The Politics Of Punishment

This week, the death of James “Jim” Brady was announced for the second time. He was the career politician who was serving as Ronald Reagan’s press secretary when he was shot in the head during an assassination attempt on President Reagan. (Photo above) I wrote “the second time” because in their haste to get out the story, ABC News reported Jim Brady had died from his wounds back in 1981.

Happily, that report was in error, and Jim, although disabled, went on to live another 33 years. He and his wife, Sarah, went on to found the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence, and the most comprehensive federal gun sanity law passed in half a century bears his name. One of my most exciting Twitter moments was exchanging tweets with Sarah Brady who reached out to say that she liked a piece I had written about mandatory gun insurance.

Say the name Jim Brady today, and people immediately think “gun control”. Say the name of the man who shot him, John Hinckley, people think “Jodi Foster.”

The story of John Hinckley Jr. deciding to shoot President Reagan because he thought it would endear him to the actress is part of the fabric of American history. But what you may not remember was what followed that not guilty by reason of insanity verdict. Congress was outraged. They couldn’t punish Hinckley, so they got out their pitchforks and torches and toughened the law regarding insanity pleas, something that didn’t seem important at all four years earlier when Harvey Milk’s assassin Dan White was found not guilty of murder using the famous “Twinkie” insanity defense. The law said Hinckley would be hospitalized until his doctors deem him cured, but lawmakers decided, in Hinckley’s case, congress would have to first agree to his release – making a mockery of that “blind justice, all equal under the law” promise America is supposed to ascribe to.

sarah_and_james_bradyNow, 33 years later, the passing of Jim Brady has threatened to ignite that congressional lynch mob mentality once again. His death has officially been ruled a homicide, the direct, though delayed, result of the bullet fired by John Hinckley in 1981. Already news outlets are barraging the the U.S. Attorney’s office with questions about whether they will now prosecute Hinckley for the murder of Jim Brady.

I for one hope they let it go. Hinckley is now 58 years old. Though his doctors have certified he is no longer mentally ill or a danger to society, he remains in the mental hospital by the will of congress. A jury of his peers said he was insane at the time he committed the crime. To charge him all these years later, under laws changed because congress didn’t like the original trial verdict, wouldn’t seem like justice to me. It would seem like vengeance.

I was imagining what a Hinckley murder trial might look like when I had a eureka moment. We often characterize the differences between Republicans and Democrats as conservative and liberal, as the daddy party and the mommy party, or even as the party of freedom and the party of justice. We don’t often think of them this way, but at their core, the Democrats are a party that wants to use government to help people, and the Republicans are a party that wants to use government to punish them.

Think of all the major issues of the day. Immigration. Abortion. Marriage equality. Even health care. In every instance, the Republican policy response is punishment. No wonder Republicans don’t like government, they use it as an instrument of judgement.

The Democratic approach to immigration is to find a way to put the millions of undocumented people living and working here on the path to citizenship. Yes, it’s a policy that shows compassion to people who broke the law to come here, but absorbing them legally would be better for the country too. Millions of undocumented families are already part of local communities, and have been for years, often for decades. Their children are American in every way but on paper. It’s better for our country to have these immigrants paying taxes and buying insurance, but because it’s better for the immigrant families too, Republican policy makers can’t entertain that approach, even if it leaves the country broken. To Republicans “immigration policy” means “punish immigrants”.

The Democratic approach to abortion policy is to allow women to be in control of their own bodies, while reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies through sex-education and providing contraception. Republican policy is to punish women who want to end a pregnancy. Want a legal abortion? First the government is going to stick a probe in your vagina, and then have someone shame you for an hour. Then, after the probe and the slut-shaming, lawmakers are going to make you wait a day – because they say so. To Republicans, “abortion” policy means “punish abortion seekers”.

The Democrats have finally found the courage to back marriage equality, (thank you Joe Biden) and support ENDA. DADT is gone. DOMA has been eviscerated. Even the most anti-gay Republican can see they are losing the fight to keep gays in the closet. Their response has been predictable: if the courts say gays can marry, we’ll find another way to punish them. To that end, we are seeing a flurry of Republican “religious freedom” laws designed to make it legal to discriminate against gay people. The Republican policy on LGBT equality remains the same as always, to punish gay people for being born that way. 

The Democrats gave the country the imperfect Affordable Care Act, but their policy goal has long been to give more Americans access to health care. While it seems like a strange place for the Republicans to have a punishment policy, they do. Half the states have rejected extending Medicare coverage to their low income citizens. In Republican policy world, people who don’t earn enough money to afford health care insurance don’t deserve to have it. The Republican health care policy is to punish the people who need health care but can’t pay for it.

brady898_10204219877755341_2908375731952057979_nDemocrats think of the federal government as the way ordinary people come together to accomplish the things we can’t do alone. Republicans think of government as the powerful in Washington unreasonably demanding citizens help those who are undeserving. Therefore it is the Republican’s duty to punish those they judge as unworthy. Knowing this, it is my prediction that Democrats will consider the death of Jim Brady to be the end of his story. It is also my prediction that there will be Republicans who will soon clamor to punish John Hinckley some more.

Am I wrong?

Feature photo via Wikipedia

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