The Body Baggers of Iraq
Truthdig Radio airs every Wednesday at 2 p.m. in Los Angeles on 90.7 KPFK. If you can’t listen live, starting on Wednesday nights look for the podcast and transcript of each week’s show right here on Truthdig.
On this week’s episode of Truthdig Radio in collaboration with KPFK: Unconstitutionally crowded prisons, battlefield medicine, a very special segment on the Marines who collect their dead in Iraq, and just a little bit of Jesus. Plus: Reese Erlich reports from Egypt.
Click to listen to the show, or continue reading the full transcript below.
0:33 – Reese Erlich reports from Egypt.
4:25 – David Hnida on his experiences as a doctor in Iraq.
20:00 – Eunice Wong performs a reading based on Jess Goodell’s book “Shade It Black.”
36:11 – David Muhammad on California’s unconstitutional prison system.
48:22 – Michael Long on religion and pacifism.
This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer, managing editor of Truthdig.com. On today’s show, we’ve got unconstitutionally crowded prisons; battlefield medicine; a very special segment on the body baggers of Iraq; and just a little bit of Jesus. But first, we travel to Egypt.
* * *Reese Erlich:
[Tahrir singing] A group of protesters sing and clap enthusiastically on the outskirts of Tahrir Square. They praise the success of the Egyptian revolution. Standing nearby, Shimaa Helmy, a biotechnology student, says the large turnout to this rally shows the Egyptian revolution has ongoing support.
Shimaa Helmy: “We feel like our revolution is being taken over by other people who didn’t take part in it, and we feel like there’s something wrong going on. So we’re kind of trying to push the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Around 10,000 civilians—most of them are youth—are facing military trials, which is something totally against what we are calling for.”
Reese Erlich: Khalid Shalid is a medical doctor who helped form a hospital committee to support the revolution.
Khalid Shalid: “Forty percent of Egyptians are living below the poverty line, less than $1 per day. They haven’t anything … four months after the revolution, they haven’t felt any change. And that’s why they are here today. We are looking for a minimum wage for the Egyptians of 1,200 pounds for everyone; it’s about less than 200 U.S. dollars.”
Reese Erlich: Protesters acknowledge, however, that while they have significant support, they have also alienated some in the broader society. Shimaa Helmy explains.
Shimaa Helmy: “We’re trying to raise awareness in the streets, because people are starting to hate the uprising. The prices are getting high, and people think that the reason is the revolution. So we’re trying to convince people that what we are doing is for you, not just for us.”
Reese Erlich: And you don’t have to go far to find some of those alienated people. [Call to prayer mixed with traffic sounds] The conservative Islamic group, the Moslem Brotherhood, exercises considerable influence among peasant farmers, the urban poor, and sections of the middle class. Interviewed after Friday prayers at a local mosque, truck driver Ahmad Fathi reflects that conservative viewpoint.
Ahmad Fathi: “We should give the government some time. We shouldn’t have sit-ins and demonstrations every day. We need time for things to get back to normal.”
Reese Erlich: [Copt rally chanting slogans] In another part of town, Coptic Christians gathered several weeks ago to protest the burning of two churches by extremist Muslims. Father Antonius, a Christian leader, complains that so far, the military government has not arrested and prosecuted the arsonists.
Father Antonius: “We want to open all the Christian churches and put on trial all the perpetrators who have attacked us. We want justice.”
Reese Erlich: [Tahrir Square chants] The overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship in February has unleashed a volatile mix of political, economic and religious forces in Egypt. Tarek Shalaby, a Tahrir Square leader, says the very future of the revolution is at stake.
Tarek Shalaby: “If we give up now, we might end up at a worse position than we were pre-January 25.”
Reese Erlich: For Truthdig, I’m Reese Erlich—Cairo.
Peter Scheer: Reese Erlich received a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for his reporting in Egypt.
* * *Peter Scheer:
This is Truthdig Radio. Narda Zacchino and Josh Scheer in studio speaking with Dave Hnida, who is the author of “Paradise General: Riding the Surge at a Combat Hospital in Iraq,” now available in paperback.
Narda Zacchino: Hi, Dave. This is Narda Zacchino. I wanted to ask you, why did you leave your life as a physician in Colorado to go over to Iraq?
Dave Hnida: Well, I actually joined the army at an age when most people are retiring from the army. I was 48 years old, it was back in 2004. And the reasons for joining—actually, there were several reasons. I think first and foremost there was a need for physicians to help in the military during the war, and certainly you want to be an active participant in life; you want to help when the need is there. But from a personal standpoint, one reason is my dad was in the army in World War II … he was a lieutenant, and went through some very hard times. And so I grew up with a dad who carried the scars of war for my entire childhood, and then wound up trying to find release through alcohol. So I lived with an alcoholic dad growing up. And then he finally quit drinking and told me the stories about war, right before he died. And when that happened, I went down a road where I always felt as if I needed to experience what he experienced, to find out why he was the way he was. That’s one reason. Another reason is I was a school physician at Columbine High School. Most people have heard of Columbine, which in 1999 had the shootings. And nine of the 13 who died were at some point patients of mine in my practice. And so you go through a period where you just cannot get out of your head that you let them down; you let the other students and teachers and community down by allowing something like this to happen. And so you feel a sense that you need to give back somehow, repay, perhaps even going as far as using the word penance—you want to somehow make up for what you feel your failings are. So those are a couple of reasons for joining the army at, once again, an age when most people are actually leaving the military.
