In a famous experiment on sensory deprivation conducted years ago, a researcher sewed shut a newborn kitten's eye. Weeks later, when the scientist exposed the same eye, it was found to be useless. The profound lack of visual stimulation had permanently turned off that portion of the feline's brain.
Humans conduct such cruel experiments on one another all the time. Most of the horror stories we hear involve parents who abuse their children systematically over years, leaving them socially and mentally retarded in the worst way.
Such torture of innocents is easy to condemn, but when states engage in egregious acts in the name of security, rationalizations are a whole lot easier to come by.
America's get-tough penal system currently contains dozens of supermax-style prisons. In these hyper-secure correctional facilities, prisoners are kept in constant lockdown and deprived of almost all contact with other humans. No rehabilitation is pursued, no vocational outlets offered.
An extraordinarily high percentage of inmates held in supermax prisons, especially the younger ones, exhibit signs of mental illness. Among prisoners suffering illness prior to entry, symptoms are dramatically exacerbated by conditions routinely described by human rights groups as inhuman and degrading.
When the state of Wisconsin awarded my little hometown of Boscobel its supermax roughly a decade ago, most residents saw it as a godsend. My mother was convinced that it saved our town, despite the steady loss of regional manufacturing jobs.
So it came to pass that Boscobel, birthplace of the Gideon Bible and site of my Tom Sawyer-like childhood, is now routinely associated with such prisoner-abuse scandals as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Unfair? Sure, but an inevitable outcome whenever smaller evils are sanctioned to prevent larger ones.
As a strategist who helps leaders and organizations think systematically about the future, one of my favorite questions is, "Where exactly are you going with this?" As a father of four, it's what I ask my kids whenever I see them engaging in behavior I know won't get them where they want to go in life.
What does our society achieve with this extreme incarceration? We create human time bombs that inevitably explode upon re-entry into society. These dead souls don't strap on a vest of dynamite, but their terrorizing impact is much the same.
My mother recently published an anguished letter in Boscobel's weekly newspaper in which she vehemently protested conditions at the supermax. Not surprisingly, she took some heat from the prison's many supporters in the community for pointing out some very uncomfortable truths.
I simply thanked Mom for speaking up when her faith offered her no choice but to protest.
Politicians don't want to get anywhere near such prison controversies for fear of being described as soft on crime. The same is true of our nation's leaders when America's allies go similarly overboard in response to domestic or transnational terrorism.
In a recent New York Times article, Steven Erlanger describes the lost generation of Palestinian youth who've grown up trapped in the increasingly prison-like environments of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, constantly exposed to violence and deprived of normal contact with the outside world.
A generation ago, Erlanger notes, "as many as 150,000 Palestinians came into Israel daily to work, study and shop." Today, the West Bank and Gaza are so hemmed in by checkpoints and barriers that males younger than 30 suffer close to lockdown conditions within these impoverished territories. For most Palestinians, the only Israelis they see regularly are armed soldiers and armed settlers.
This under-20 generation is huge, accounting for more than half of Palestine's population. According to numerous estimates, post-traumatic stress disorders and other mental illnesses occur at extraordinarily high rates.
We all know Israel's counter-argument that such harsh policies, including erecting a 21st-century Berlin wall, are necessary to prevent suicide bombers from reaching their targets. But one has to ask, where exactly is Israel going with this?
Former president and Nobel peace-prize winner Jimmy Carter recently penned his protest book, "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid," to register his anguished complaints concerning Israel's policies in the West Bank and Gaza. Not surprisingly, Carter took much heat from Israel's supporters in the United States for pointing out some very uncomfortable truths.
Like my mom, Carter's faith forced him to speak up.
And for that courageous act, I simply thank him.