the ranks of desperate young man without futures, but they did not develop a culture of spontaneous lynch mobs, but rather a top-down organization of death with unconditional obedience to the leader. Nazi Germany was not anarchy the way the Wild West and South were.

The French may have discovered that the guillotine is a more humane way of executing people, and their penchant for mass protests later led them to misuse the guillotine for mass executions. But when the Socialists abolished the death penalty in 1981 under Mitterrand, it was a top-down decision. Back then, a majority of the French supported the death penalty, and only a few years ago did a majority of the French finally swing to the other side. In 1949, Germany abolished the death penalty in its constitution, but this too was a top-down decision against the Germans, who had been indoctrinated in fascism for 12 years - estimates are that up to 77% of them supported the death penalty at the end of World War II. Europe is just not as ashamed of its elites as the United States is. In the US, simple citizens sit in juries and decide whether a suspect is guilty or not guilty; in Europe, only judges may interpret the law.

What's more, elites in the US are afraid of the masses. The US Supreme Court put it bluntly in 1976, when it legalized the death penalty once again:

When people begin to believe that organized society is unwilling or unable to impose upon criminal offenders the punishment they "deserve," then there are sown the seeds of anarchy - of self help, vigilante justice, and lynch law.

The joy of torture

Pfeifer sees lynching as part of a radical interpretation of the American Revolution: the people have the right to take matters into their own hands. Americans are loved the world over for their can-do mentality: just get the job done. The flip side of that coin is impatience and presumptuousness. And while much of the world has taken a liking to our can-do mentality in their own lives, Americans are still fond of the flip side: the death penalty, police brutality against blacks and discrimination in the courts, and now lynching in the US military.

The connection between lynching in the history of the US and the pleasure that some US soldiers obviously have in torture is clear not only on the photographs that have become public, but also in the mere fact that these photos were taken and uploaded by the soldiers themselves. The soldiers are taking the law into their own hands - why call The Hague if you can take care of things yourself?

In addition, the Arabs being tortured are also being humiliated as men. While most victims of lynching were blacks, almost all of them were men, and when a woman was lynched, there was even more outrage: "This is about the poorest purpose a woman can be put to!", exclaimed one contemporary when a woman was lynched, and the argument reminds us of the opponents of slavery who exhorted slaveowners not to mistreat their slaves because, after all, they would only be destroying their own property.

Pfeifer explains the connection between masculinity and honor in lynching:

The degradation of a corpse apparently signified the victor's privilege in the satisfaction of western masculine honor, the ultimate humiliation of a personal foe or communally defined villain.

Of course, a large number of Americans are outraged about the US military practicing torture. But history suggests that mob rule has only been overcome when the elites take control. At the moment, the elites running the US do not seem to have much of a problem with a few US soldiers taking matters into their own hands. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld did not put their foot down when they saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib.

History repeats itself

There is no doubt that lynching was most common in the South between 1890-1940 or that most victims were black. But Americans outside the South would be well advised to stop pointing the finger at the South and look more closely at their own history.

Why did the author of the famous song Strange Fruit write in the first line "Southern trees bear strange fruit" after seeing a photo of a lynching in Indiana - is that the South?

Some of the best writers in the US have tried to put themselves in the shoes of a black rapist to try to understand the problem from the other angle. One of them was Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. Her first novel (1970) "The Bluest Eye" begins with the statement that a black man has raped his own daughter, but Morrison then does the unbelievable: she spends the next hundred pages making the reader feel for this man. At the beginning, we cannot help but think he is scum, but we come to realize how he is suffered all his life as a black man in the US (in Ohio, not the South), and when the act itself finally takes place at the end of this short novel, we beg him not to do it - and we understand that he never had a chance to learn to love in his American life.

Morrison deserves the Nobel Prize for this novel alone: a woman forcing us to understand a rapist. We would probably all be a lot better off if we tried to put ourselves in others' shoes the way Morrison does. But another similar case is a bit more disconcerting. In his novel (1940) "Native Son," Mississippi-born Richard Wright tells the tale of Bigger Thomas, who is charged with murdering a white woman and raping and murdering a black woman. Wright also tries to put the reader in the perpetrator's shoes: Bigger is not portrayed as a monster the way the media in the US portray just about every criminal today; rather, he is depicted as a product of his environment - a native son of the United States.

What good did it do? The Book of the Month Club made a bestseller out of the novel, but only after forcing Wright to tone down parts of it. For instance, the white woman who is later raped was not to come on to Thomas so clearly. And when Wright had the Club review his next novel, the Club insisted that the last third of the novel be taken out altogether, and that the new ending be rendered more hopeful. Wright was literally starving back then, and he watched the autobiographical novel he called "American Hunger" - which told of a black man's desperate search for freedom in Mississippi, Memphis, and Chicago - be transformed into "Black Boy." At the end of this truncated novel, the protagonist is leaving Memphis and cursing the racist south on his way towards Chicago, the land of milk and honey.

For 32 years, Americans read this story as criticism of the South and praise for the North. In 1977, the censored third of the book finally appeared as "American Hunger." Here, the protagonist finds the North to be a complete disappointment; not even the Communists play fairly. Wright left Chicago and the US soon after "Black Boy" was published to escape racism. He went to Europe, and we can only hope he wasn't disappointed there, too.

Even now, Wikipedia contains the following argument pro the death penalty in the entry for capital punishment:

It upholds the rule of law, because it discourages vigilantism on the part of the victim's family or friends (in the form of lynching or retaliatory murder). If not controlled, such actions can lead to extremely destructive vendettas or blood feuds. In the U.S., capital punishment is concentrated in States where lynching was more common, although no one has been lynch in the South since 1964.

In reality, New Englanders used the death penalty before the South did to combat lynch law, which Wikipedia does not explain. Racially and sexually motivated mob rule is not just a problem of the South, but an American problem. Indeed, it may actually be the way people normally behave in anarchy. It is certainly not uncommon in areas of armed conflict, such as Sri Lanka. And the history of colonization also shows that Europeans are also quick to take the law into their own hands when they live in anarchy. If we do not come to terms with how our cultural legacy - including the legacy of violence - lives within us, it will come back to haunt us again and again. (Craig Morris)

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