IN OLD Russia there was an expression uttered often by those complaining about some egregious injustice: “If only the czar knew.” Surely the kind and just ruler of all the land wouldn’t allow such things to happen if he were aware of them. Today in this country we are, collectively, our own czar, choosing our government’s officers, setting its course through our representatives and local officials, seeking, as we suppose, justice and liberty for all. Yet, in many ways, as the year just past has shown, we’re much like the czar of all Russia, our condition summed up in a popular current phrase: “Who knew?”
Who knew, for one prime example, how deep was the anger among African Americans and some other minorities about their everyday dealings with police? We got a pretty good idea in the year just ended. The country learned that the anger, stemming from years of antagonism and ignited by one ambiguous incident, extended through a huge segment of the black middle class and that it was not just a matter of people being killed in encounters with the police but also of daily indignities and inconveniences inflicted in the name of order but often perpetrated without adequate discipline or training or accountability. We have in fact learned a lot about this subject since last summer — and also, it should be noted, about how dangerous it is to be a police officer in a country where so many people are both armed and angry. There’s a great deal more we need to learn, and do, in 2015.
Yet while the country and its legislature remain deeply divided on many questions, in one large and important area there seemed to be a coming-together by a number of people on both sides of the ideological divide in the past year: Serious attention is finally being paid to the cost of imprisoning so many tens of thousands of our people. By one recent count, the United States holds in custody one-fourth of the world’s prisoners. Their sentences are often mandated by law, without much regard for their individual actions, and in many instances the punishment is wildly out of proportion to the offense, especially in drug cases. And for many of those who are not imprisoned for some minor drug offense — predominantly in minority communities — just having a conviction on their record, no matter how petty the offense, can make them all but unemployable. This is a matter that involves not just the quality of mercy but also a regard for common sense: The cost to the society of our excessive and unfair punishments is immense. And yet it has continued for years.
Of course these aren’t the only issues facing the country in 2015, a time when we are troubled by widespread problems at home that include inequality, family breakdown, poverty, mistreatment of the mentally ill and demoralization among large parts of society. Unlike the czar, we know of these things but perhaps only vaguely — often not enough to be moved to deal with them. The great hope for the new year is nothing new; it’s expressed in a biblical declaration some 2,000 years old: “And the truth shall make ye free.”