Narda Zacchino: Right. Now, so you were a trauma chief at one of the busiest combat support hospitals during the surge. And your hospital had an astounding survival rate of 98 percent. But I wanted to ask you a question that might sound controversial. It’s that this war is different from all other wars in that, in terms of the injuries—very, very severe injuries, but because of medical advances and whatnot the survival rate is greater. However, a lot of the victims come back in a much worse state, you know. And I remember seeing on the cover of a magazine, I think it was The New York Times magazine, an Iraq veteran who had, was a quadruple amputee. Amazing that he survived. So is this—when you’re working, struggling to save someone’s life, does this occur to you, what kind of life they’ll have afterwards?
Dave Hnida: Not while you’re doing it. In the time after leaving Iraq, those are the types of things that you have time to think about and ponder. But you also have to come to some position where you actually realize that you were given an impossible task: What do you do? Do you save someone who is going to lose multiple limbs? The way we worked is, our job was to not ask questions; we just needed to work to save the patient. And we really tried not to get involved in the ethical dilemmas of what is the quality of life going to be for this person? You know, if you really think about it, we often looked at it this way: Would you rather have someone come home without a limb, even three limbs, or would you rather have him not come home at all? And so your job was to try to get everyone home. And certainly, there are times where … and the group of doctors I worked with at this hospital, we still talk. And we still, I think, are haunted in some ways when we talk, see, communicate with veterans who have been seriously disabled. And we sometimes wonder, was this a good thing or a bad thing? It wasn’t our decision to make. We worked.
Josh Scheer: And in the book … it’s very tragic and everything else, but you also have a lot of gallows humor and talk about the other doctors you worked with, and how you were meeting them and describing them. Can you describe what’s it like? I mean, are they all 48, are they all…
Dave Hnida: We were a mix. We—you know, the Army stuck its computerized hand into this big jar and pulled out a bunch of names. And we lucked out; there were eight of us, and we were black, white, conservative, liberal, in the middle; youngest was 35, the oldest was 56. So we were across the spectrum, and we came from different backgrounds. I was new to the military; one of the other physicians was a West Point grad. And so we all brought different things to the table. But the key thing was, is that we all were reservists; we were civilians. We were the doctors who basically take care of you when you have to go see your doctor, and we volunteered to go over to serve. We were lucky in that we all got along and knew that we had to not just take care of our patients, we had to take care of each other. And that’s why I think we did well. We brought something to the table in terms of maybe a little piece of skill that maybe one of the other folks didn’t have. No one was ever afraid to ask for help; no one was ever afraid to take help. No one was ever afraid to admit that they needed assistance. We were a good group, we liked each other; and once again, we still talk. We—I just had a long conversation with my battle buddy. It was his birthday the other day, and we talked for an hour and a half on the phone. We still love each other; we still keep in contact.
Josh Scheer: I just want to reintroduce you as Dave Hnida, author of “Paradise General”—now in paperback—“Riding the Surge at a Combat Hospital in Iraq.”
Narda Zacchino: I’d like to ask you, Dave, did you ever treat Iraqi victims, or children, and if so, how did that go about?
Dave Hnida: I actually had a couple of deployments in Iraq, and depending on what was going on, there were times when you did take care of Iraqi citizens, the people of Iraq. But one of the biggest problems, especially in 2007, is we were so busy taking care of American soldiers, we knew that we could not be overwhelmed by the Iraqis killing each other. There was one day I remember in particular when there was a huge bomb blast in northern Iraq where more than 300 people were killed. We didn’t have the capacity to take care of everyone in the Iraqi medical system, or those who needed to get into the system; we needed to save our beds and our facilities for American soldiers. Now, if we had civilians who came to the gate, it was tough to turn them away. If we had civilians who got perhaps caught in a cross fire, we took care of them as well—and probably most, the biggest dilemma we had was taking care of the Iraqi insurgents, those who were trying to kill us. If you had someone come in who was an insurgent, who perhaps let’s say was shot after planting an IED, you might have three Americans who were wounded by that IED, had lost some limbs, and then the insurgent was wounded after planting the IED and he was in worse shape—your job was actually to take care of the insurgent first, because the rule was “the worst goes first.” That doesn’t mean the American soldiers didn’t get the best of care; they were not ignored in any way, but it was an ethical dilemma for us: How do you take care of the enemy? And that is exactly what we had to do more times than we felt comfortable with.
