Recent readings of mine about two men who were subjected to judicial violence prompt this post, but the character of the two figures in question couldn't be more different. The first is the late Dr Tenzin Choedrak who was the Dalai Lama's personal physician both before and after he spent seventeen years imprisoned by the Chinese government. The other is Thomas Silverstein, a member of a white racist prison gang in America called the Aryan Brotherhood (his surprising Jewish surname came from his stepfather, which perhaps explains why he was admitted into a criminal organization of White Supremacists), who is now kept in solitary confinement in the ADX Florence penitentiary, the so called "Supermax" prison that holds the most notorious prisoners in the US penal system. There is no question that Choedrak was entirely innocent of any crimes and under the most extreme duress displayed the qualities of the bodhisattva that he undoubtedly was. In contrast, Silverstein is a convicted murderer who gained a reputation for fearsome violence in some of the worst prisons in America. From these bare facts we might be led to conclude that Choedrak was an undeserving victim of injustice, whereas Silverstein deserves the severe punishment that he will continue to suffer until he dies. But my interest here is not so much about the guilt or innocence of either man, but concerns how violence and the threat of it conditions our understanding of justice and even of morality. Although most us claim to deplore violence, fearing the violence of which others are capable leads us to countenance institutions in which violence is dispensed as a supposedly fair expression of justice. Perhaps this is necessary, at least in some cases, but we err grievously if we suppose that the right by which society claims to exercise such violence is tantamount to justice itself. But let's first consider the stories of the two men in question.
In his affecting memoir, The Rainbow Palace, Choedrak recalls the rather idyllic country that Tibet had been before the Communists conquered it. Yet, he himself did not enjoy a happy childhood as he lost his mother when he was a small child and was raised by a stepmother who showed him little affection and occasionally mistreated him, as well. While still a boy, he was sent to a monastery to become a monk, where he adapted to the rigours of monastic life and eventually found his calling as a doctor. By his own account, Choedrak was not a particularly gifted student, but his sense of vocation was strong and through diligence he managed to excel in his studies. Because of his accomplishments he was made the personal physician to Tenzin Gyatso, the recently installed Dalai Lama and became close to both the young monarch and his family. All of that changed drastically, however, once the Chinese Army took over Tibet, eventually forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India, leaving Tibetans to suffer the tyrannical rule that continues oppress the country to the present day. Choedrak himself was arrested and imprisoned for being a member of "the Dalai clique" and refusing to denounce the spiritual and temporal leader that the Chinese still call "the wolf in sheep's clothing." Accused of spying, Choedrak was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but in the event he actually spent seventeen years in confinement where he routinely suffered torture, beatings and starvation, all for refusing to denounce his patron and admitting to crimes that his persecutors knew that he didn't commit. Many others who suffered the same conditions broke under the regimen of cruel punishments, either perishing from torture, malnutrition or suicide or surrendering their wills to their sadistic captors. Choedrak himself managed to survive by using his medical knowledge to treat himself for the various injuries and illnesses that were inflicted on him, but there were times when he would have preferred to die. More remarkably, he also refused to hate his tormentors and demonstrated heroic spiritual resolve in extending compassion to those who appeared to relish inflicting such cruel punishments on him. Later, the Chinese sought his medical skills for their own benefit which led to his improved treatment and eventually, his release from prison. Once freed, Choedrak was able to rejoin the Dalai Lama in India where he resumed his role as his personal physician and oversaw the development of a Tibetan medical institute that preserves traditional medical practices. We may hope that his story will prove representative of the Tibetan people in general so that they too will emerge from the horror of Chinese rule with their spiritual values and way of life strengthened by their ordeal.
If Choedrak offers an inspiring example of compassion and forgiveness, Silverstein presents an altogether different case. For such a hardened criminal his background is somewhat unusual in that he was not materially deprived while growing up in suburban southern California and at first displayed none of the violent tendencies that would later mark his character so fatally. But no more than Choedrak's, Silverstein's childhood can't be described as happy, either. Seen as weak and passive as a boy, he became the victim of relentless bullying. But no bully among his peers proved as damaging as his own mother who, when he returned home crying after suffering physical abuse, told him that he would be beaten even more severely by her for coming back home in tears. "That's how my Mom was," he recalls. "She stood her mud. If someone came at you with a bat, you got your bat and you both went at it." By the time he was in his early teens, he lost any trace of submissiveness and began to exhibit the dangerous aggressiveness that would make him one of the most feared prisoners in the US penal system. He faced his first term of confinement in a reformatory at fourteen, beginning a life of imprisonment that he resumed in early adulthood and has continued without interruption ever since. It was in prison that he committed three murders, including one of a prison guard for which he was given a life sentence without parole. Even worse, perhaps, was a previous murder of the leader of a rival Black gang after which he and his accomplice triumphantly dragged the dead body of their victim in front of the cells of other inmates. Now in his mid-sixties, Silverstein's life seems little more than an unending story of pain and rage.
