As the Fourth of July looms with its flags and its barbecues and its full-throated patriotism, I find myself mulling over the idea of American exceptionalism. What, if anything, makes this country different from other countries, or from the rest of the developed world, in terms of morals or ideals? In what ways do our distinct values inform how America treats its own citizens?
I land on a distinct absence of mercy.
Witness the ruthless evisceration of Roe v. Wade and the expansion of the right to carry guns in public in the wake of two horrific mass shootings. Both courtesy of a Supreme Court that is supposedly the institution vested with carrying out the highest standard of justice for its citizens and yet is wholly indifferent to the lives of America’s women, children and families. Witness the horrors of Jan. 6 or our mismanagement of the pandemic. Witness a health care system that continues to see human beings as walking P&Ls rather than as people deserving of compassion and care.
I can’t help but see a particular American bent toward cruelty. Especially when it comes to life-or-death matters, with a merciless streak that dictates not only how we live, but also the laws around who dies.
Three books I read over the pandemic brought these issues to the fore for me, offering broader and deeper context. Two of the books are explicit about the question of mercy in their titles, both published in 2014: Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” and Anand Giridharadas’s “The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas,” each highlighting this country’s penchant for condemning to death those who might wish to live. The third, published this year, is Amy Bloom’s “In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss,” which looks at the flip side of that equation: our heartlessness when someone close to death wishes to die.
When it comes to someone fighting for his life on death row or someone longing for the right to die at life’s end, America generally goes with the least empathetic option.
The laws on both capital punishment and physician-assisted suicide are clear. Our enthusiasm for the death penalty puts us in the same camp as China, Iran and 16 other countries that killed its citizens in 2020; as of early June, America had put seven people to death. As for end-of-life laws, euthanasia — which permits a doctor to administer, for example, a lethal dose of morphine to a suffering patient — is illegal across the United States. Only 10 states and the District of Columbia allow for physician-assisted suicide, which generally enables a terminally ill person strictly within six months of dying to administer the means of his or her own death.
Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” which has spent 281 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, is probably the best known of the three books. A forceful and persuasive indictment of our criminal justice system, “Just Mercy” makes alarmingly clear how stacked it is against those least equipped to push back. It’s a system that has all but abandoned efforts toward rehabilitation and instead continues to punish former felons long after they leave prison. A system, increasingly privatized, that is more concerned with maximizing profits than with improving lives. A system that leaves little room for compassion or redemption.
Among the lines from the book that stay with me: “Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others.”
The second book, Giridharadas’s “The True American,” tells the story of Raisuddin Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi immigrant who in September 2001 was shot in the face by a white supremacist, Mark Stroman, and then unsuccessfully urged clemency for his would-be assassin. Through the story of these two men and the skewed morality of the justice system that failed them, we see how the country squandered its brief moment of post-9/11 cohesion. A sense of cohesion gave way to “us vs. them,” abetted by easy access to firearms and hate-mongering.
Among the lines that stay with me: Quoting from Stroman’s legal team, “‘There is nothing illogical about a system where society does not always fulfill the victim’s desire for revenge, but always respects the victim’s desire for mercy.’”
Bloom’s memoir may seem to have little in common with the other two. But America’s indifference toward those suffering at the end of their lives offers a startling contrast to those waiting out their attenuated lives on death row.
In January 2020, Bloom accompanied her 66-year-old husband, Brian, recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, to Zurich, the only place in the world where Americans can travel for a “painless, peaceful and legal suicide.” The few places in the United States where assisted suicide is allowed impose restrictions so exacting they are difficult for people in state, and often nearly impossible for anyone out of state, to meet. Brian’s death comes at his own wish and by his own hand, and while marked by grief, there’s nothing unwanted about it. This, I thought while reading, is how it’s done — and yet we cannot do it this way, here in America.
Among the lines that stay with me: Quoting a doctor, “‘When any kind of right-to-die legislation is proposed — the opposition shows up with 10 million dollars as soon as it’s about your right to choose.’”
At our worst, we ourselves display an undeniable strain of mercilessness, in ways that have come to pervade our culture. Minor mistakes are taken as capital offenses. Apologies are often forced and true forgiveness, rare. In the push to identify and condemn an enemy, we fail to allow for people to make amends. The drive toward justice and accountability too often veers toward blame, retribution and abnegation.
Well, then I won’t end here with more blame. It would be inaccurate, in any case, to pin these policies entirely on the American people when polls suggest that most wouldn’t choose these arrangements. A majority of Americans, 72 percent as of 2018, support euthanasia, and 65 percent as of 2018 support physician-assisted suicide. Around six in 10 Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. A minority — about 39 percent — but still a sizable number of Americans, oppose the death penalty. Yet majorities concede that innocent people might be killed and that in practice, the current system is racist.
It’s worth asking ourselves, as a nation, what it is about our political and legal systems that leads to so many policies that we Americans — even at our worst — don’t necessarily support.
How do we ask young people just starting out, or older people who have seen so much progress reversed, to care about a country that seems so determined to care so little for them? How do we celebrate on the Fourth of July a country whose laws and institutions so often fail to bring out the best in us?
I am seeing here only the worst side of what feels right now like a broken country. Perhaps it is wise to bear in mind these words from Stevenson’s book: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” I’d like to believe this holds true not only for us individually, but also collectively. Perhaps even as a nation.