Narda Zacchino: I wanted to ask you about your visit to Abu Ghraib prison, and …
Dave Hnida: Abu Ghraib prison was Saddam’s infamous prison, where…
Narda Zacchino: … and ours, as well [Laughs] …
Dave Hnida: … well, you know, by the … I was in Iraq in 2004, when the story came out about Abu Ghraib prison and the abuses that had taken place in the months previous to that. And at that time, the strict change in the rules in oversight went into place, in terms of how insurgents or detainees were cared for. Unfortunately, the stuff that happened before I got to Abu Ghraib—it happened, and it was awful, and it shouldn’t have happened. And I mean, there’s not much you can say … it’s horrific things done by a small number of Americans. But that being said, the time that I spent at Abu Ghraib was only during times when we would be passing through. I was a battalion surgeon for a military police battalion; we would pass through Abu Ghraib, we would sleep there. And what was interesting is the soldiers who staffed that facility, the Americans there at the time, they slept in the cells, and the cells had hooks in them; there were still blood stains; it was a place that was haunted by ghosts. And it was a very bad place to go through.
Josh Scheer: I’ll let you get out on this, I just want to know, what’s the need for doctors? I mean, how many doctors do we need? I mean, are we short-staffed?
Dave Hnida: From what I understand, is we’ve been short-staffed for forever. And it’s just gotten continuously worse. When I went back in 2007, we were supposed to have 15 doctors at the hospital I was assigned to, and eight of us wound up going. So as a result, we all had to do more than what we were comfortable doing. And that’s why we all had to help each other. We all had to make sure that people weren’t overworked, people got their sleep, people got their food, people had the help they needed in terms of their care of the soldiers. It was a situation where you had no choice; the situation was, there wasn’t and is not enough physicians and medical personnel, so you make do with what you can. And you do the best job you can do.
Narda Zacchino: I have a question about your private practice now. Do you care for any soldiers who have come back, any veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic or any war-related injuries?
Dave Hnida: I don’t personally do that. Right now I do an urgent-care type of practice, emergency medicine type of practice, not a private family practice per se, where you wind up doing that type of care. But I am involved in a number of programs here in Colorado, where I live, and do have a lot of contact with veterans. And my role with them is to help in any way I can—whether that be emotional support, whether that be making sure that they get the medical care they need, making sure that they have a job, making sure that they get the psychological help that they need.
Narda Zacchino: You’re a person who had survived both Columbine and its aftermath as well as tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think you either have a very, very strong constitution or an excellent analyst, a psychologist. So how do you cope with all of this? Do you just sort of put it aside?
Dave Hnida: You know, I think all of us carry around a little piece of … war is a bad thing. And war is something that if you’ve ever been in there, I think it causes you to lose a little piece of yourself. Because it’s not what mankind is supposed to be doing. And even if you go over and are in a war with the best of intentions, you still wind up paying a price. And one of the things we always say is, who cares for the caretakers? When I came back from my deployments, first thing I did is I made sure that I was talking to … I went to a psychologist. I talked to my friends. I talked to my pastor. I kept in touch with the other physicians that I worked with. I made sure that I had a support system built up to where I was able to cope. Now, I don’t … I don’t have nightmares, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about the war every day, and think about. … I can still see the faces of the people that I cared for. And this is years later. And I’m lucky, because I’m still here, and there are families who have an empty bedroom of someone who did not come back. Those are the ones that haunt me the most.
Josh Scheer: Well, thank you very much. We were talking with Dave Hnida, author of “Paradise General,” out in paperback now. I suggest you all read it. And thank you, Dave, again for joining us and telling your story.
Dave Hnida: Thank you so much for having me.
Josh Scheer: Have a great day.
Narda Zacchino: Bye-bye.
Dave Hnida: You too.
* * * Peter Scheer:
Jess Goodell volunteered to work in the Marine Corps’ Mortuary Affairs unit in Iraq. Her job was to collect the bodies and body parts of fallen Marines. She wrote a book about the experience called “Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq.” Here now are excerpts from Chris Hedges’ interview with Jess, read by classically trained actor and Truthdig contributor Eunice Wong.
* * *
“We went through everything. We would get everything that the body had on it when the Marine died. Everyone had a copy of The Rules of Engagement in their left breast pocket. You found notes that people had written to each other. You found lists. Lists were common, the things they wanted to do when they got home or food they wanted to eat. The most difficult was pictures. Everyone had a picture of their wife or their kids or their family. And then you had the younger kids who might be 18 years old and they had prom pictures or pictures next to what I imagine were their first cars. Everyone had a spoon in their flak jacket. There were pens and trash and wrappers and MRE food. All of it would get sent back [to the Marines’ homes].
“We all had the idea that at any point this could be us on the table. I think Marines thought that we went over there to die. And so people wrote letters saying ‘If I die I want you to know I love you.’ ‘I want my car to go to my younger brother.’ Things like that. They carried those letters on their bodies. We had a Marine that we processed and going through his wallet he had a picture of a sonogram of a fetus his wife had sent him. And a lot of Marines had tattooed their vital information under an armpit. It was called a meat tag.
“Some things were not uncommon enough, like a suicide note. We had a Marine who was in a port-a-john when he blew his face off. We had another Marine who shot himself through the neck. Often they would do it in the corner of a bunker or an abandoned building. We had a couple that did it in port-a-johns. We had to go in and peel and pull off chunks of flesh and brain tissue that had sprayed the walls. We sent the suicide notes home with the bodies.
