The problem with those who do not learn from the past is that they do not learn from the past. That tautology was brought to you by fear, an emotion that keeps people firmly rooted in the present, unable to think back to precedents or to consider the effect an action will have in the future living outside of that moment. And this whole paragraph is inspired by Adam Gopnik’s piece for the August 29, 2016 New Yorker, in which he looks back at the massacre that occurred in the Attica Correctional Facility back in 1971. Gopnik, in reviewing Heather Ann Thompson’s chronicle of the events, takes a step back to note the historian’s failure to properly contextualize (or to forgive) the actions of certain revolutionaries like The Weather Underground and the Black Panthers, but if anything, that only gives more weight to the staggering reality that the two aren’t willing to let go.
It wasn’t that conditions in the Depression-era prison were, by prison standards, uniquely horrible. It was that they were systemically horrible; procedures designed to instill a minimal humanity had been allowed to degrade in ways that made every day a trial.
That, sadly, could still be written about prisons today, especially some of the private, for-profit prisons that are incentivized to cut costs (i.e., quality)–and which are thankfully, wisely being phased out by our government. But worst is the way in which the riot ended:
Armed with shotguns deliberately loaded with wide-arc buckshot and .270 rifles loaded with unjacketed bullets, of a kind banned by the Geneva Conventions, they started shooting, firing at everything they saw.
Itching to avoid the sign of compromise, and to reclaim their wounded masculinity, five hundred and fifty troopers, along with over two hundred deputies and correctional officers, entered that yard fully armed against the roughly 1,200 inmates (who had nothing more than homemade knives, and 47 hostages). These “addicts of toughness as only timid men can be”–and it’s hard not to hear that as a description of Trump–led to what Gopnik describes as a perfect storm in which the “paranoia of the powerful met the manic fantasies of the militants.” Is this not the extremist branch of the Republican party, the “2nd Amendment heroes” that Trump suggests might be able to stop Hillary, since we all know that the election must surely be rigged if he doesn’t win?
Consider also what Gopnik considers the most heroic event of the day–the one in which the local medical examiners refused “to stick with the official story and tell the set tale–that the inmates, in a maximally brutal fashion, had killed the hostages” and instead told the truth, “that all the dead had been killed by the gunfire of the advancing troopers and guards.” This is where we are from a historical perspective, that simply telling the truth (and, say, not misleading our country into a false war in Iraq) is the courageous thing. And see how we still punish our whistleblowers and leakers, what with Edward Snowden still self-exiled to Russia.
We do sometimes learn from the past, however; Gopnik reminds us of the way in which Obama handled the Bundy standoff on seized government property in Oregon earlier in 2016. He gives all the power-abusing police officers, xenophobic citizens, and Stand Your Ground vigilantes something to really think about when he writes that “avoiding Atticas and Wacos is not that hard when you are more worried about losing lives than about losing face.” Shaun King posts daily reports in which white men involved in repairable fender benders instead angrily take out their assault rifles and shoot an already wounded victim, or in which a black man, the victim of a carjacking, is shot by the police he called. What might our country look like if, instead of worrying about our reputations and refusing to admit wrong, we simply chose to fix the obvious problems–or at least not tolerate them?