The Mercy Deficit in the USA

There’s a great post by Char­lie Stross on his blog today, link­ing the cur­rent noise in the USA about health­care reform and also the release of Abdel­baset Al Megrahi from prison in Scot­land:

Even if Al Megrahi is a mass-mur­der­er, the fact remains that he is dying. It is long-stand­ing pol­i­cy in Scot­land to exer­cise the pre­rog­a­tive of mer­cy when pos­si­ble; in gen­er­al, if an impris­oned crim­i­nal is ter­mi­nal­ly ill, a request for release (for hos­pice care, basi­cal­ly) is usu­al­ly grant­ed unless they are believed to be a dan­ger to the pub­lic.

That’s because the jus­tice sys­tem isn’t sole­ly about pun­ish­ment. It’s about respect for the greater good of soci­ety, which is bet­ter served by reha­bil­i­ta­tion and rec­on­cil­li­a­tion than by revenge. We do not make our­selves bet­ter peo­ple by exer­cis­ing a grue­some revenge on the bod­ies of our van­quished foes. Ken­ny MacAskill, the Jus­tice Min­is­ter, did exact­ly the right thing in send­ing Al Megrahi home to die.

I’ve been watch­ing the war of words with increas­ing dis­be­lief for the past month, try­ing to get my head around the rea­son why so many loud, vocal cit­i­zens seem to be so adamant­ly opposed to some­thing that’s in their own best inter­ests — the US health­care sys­tem is utter­ly dys­func­tion­al, even for those with health insur­ance costs are spi­ral­ing out of con­trol, and the cur­rent sys­tem is becom­ing a major drag on eco­nom­ic pro­duc­tiv­i­ty — many busi­ness start-ups abort because the founders can’t obtain health­care, many nov­el­ists of my acquain­tance are in seri­ous finan­cial trou­ble or are ter­ri­fied of giv­ing up the day job (that comes with insur­ance), and so on. The cur­rent mess is respon­si­ble for 22,000 avoid­able deaths per year — a 9/11 scale cat­a­stro­phe every six weeks.

The sub­jects vary — crime and penal pol­i­cy, health­care, don’t get me start­ed on for­eign pol­i­cy — but there is an ide­o­log­i­cal approach in Amer­i­ca that is dis­tin­guished by one com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tic: words and deeds utter­ly lack­ing in the qual­i­ty of mer­cy.

This is very true amongst the sub­ur­banised mid­dle class of Amer­i­ca. It’s worse than just a lack of mer­cy — it’s an ingrained con­ser­v­a­tive self­ish­ness — all I care about is that I get what I believe I deserve.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I’m hear­ing this a lot again from peo­ple here who don’t remem­ber the Thatch­er years. Lis­ten­ing to a par­ty in the gar­den two doors up from me last night, there was expres­sions of exact­ly the same self­ish­ness. Expect the four to twelve years after the next elec­tion to be fright­en­ing, peo­ple.

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