“We had the paperwork to do fingerprinting, but we started getting bodies in which there weren’t any hands or we would get bodies that were just meat. Very quickly it became irrelevant to have a fingerprinting page to fill out. By the time we would get a body it might have been a while and rigor mortis had already set in. Their hands were usually clenched as if they were still holding their rifle.
“We received a call one day that an IED exploded under an Army convoy that was crossing a bridge. It had literally shot a seven-ton truck over the side and down into a ravine. We had on our white plastic suits and face masks and our gloves, and I was with a Marine named Pineda. I was coming around the Humvee, and there was a spot on the ground that was a circle. I looked at it and I thought well, something must have exploded here, or near here. I looked in and saw a boot. Then I noticed the boot had a foot in it. The body of the assistant driver was trapped in the vehicle. All of his body was in the vehicle; we had to crawl in there to get it out. Pineda and I pulled the burnt upper torso from the truck. Then we removed a leg. Some of the remains had to be scooped up by putting our hands together as though we were cupping water. That was very common. A lot of the deaths were from IEDs or explosions. You might have an upper torso but you needed to scoop the rest of the remains into a body bag. It was very common to have body bags that when you picked them up they would sink in the middle because they were filled with flesh.
“Our platoon was to the Marines what the Marines are to much of America: We did things that had to be done but no one wanted to know about. The other Marines knew what we did, but they did not want to think it could happen to them. We were different from the other Marines. The smell of death permeated our clothes, hair, skin, fingers. Our cammies would be stained with blood or with brains. When you scoop up the meat it often would get on the cuffs of our shirts. You could smell it, even after you took off your gloves. We weren’t washing our cammies every day. Your cuff comes to your face when you eat. We had a constant smell like rotten meat, which I guess is what it was since often the bodies had been in the sun and the heat for a long time.
“The sun does horrible things to dead skin. It makes the skin slide off the body; when the man is lifted, the skin detaches itself from the layer beneath and slides around on itself. We lost two men from our original platoon who said that they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do it anymore, and left. One would take a box of Nyquil tablets every day and drink as much cold medicine as he could get his hands on, but that only seemed to make matters worse. He had gone out on a particularly difficult convoy, to a tank that had been blown up, obliterated except for the tracks, leaving thousands of body parts, fingers and testicles and ears and tiny scraps of tissue to be collected. It was shortly after that when I heard that he was medevaced out.
“One of our tougher days occurred after a platoon of Marines was on a security patrol. When they finished, they did a head count and realized that two Marines were missing. An investigation charted the route the platoon had followed, and we were sent out to find them. At one point, the Marines were walking along the shore of a lake. Navy divers accompanied us, and soon they found the two. By the time they were pulled from the lake, they had been submerged for quite a while. The water made the remains swell. One man was so bloated and misshapen that we had difficulty carrying him properly in the litter. His neck was as wide as his bloated head, and his stomach jutted out like a barrel. His testicles were the size of cantaloupes. His face was white and puffy and thick. Not fat, but thick. It was unreal. He looked like a movie prop, with thick, gray, waxy skin and the thick purple lips. We couldn’t stop looking at these bodies because they were so out of proportion and so disfigured and because, still, they looked like us.
“One time, several Marines were killed at once. Our Marines returned to the bunker with seven or eight body bags filled with flesh. We had clean body bags set up so we could sort the flesh. Sometimes things come in with nametags. Or sometimes one is Hispanic and you could tell who was Hispanic and who was the white guy. We tried separating flesh. It was ridiculous. We would open a body bag and there was nothing but vaporized flesh. There were not four hands or a whole leg in a bag. We tried to distribute the mush evenly throughout the bags. We had the last body bag come in. We opened it up and it was filled with the heads. I looked at four before looking away. Not only did we have to look at them, we had to pick them up and figure out who it belonged to. The eyes were looking back at us. We saw so much throughout the eight months of the program, and we managed to get used to a lot of it. But the heads worked the other way. They affected us more strongly as time passed.
“I sent an email to my mother about what was happening with the faces. I told her about one Marine in particular who had been at the bunker for a couple of days, and how I was getting a very bad feeling from him. I had this feeling that something awful had occurred. The way he had come in and stiffened he had this look that made my stomach curl. It looked angry. Other faces looked fearful and hurt, as though they had received death. But this face looked like he had given death. Not wanting to alarm my mother, I was a little vague about the impact he was having on me. Well, she assumed I was talking about a live Marine, and offered me advice on what I should do to avoid him and how I should report him to the higher-ups. And later I noticed I had addressed my email to ‘mommy.’
“There was always a heaviness in the air. It felt like I was being watched. We all started hearing and feeling the souls of the dead we had processed and housed. We would feel hands on our shoulders or hands on our heads. Everyone had stories of sounds they heard or things they had felt. One time, the base was on high alert because intel said we were going to be attacked that night. The chief warrant officer called every Marine to the bunker and told us we were all going to sleep there that night. Ten or 12 of us wouldn’t have a place to sleep, so several of us tried to sleep on the litters—what we carried the remains on. And suddenly one Marine flew off his litter, as though he had been catapulted. He swore he had been pushed off. Strong, fearless, exhausted men stood by their empty litters, shaken and unable to get back on. We had an entire bunker to sleep in that night, but we ended up together in one corner. Combat-hardened Marines.
