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Heed Amnesty’s sobering alarm

Even if one agrees with the list of criticisms in Amnesty International’s latest country report, the phrase still is jarring: human rights abuses in the United States (see story Amnesty targets U.S. abuses).

One Midwest paper harrumphed that comparing the United States with some “Third World hellhole” missed the mark. “If Amnesty is truly serious about addressing gross system-wide violations of the human rights of those accused of crimes, it can find more fertile ground away from America’s shores.”

That is an understandable reaction. After all, isn’t the United States the defender of human rights, the protector of freedom and the world’s leading advocate of democracy?

In many ways the answer is yes on all counts. Yet in so many other ways we have departed from that reputation and from the images that so easily trip off the tongue. The 153-page report, “Rights for All,” is best taken as a wake-up call from outside observers who may have the optimum vantage point for spotting dangerous erosion of the United States’ enviable justice system.

Amnesty International has gained a well-deserved credibility throughout the world for its evenhanded assessment of human rights abuses. Its monitoring transcends national interests and ideologies. The Nobel Peace Prize it received in 1977 is but one testament to its reputation.

The countless political prisoners who have been spared or whose horror stories have not been left in some subterranean torture chamber are proof of the organization’s powerful work.

So one can only presume that Amnesty is not out to undermine its credibility by making frivolous claims about the most influential and powerful country on earth.

Stepping back from the sense of effrontery and looking at the simple reporting done by Amnesty is a sobering exercise. The report undermines the presumption that in a society as open and free as that of the United States, all incidents of police brutality, all violations of the rights of immigrants, all cases of mistreatment of prisoners are aberrations and not part of the system.

The report offers a portrait of a side of America -- the unflattering parts of the city upon a hill -- that is difficult to view. Perhaps it can be brought to light only by those who, first, care deeply about our model of freedoms, and, second, have a bit of distance and can see the parts of the city that are crumbling.

As readers of these pages are aware, Amnesty is not the first group to raise serious criticism of the U.S. justice system, of the violence and racism that pervade the system, of the relentless march to execute criminals and the increasingly harsh treatment of immigrants.

However, all of those elements compiled in graphic detail in one report make a compelling case for action.

If, by comparison, we are nothing like a “Third World hellhole,” we also are increasingly distant in some of our practices from our peers in the community of Western nations.

We would do well to pay careful attention to the Amnesty report. It isn’t necessary to sink to the level of the most barbaric before recognizing that something is wrong.

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998