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Guest Editorial

The culture of meanness

BY JOHN W. WHITEHEAD

A culture of meanness has come to characterize many aspects of the nation's governmental and social policies. "Meanness today is a state of mind," writes Nicholas Mills in his book The Triumph of Meanness, "the product of a culture of spite and cruelty that has had an enormous impact on us." But until it happens to us, it is easy to close our eyes and go on with our everyday lives.

The problem is epitomized by the recent email I received, which follows:

"We live in a small rural town. Moved here in 1961. I don't remember what year the State Troopers moved a headquarters into our town. Our young people were plagued with tickets for even the smallest offense. Troopers had to get their limits for the month. People make jokes about that but it has been true. Every kid I knew was getting ticketed for something.

"But now it is so much worse. I raised my kids to respect police. If they did something wrong and got caught they deserved it and should take their punishment. I have no respect for the police. I feel threatened and fearful of them. They are aggressive and intimidating. They lie and are abusive and we do not know how to fight them. I am not a minority here but people are afraid if they speak out they will be targeted.

"We are just a small town. I am a 60-year-old grandmother and I just don't care anymore if they do target me. I am afraid they are going to kill someone."

This is just the tip of the iceberg. For example, recently in my hometown of Charlottesville, Va., a 69-year-old woman was offered no mercy by local authorities when she briefly left her sleeping grandchild in her car to run into the grocery store. Since she was only going to get a couple of items and it was a moderately cool day, she decided to crack the windows and sunroof and leave her grandchild undisturbed. Moments after leaving the parking lot, the woman was pulled over by several patrol vehicles and then handcuffed. When her grandchild awoke and began screaming for his grandmother, the police refused to let her hold him and took her to jail. The 69-year-old woman was left with bruises and marks on her wrists.

Far from hardened criminals, individuals such as this are treated like street thugs, despite not having committed any serious crime. At one time, the police would merely have lectured these two upstanding citizens. Certainly, no one would have been handcuffed, arrested and jailed.

However, their stories represent a symptom of a much broader and growing problem in America. Perhaps out of fear or some other innate human element, America has grown cold and callous and often lacks common sense in its accepted brutal treatment of others who commit small wrongs or merely make mistakes. We see school children placed at the heart of our court system and treated like hardened criminals. Many find negative marks placed on their permanent records due to the harsh treatment of zero tolerance policies. Average Americans who make unwise but nonetheless harmless decisions are treated like drug traffickers or other dangerous criminals. It seems that everyone is now a criminal-in-waiting.

Consider the story of Margaret Kimbrell of Rock Hill, S.C.. This 75-year-old woman who suffered from arthritis and had six broken ribs was given a 50,000-volt shock from a police taser gun and was forced to spend three hours behind bars. Describing the pain from being tasered, Kimbrell stated, "It was the worst pain. It felt like something going through my body. I thought I was dying. I said, Lord, let it be over."

What led to this horrifying experience was Margaret's refusal to leave a nursing home before she had the opportunity to visit a friend whose well-being she was concerned about. According to the police, Margaret posed a threat. They claim she was waving her arms and threatening the staff. Her response was, "As weak as I am, how could I do that?"

In Portland, Ore., authorities seemed to have abandoned their common sense and good judgment when they pepper-sprayed and tasered Eunice Crowder, a blind 71-year-old woman. What began as an attempt by a city employee to remove unsightly shrubs and trash from the handicapped woman's yard ended in a show of what many believe to be excessive force. After the city employees began to remove her belongings from her yard, Crowder became concerned that a 90-year-old wagon, which was a family heirloom, had been placed in the truck to be hauled away with her other belongings. She told the city employees that she was concerned about the wagon, explained why it was so important to her and asked if she could enter their truck to search for it. When the elderly woman entered the truck in search of her treasure, after being told not to, the city employees called the police. When the police showed up, the situation worsened. Crowder had one foot on the curb and the other on the bumper of the trailer when one of the officers stepped on her foot. Crowder, being blind, asked who it was. Moments later, one of the officers struck her on the head-which dislodged her prosthetic eye, kicked her in the back and pepper-sprayed her in the face.

Students are also facing these issues in schools across America through strict zero tolerance policies. When a high school junior in Kentucky wrote a story about zombies taking over his high school, he was sent to the principal's office. School officials then contacted the police, which led to a search of the student's home and his arrest. Despite the student's plea that the story was merely fiction, he was charged with second-degree felony terrorist threatening. What began as a creative story, the kind thousands of kids have written, ended in a permanent criminal charge that will haunt this young man for the rest of his life.

As one commentator noted, "Kids have been kicked out of school for possession of Midol, Tylenol, Alka Seltzer, cough drops and Scope mouthwash-contraband that violates zero tolerance anti-drug policies. Students have been expelled for Halloween costumes that included paper swords and fake spiked knuckles, as well as for possessing rubber bands, slingshots and toy guns-all violations of anti-weapons policies."

While many of these shocking stories go unnoticed, experts see an alarming trend in many small pockets of America. In fact, a report issued by Human Rights Watch suggests that abuse by public officials against average citizens for minor, often innocent, acts "remains one of the most serious and divisive human rights violations in the United States."

These are the questions we need to ask ourselves in our local community: Are we really any safer? Does the punishment really fit the crime? Have we lost our common sense in order to secure a false sense of safety?

I don't know about you, but I don't think I'm going to sleep any better tonight just because these local "criminals" were taken off the streets or suspended from school.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org.

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