“On another night, Pineda and I were assigned to process a Marine. He was fully dressed in his cammies and his whole body was intact. His hands were lying folded across his stomach. I looked at his chest and saw that it was moving. I spun around and hid. He wasn’t dead. He wasn’t dead, and I didn’t know what to do. The doc said ‘Just wait.’ ‘Just wait? Wait for what?’ I asked. ‘There’s nothing we can do,’ the doc said. ‘Just wait.’ ‘People don’t wait for this sort of thing,’ I protested to Pineda. ‘What are we waiting for? What if this Marine was your brother, would we wait?’ Pineda and I stood there for a couple of minutes that passed like hours, until the young man died. I stormed out of the bunker—I just walked out, which is something Marines cannot do. But I was so angry. And I was just a kid, who two or three years earlier had been playing the saxophone in high school band.
“Every single Marine I know goes to Iraq to help. While I was there, that is what I thought. That is why I volunteered. I thought I was going to help the Iraqis. I know better now. We did the dirty work. We were used by the government. The military knows that young, single men are dangerous. We breed it in Marines; we push the testosterone; we don’t want them educated; they were deprived of a lot, and rewarded with very little. It keeps us at ground level; we cannot question anyone; we do what we are told.
“I am still in contact with most of the people I knew. They are not coping. One lives in VA [Veterans Affairs], constantly seeing psychologists and psychiatrists. One was kicked out of the Marines for three DUIs. Another was kicked out because he took cocaine. Those who have gotten out are living below the poverty level. And what people do to cope is re-enlist. When they re-enlist they do better. They function. I am the only one who went to school of the 18 Marines in Mortuary Affairs. But I am in counseling at the VA. I have been diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety, depression and substance abuse. What separates me from them is that I have a great support system and I found my salvation in my education.
“War is disgusting and horrific. It never leaves the people who were involved in it. The damage is far greater than the lists of casualties or cost in dollars. It permeates lifestyles. It infects cultures and people and worldviews. The war is never over for us. The fighting stops. The troops get called back. But the war goes on for those damaged by war.
“I received a text from one Mortuary Affairs Marine after he tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide: ‘I’ve got $2,000 in the bank,’ his message read. ‘Let’s meet in NYC and go out with a bang.’
“Before we left camp TQ, every Marine was told to see a counselor. There was no debriefing, there was no attempt to communicate with us in a therapeutic way, or to encourage us to talk to each other. He didn’t tell us that what we saw and did in Iraq we’d never forget. He didn’t say that the images would keep us awake all night in a sweat, or that we’d never fully rid ourselves of the smell of death, or that we wouldn’t be able to eat or leave our parents’ house or our own apartments for months, or that we’d shoot at neighborhood kids from a window or pop 60 pills a day, or wander the streets of our hometown in a stupor. The counselor didn’t tell us that whole spheres of our lives and basic aspects of ourselves were gone.”
Peter Scheer: For more on Jess Goodell’s book, go to ShadeItBlack.com. Eunice Wong, who edited and performed the piece you just heard, can be found at EuniceWong.com.
* * *
(continued)Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer in the studio with Josh Scheer, and we’re speaking with David Muhammad, who is the chief probation officer of the Alameda County Probation Department. He’s also the author of an article called “Justice Best Administered Local.” And we’re here to talk about the California prison system, which is overcrowded by some 70,000 inmates, in our guest’s estimation, to the point where the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled it unconstitutional because of inhumane treatment. So you argue that the solution is this bill in California, AB 109 that would transfer some inmates to local facilities. Can you explain why?
David Muhammad: Yes. California prisons are built to hold, right now, 80,000 people. And there’s a little over 140,000 people in those prisons, and there’s an additional 10,000 in prisons outside of California that the state has sent them to because of this overcrowding issue. And California’s prison overcrowding issue is primarily two things: violations of probation and parole, people who are technical violators of probation and parole who get state prison time; and, secondly, lower-level offenders who are convicted, who have several convictions of lower-level, nonviolent crimes who end up in state prison. Two populations that don’t necessarily need to be in state prison. Not that nothing needs to happen to this population, but state prison, as the most serious consequence of criminal behavior in the state, should be for those people who have committed serious crimes. And so the governor has proposed a realignment plan to realign criminal justice to the counties throughout the state, a partial realignment. And so his proposal is that nonviolent, nonserious offenders who are in state prison, when they get out of state prison, instead of being supervised by parole—a state function—they would be supervised by probation, a local county function. Secondly, any new people who commit nonserious, nonviolent crimes, they would never be allowed to go to state prison. They could do local county jail time, and they could have alternatives like drug treatment—because we’re mostly talking about drug offenders here. They could do drug treatment, vocational training, residential programs, or even electronic monitoring, or some version of county jail and probation time. The third provision of that, on that adult side—there’s a juvenile version of it as well—but the third provision on the adult side is that violators of probation and parole couldn’t be violated and sent to state prison. They could be violated and sent to county jail, they could have other sanctions like electronic monitoring, ankle bracelet, they’ve got to go to a drug treatment program, they’ve got to do community service—or even up to three years in county jail. This is a reasonable solution to this problem; it does not—despite some of the fear-mongering and the inaccurate portrayals in the media—it does not have anybody get out of jail early. It means that they get out and they have local supervision, and any new people in this population would be dealt with locally as well, where justice is better administered on the local level.