There appears to be an obvious moral that can be drawn from the stories of both men, but perhaps we should be circumspect and cautious about reaching it. Still, it is clear that Choedrak was able to emerge from his ordeal in part because of his compassion and ability to forgive his enemies. By contrast, Silverstein seemed to have sunk progressively deeper into the hell of his imprisonment because of his compulsively violent and retaliatory nature. Choedrak managed to survive in the harsher prison environment and found moral strength as he attempted to help his fellow prisoners in whatever way he could. As a leading member of the Aryan Brotherhood, Silverstein terrorised, exploited and killed his fellow inmates in order to reign supreme among the wretched. In the moral universe they each inhabited, Choedrak seems an angel of mercy and Silverstein a demon of despair. But their moral universe is the same one we all occupy and the punishment that each suffered tells us something important about how societies use institutions like prisons to crush those who threaten society. While the Chinese prisons in which Choedrak suffered incarceration were certainly worse than any American prisons, we need to consider just what a place like a Supermax prison is meant to do the people who are imprisoned there.
I came across Silverstein's story from an article in the New York Times about the ADX penitentiary which reported the astronomically high incidence of mental illness among its prisoners. The fact that inmates are kept in solitary confinement twenty-three hours a day does much to explain this statistic, as do the bleak, antiseptic conditions in which they are confined. Florence, Colorado happens to be located in a remote area of the Rocky Mountains, but from the tiny windows of their cells, prisoners are not given much of a view of their magnificent surroundings. Everyone, however, is provided with a small television set. The prison population is fairly small, but is composed of some of the most notorious, high-profile convicts in America: infamous gangsters, terrorists, and serial killers, including Theodor Kaczynski, the obviously mentally ill Unabomber, are all confined within its unbreachable walls. Most are certain to die there, as well. Prison officials insist that for these irredeemable criminals nothing less than the Supermax prison will do. But what is such a prison actually supposed to do? Protect the public? Keep the inmate population from killing each other? Or does the grey horror of the Supermax express a cruel desire to avenge those that the American justice system deems hopelessly evil? Although the punishments in Chinese prisons are far more brutal and often fatal, the deprivation of human contact and the endless boredom of the Supermax constitute forms of torture in themselves, as prison authorities are surely aware. The high incidence of mental illness in the Supermax can hardly be a surprise to anyone, then. Indeed, it is the intended effect.
Although I have discussed violence mainly in prisons in this post, my title refers to violence as a more general phenomenon. In truth, the violence that society imposes on a dangerously violent criminal such as Silverstein emerges out of a cultural context in which violent resolution is regarded as somehow natural. Perhaps we are reluctant to see our attitude towards violence in this way, but evidence for it is everywhere. The unconscious impulse to violence lies buried on the surface, as it were. I hardly ever go to movies or watch television any more, but I am still struck by the ubiquity of violence that I see in advertisements. Like sex, which is even more on public display, violence is fodder for popular entertainment, especially the sort of violence that is meted out as revenge to some antagonist whose own violence makes him (seldom her) the deserving recipient of it. The righteous passion for revenge against a manifest evil doer provides the licence for retributive violence which influences public attitudes towards legal punishment. Silverstein and all the other members of the Rogue's Gallery who are locked up in the Supermax have earned their place there not just for the magnitude of their crimes or their unredeemable characters, but also--and perhaps more importantly-- for fulfilling the role of villain to such perfection.
Perhaps the last word on this matter should go to Dr Choedrak. I suspect that his moral example would win almost unanimous approval, even though we would all dread to be in a position of having to follow it. But in fact, we don't have to be thrown into such a hell in order to begin practising the compassion that he was able to show towards his persecutors. A more modest expression of compassion would be to treat someone such as Silverstein as a person who deserves decent treatment in spite of his terrible crimes. One day we might even go further and begin to acknowledge that the cultural climate that we have created contributed to the conditions that made him into the criminal that he is.