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.