Josh Scheer: And there’s been a lot of fear-mongering, hasn’t there…
David Muhammad: There has been. They said, oh, the Supreme Court, they’re going to release 44,000 people back into our communities and they’re all going to wreak havoc. And so the governor’s plan would ultimately not have a single person released early. There’s some time issues between how long it would take to implement AB 109, which is the legislation that is creating a realignment, and the two-year mandate. But it’s very likely that the two can meet, which would mean that not a single person is released early. All the people were even talking about changing their status from state to county, for all nonserious nonviolent offenders that in many of the states, they don’t even end up in state prison anyway. And so the fear-mongering really has been misplaced. It’s good for headlines, right? ‘Supreme Court Orders 40,000 Inmates Released Immediately.’ Right, so it certainly sells papers and magazines, but it’s just simply not true.
Peter Scheer: And how much is California’s three strikes law, which essentially throws people away after they commit three felonies, to blame for the overcrowded prison population?
David Muhammad: It’s a great question. And there’s not enough good data around this. The three-strikers aren’t affected by this at all; they’re not affected by the Supreme Court decision, they’re not affected by the AB 109 realignment legislation. So nothing different is going to happen to them. There is pending legislation that says the third strike that you get life in prison for has to be a serious or violent offense. Because there is very reasonable lawsuits that say this is cruel and unusual punishment. If I steal from the store and get 25 to life for that, there’s something wrong with that. But if that is my third felony—and I’m not saying we do nothing. If someone has three felonies, we need some serious intervention, and there is some discussion that they need to be removed from society. But should you get 25 years to life for stealing from the store? Which, we have some cases that that actually happened. And so there’s a lot of support around legislation that has been introduced into the California Legislature that would say that third strike has to be a serious or violent offense.
Peter Scheer: So, what is the … this AB 109 would move a lot of people into county jails. What is the experiential difference between a state prison and a county jail? What is it like in there?
David Muhammad: It’s a good question. And just one further point of clarification: There’s technically nobody going from state prison to county jail in this.
Peter Scheer: OK.
David Muhammad: It just means when you get out of state prison …you’re going to go back to your communities anyway, right? … these are people coming home to these communities anyway; nothing different at all. It just means instead of being supervised by state parole, you’re supervised by county probation, which the majority of citizens have no idea what the difference is. [Laughs] So, but what changes is, any new people who come under this classification of nonviolent, nonserious offender, they can never go to state prison. They do remain in county jail. So these are all people who were in county jail, and what often happens with this population is you get, let’s say, a two-year or a three-year sentence. With a three-year sentence, you get time served for good behavior and you get time—for every day you serve in state prison, you can get a day off of your sentence in county jail; it’s 85 percent. But that changes with this legislation…
Josh Scheer: Before you were the … chief probation officer of Alameda County, you were also the deputy commissioner of probation in the state of New York…. And in New York, you cut the prison population and … you had a drop in crime. So it’s about, going back to the fear-mongering, you can cut the prison population and I guess now they’re running about 50 percent, something like that?
David Muhammad: Yeah. It’s extraordinary. There’s three states—I think it’s Kentucky, New Jersey and New York, but particularly New York—that have done both: cut the prison population and reduced the crime rate. New York City in 1990 had 2,400 murders. In 2009, they had 400 murders. Right? A population of 8 million people. So proportionately, it’s the safest big city in the country. While the state prison system, which is vast majority people from New York City, has been drastically reduced. The New York State prisons are currently at 50 percent capacity; they have half the amount of people that they are built to hold, and now Gov. Cuomo in New York is really talking about closing facilities, consolidating. And so here you have California, which is at a hundred and, I think, seventy percent capacity. And some of the fear-mongering gets in the way of doing sensible, financially sensible, socially sensible reforms that can both protect public safety and reduce the enormous costs of corrections in the state.
Josh Scheer: And then, to get on this, this is a budget measure by the governor, but this is also something about rehabilitation versus incarceration, right? …
David Muhammad: Yeah, this is really interesting, though. Michelle Alexander, who recently wrote a book, “The New Jim Crow,” which talks about incarceration, she had an interesting op-ed piece in The New York Times where she was complaining that some of these reforms were happening in the name of fiscal reform, right? So she mentioned this very interesting piece that Newt Gingrich and the NAACP had a joint press conference about prison reform. You know, interesting bedfellows [Laughs]. But AB 109 is about budget cuts, right? Now, it achieves some well, good intended reform … but ultimately, it’s about budget cuts. Now I, for one, say however we can get what we need to better public safety, better corrections, and secondly, more efficient, less costly government—and I think we can get it done, we can get both done. But yes, this is ultimately about cutting the California Department of Corrections’ budget, the spending that we put on corrections in this state, reducing it, and in so doing shifting some of those costs to local governments.
