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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Public Safety (p. 276)

From chapter "Killers"

Surprisingly enough—and this statement may dismay a lot of my liberal friends—I’m not 100 percent sold on the idea of abolishing prisons, or even of doing away with the death penalty. I believe that there are actions people can commit that cause them to forfeit their right to live in society, and even actions they can commit that cause them to forfeit their right to live.

That’s not to say I don’t want to abolish prisons as they presently exist, because I do. And it’s also not to say I support the death penalty as it presently exists, because I don’t.

The main argument I’ve heard to support the existence and expansion of prisons is public safety (I’ve seen the way prisoners are warehoused, so don’t even thinkabout bringing up the notion of rehabilitation): We’ve got to keep these dangerous people behind bars so that our streets are safe. It’s ironic that prison proponents mention streets in this context: Last year I talked to anticar activist Jan Lundberg, who told me that more than five hundred thousand people worldwide die each year in road accidents: “Two-thirds of these deaths involve pedestrians,” he said, “of which one-third are children. Just in the United States about forty-two thousand people die per year because of auto collisions, nearly as many as the total number of Americans killed in Vietnam. Everybody knows someone who has died or been seriously injured in a car crash, yet cars have insinuated themselves into our social fife—and into our psyches—so thoroughly that we somehow accept these deaths as inevitable, or not shocking, as opposed to perceiving them for what they are: a direct and predictable result of choosing to base our economic and social systems on this particular piece of technology.” What’s worse is that even more people die each year from respiratory illness stemming from auto-related airborne toxins than die from traffic crashes.

Lundberg also said to me, “We have become slaves to these machines. If a group of aliens came to this planet and said they would bring us all sorts of goodies like jet skis, tomatoes in January, computers, and so on (or at least they would bring them to the richest of us), on the multiple conditions that we offer up to them a yearly sacrifice of a half-million human lives, change our planet’s climate, individually spend increasing amounts of time serving them, and socially devote an ever-increasing amount of land and other resources to their service, we would rebel in a flash. Or at least I hope we would. But that’s the reality we face. And that’s the reality we accept. It’s a reality we don’t even talk about. More teenagers are killed by cars across the U.S. every afternoon than the fourteen high schoolers gunned down in Littleton. Everybody says that living in an inner city is dangerous, that you’re going to get shot. But the truth is that because of car crashes, suburbs are statistically far more dangerous places to live. I’ve proven this to people, and they still refuse to walk with me in downtown Seattle, but they’re perfectly happy to get in a car, just because it’s normal. We don’t talk about any of this because thisviolence—the violence of U.S. transportation policies—is so engrained into our psyches that we believe it is inevitable, and not the result of policy decisions and subsidies.”

It seems also that if prisons were really about public safety, those responsible for the three hundred thousand preventable cancer deaths per year would be behind bars. And if prisons were about protecting property, those who looted the Savings and Loans would be serving terms commensurate with the amount they cost the public (exactly how many years would Neil Bush’s billion dollars add up to?). Or, to combine the personal and the fiscal, if prisons were designed to both further public safety andprotect our property, I can think of no better use than that they house those who have designed and put in place our nuclear weapons programs, for which every American man, woman, and child has been forced to pay more than twenty-one thousand dollars. We have received for this money not only the terror of living under the threat of nuclear annihilation, but, as a bonus (free with the purchase of a complete nuclear arsenal; some restrictions may apply), several major river systems that have been irradiated beyond any foreseeable eventual recovery, a generation of downwinders in eastern Washington, southern Nevada and Utah, Colorado, and several other states that have found themselves beset by leukemia and other cancers, and Rocky Flats, the Hanford Nuclear Reservations, Oak Ridge Reservation, and the Savannah River Site have all been hopelessly irradiated. But wait! There’s more! For that same twenty-one thousand dollars we have received literally millions of tons of materials that will be dangerous in some cases for a quarter to half a million years. Under a just and reasonable judicial and penal system concerned with public safety and order, the nasty-ass motherfuckers—or, depending on your perspective, the decent white men—who put in place the policies leading to these programs would be attending my creative writing classes, that is, when level four prisoners aren’t locked down.