Peter Scheer: I’m really struck by this, there was an episode of “This American Life” recently where they talked about the prison system and how there’s no political advantage to freeing people who may be not a threat to society, and are just sort of cast aside in prison. How realistic is this? It seems like it makes a lot of sense, what was done in New York makes a lot of sense. So how are these programs achieved when they are, given that people generally approve of politicians who are, quote unquote, “tough on crime”? Meanwhile we’ve got this expanding prison state that exists here.
David Muhammad: I think luckily, now, we have some politicians that have learned lessons, and have a broader view on what works. And so you have a state attorney general, Kamala Harris, who—I love her saying, is “Be smart on crime”; that’s what we need to be. And so the bottom line is, treatment and rehabilitation are far more effective and far less costly than incarceration. More than 90 percent of the people who are incarcerated are coming home at some point, and if all we do is warehouse them, don’t provide any education or treatment, they’re going to come out worse; we haven’t developed their communities, we haven’t helped develop them. And so this is about being smart on crime, spending money on more rehabilitation, on more treatment, on more local services, on more local coordination. And I think people are beginning to get that. And so I think there is actually a lot of likelihood that this is going to go forward. Part of that likelihood is the other part: that incarceration is expensive. It costs the state of California $50,000 per year to incarcerate an adult inmate, $230,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile. And so those costs, in this very difficult budget climate, are just unreasonable. And we have to change the system. When you have a system that is far too costly and ineffective, it’s almost a no-brainer that we need to make significant changes.
Peter Scheer: Well, thanks so much for enlightening us today. We’ll let you get back to work.
David Muhammad: Absolutely, thank you all.
Josh Scheer: Thank you.
Peter Scheer: David Muhammad is chief probation officer of the Alameda County Probation Department.
* * *
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio, and we’re speaking with Michael Long, a professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown College. And that’s convenient, because those are the two subjects we want to talk to you about. Welcome.
Michael Long: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.
Josh Scheer: So what is a Christian nonviolent history?
Michael Long: I’m sorry, say that again?
Josh Scheer: Oh, I was saying, let’s just get into your book [“Christian Peace and Nonviolence: A Documentary History”]. What is the history of Christian nonviolence?
Michael Long: It’s a big history. I guess that’s one of the main points that I wanted to emphasize. Peace runs from the beginning of Christianity up to the present day, and there are no breaks along the way. One might think that there would be breaks, because of the Crusades and other big events in which Christians have slaughtered lots of other people, millions of other people. But there are no breaks of peace themes in Christian writings and practices through the years.
Josh Scheer: And now, there’s a quote that was in your book from John Haynes Holmes, which is “If war is right, then Christianity is … false, a lie.” I mean, do you think that’s a common thread, besides the Crusades and some other … ?
Michael Long: I think it’s a common thread in the writings that I include in the book. And I believe that most of the writers begin with Jesus’ words, love your enemies, and then go from there. And they take those words—it’s really constitutive of Christian convictions; it’s not something that follows from general Christian beliefs, but it is Christianity. It’s the heart of Christianity, this theme of nonviolence, the theme of loving your enemies. That is what Christianity is all about, most of these writers believe.
Peter Scheer: Has the idea of religion—I’m thinking of the great tradition in America of religious peace and progressivism—and I’m wondering if you feel like religion has been hijacked in this country by extremists.
Michael Long: Well, I don’t know whether Christianity has been hijacked by extremists, because for God’s sake, there are a lot of death-dealing themes in the Bible—in the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament. And I do not want to diminish that at all; you can find God calling for the slaughter of innocents in the Hebrew scriptures; you can find God in the New Testament who sends people to hell for the rest of their lives, and that’s a rather, that’s a practice that runs against just war theory, which calls for proportionate justice. And so you can find a God in the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament who calls for a lot of deaths …. And I don’t want to say that people who follow that God have hijacked religion, because that God is in Christianity as well. What I want to do is say that there’s another God there that you need to tend to; there are a couple of different Gods in the Bible. And by saying this, I’m sure I’ll just set off a lot of people. But there are different Gods in the Bible, there are different visions of Jesus in the Bible. And the one that I try to tend to is the nonviolent Jesus.
Josh Scheer: But that’s not a fringe sect of Christianity, right? I mean, the nonviolent…
Michael Long: I don’t think it’s a fringe sect, no. Let’s be clear, though; I think if we were to take a poll of Christians, almost…a vast majority of them would be people who believe in either Crusade theory or just war theory. We have a president now who is, who claims to be a Christian, and yet is engaged in how many wars? President George W. Bush claimed to be a Christian, and yet led major wars. … President Clinton claimed to be a Christian. For God’s sake, I went to his church in Washington, D.C., and he carried out military engagement after military engagement. I think most Christian leaders believe in things like just war theory and, to be fair, carrying out violence for humanitarian reasons. But there is this group of dissenters, and those are the people who are nonviolent practitioners of the faith. … I think that they’re in the minority, I really do. But though they’re in the minority, they are, I believe, the essence of Christianity, because of Jesus’ teachings: Love your enemies. It all begins with that.
Josh Scheer: You know, I remember being, a friend of mine being on a religious cruise, and it was right after, I believe, the war in Iraq started. And people were getting very fired up about, you know, we’ve got to do this and we’ve got to do this. My friend, who happened to be liberal, his brother was doing the cruise, said doesn’t the Bible say thou shall not kill, or thou shall not murder? And … everyone kind of shushed him down, but this priest they had on the stage whispered to him later that he was right.
Michael Long: He whispered to him … [Laughs]
Peter Scheer: Yeah, that’s very courageous of him. [Laughter] Let me just ask you, he brings up the Iraq War—George W. Bush claimed to be taking instruction from God. And you say there’s this minority that’s maybe more in keeping with the Bible and Jesus’ teachings. Why is one group more legitimate than the other?
Michael Long: Well, I think it’s difficult to find a crusade theory in Jesus’ words or practices. I think George W. Bush would be hard-pressed to say that Jesus told him to go to war. I mean, he didn’t say that, and I don’t think anybody would say that, because the Jesus that we know of is the Jesus who said love your enemies; the Jesus who said turn the other cheek; the Jesus who died nonviolently on the cross; the Jesus who didn’t fight back, who told his disciples to put down their swords, said those who take up the sword will die by the sword. So this is the Jesus that we know, and people who move away from that Jesus are moving away from the essence of Christianity, I believe. And that’s why I think that you can rank these things. I think you can say that pacifism, Christian pacifism, is much more in line with the teachings of Jesus than the crusade war theory of George W. Bush, or the just war theory of Barack Obama. Those two latter ones are just out of sync with the one they call lord, Jesus. In fact, they’re so far away from Jesus they don’t know it. They’re blinded by their convictions about the United States; they’re blinded by convictions about U.S. exceptionalism; they’re blinded by just about everything except Jesus’ commitment to nonviolence. So I’m always sitting there at presidential debates, at the time when they’re talking about war, thinking to myself, why doesn’t somebody ask these guys how they can square their convictions about war with their convictions about faith?
Josh Scheer: And then, to go into a war that was long since over, but Frederick Douglass, and talking about pacifism, even though slavery was a big part of his life, being against the Civil War.
Michael Long: Yeah. Well, what’s interesting is that the Civil War was a really difficult time for pacifists. Because most of them, as you rightly note, are social liberals. And so the Civil War was a great cause for social liberals, and you can find a lot of pacifists at that point putting aside their pacifist convictions for the cause of liberation of slaves. And while that is understandable, there are some like Joshua Blanchard who say that those who put aside their convictions, like as Lucretia Mott did, as some of the major abolitionists did, were simple faulty, and they were faulty because they were no longer following their Christian convictions; they were allowing others, other convictions to trump them. But yeah, that was a really tough war, and so was World War II; that was a very tough war for pacifists. Why? Because of Hitler, you know. And Hitler was depicted as this huge monstrosity of evil, and most Americans believed that. But you did have folks like Bayard Rustin, who ended up organizing the march on Washington in 1963, standing against even World War II. And they did it based on their Christian convictions. You know, what’s really fascinating about this is that I remember somebody asking Archbishop Desmond Tutu—who’s a great figure for pacifists, and especially Christian pacifists—whether he believed in war and using force. And he replied that—something like this, I don’t have it verbatim, but he said something like this: Somebody needs to stop Hitler from throwing the babies in the gas chambers. And that’s a really powerful argument; it really is. And pacifists don’t have a great answer for that, other than to say you should live the type of life that won’t get us to that point, where people are throwing babies into gas chambers.
Peter Scheer: But when they are …
Michael Long: But when they are, what do you do? You do—Tolstoy makes this point—you do everything you possibly can; you can interpose your body between the oppressor and the victim, you can offer your body instead, you can shout at somebody, you can do everything except harm them physically and kill them.
Peter Scheer: Let me just ask you a question as we wrap it up. I confess to a bit of ignorance about, well, a bit—a lot of ignorance about religion. And in Googling in preparation for this, I see this line in the Bible that Jesus is supposed to have said: “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword.” What is that?
Michael Long: Well, that’s a line [laughter] Jesus is reported to have said. Did he say that? I don’t know, but I do know this much: He wasn’t talking about a physical sword that would kill people. It’s silly and absurd for people to point to that line and to say that there’s justification for Jesus granting me the permission to go to war and kill people. That’s not what he meant. He talked about—it’s in reference to the power of the faith even dividing families; it’s a metaphorical use of the word sword. Every other piece of evidence that we have from Jesus’ life suggests that he was somebody who believed in nonviolence and pacifism … as part of his faith journey with God.
Peter Scheer: I guess that’s what happens when a rhetorical flourish becomes hearsay, and then translated a thousand times. Well, I have to just end it here, but thank you, Michael Long, so much for joining us.
Michael Long: You bet, my pleasure.
Peter Scheer: Michael Long is a professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown College.
That’s it for this week’s show. Join us again next Wednesday at 2 on KPFK or anytime online at Truthdig.com. Thanks to our guests, Dave Hnida, David Muhammad and Michael Long. Thanks also to our board-op Jee, engineer Stan Misraje and Alan Minsky. For Reese Erlich, Narda Zacchino, Eunice Wong and the Scheer brothers, thanks for listening.