Our Cages


I have not written for Verdict this year. I felt a need to close my computer and reflect on the volcanic rage that spews all around us. This fury challenges my moral philosophy, which I long ago distilled to eight words: There is no them, there is only us. Nowadays, many people behave as though humanity itself depends on preserving the imagined space between us and them. For these people, my philosophy must seem dangerously naïve.

I am sometimes asked how I came to this worldview. It was my work. I am a lawyer and for decades, I have represented the people whom others call monsters. Almost always, my clients live in a cage. All the cages are small. All of them are cold and bare, but some include a tiny pane of glass high on a wall that lets in a wee bit of natural light. Sometimes my clients can talk with other monsters caged nearby, sometimes not. Some of my clients have lived in a cage most of their life; for them, the cage is home. Others just arrived and newly experience a terror they never thought possible. Sometimes the cage is a place called death row. Sometimes it is a prison on a U.S. military base in Cuba. Sometimes it is a county jail. But really, it’s always pretty much the same cage. Because that’s what we do with monsters—we cage them.

My clients tell me about their cage. Not so much the bare walls and cold floor as their life within it. Because most of the time in the cage, there’s nothing for them to do. Hour after hour, nothing distracts them but the rituals of the prison. The bells, the count, the tray, the food, the bells the count the tray the food, thebellsthecountthetraythefood. Days disappear into weeks and months become a lifetime. A friend of mine who spent a great many years in a cage once told me his cell was the most dangerous place in the prison. I asked him why, expecting him to tell me stories about guards who entered his cage and beat him up. No, that wasn’t it. The cage was the only place where he couldn’t escape his thoughts.

When a prisoner is in his cage, he ruminates. He obsesses. Memories of a life gone sideways repeat on an endless loop, always crashing at the same place in the same way. As much as he wishes it would turn out differently, dad always disappears, mom still drinks too much, and her latest boyfriend still whips him and pimps his little sister. The family is always on the move and there’s never enough to eat. No birthday presents. No cake. No laughter. He still spends Christmas in the shelter. School never gets easy. He still tells himself everyone’s right—he’s stupid and will end up on the street. His best friend still gets shot. He still starts carrying a gun. He still gets high that night, robs the store, shoots the old man. He’s still in prison. Repeat. That’s why time in the box—solitary confinement—drives so many prisoners mad.

And so, prisoners find themselves imprisoned a second time. Once in the cage we build, and once in the cage of their mind. Of the two, the latter is far more oppressive, since no species of physical torture compares with being trapped in your own head, forced to revisit every wretched moment and irreversible blunder, again and again, each leading inexorably to the next until finally you arrive at the worst mistake of your life, the one that landed you in a cage, where you are compelled to watch it all again, forever and ever. It’s why weed and opioids, which dull the mind and ease the pain, are in such high demand on the inside.

When I was a young lawyer, I thought that only someone who has been incarcerated could understand the torment of the imprisoned. But that’s not right. Everyone can grasp this anguish because everyone has endured it. At least, we have endured a version of it. Who among us has not obsessed over their mistakes, replaying them again and again, burning with regret for the slights they cannot take back and the injuries they cannot undo? All but the most callous share with the prisoner the torture of a past they cannot escape and the memories they cannot forget. That’s why weed and opioids are also in such high demand on the outside, because nearly everyone spends time imprisoned in their own head.

The recognition that we share another’s pain is the foundation of empathy, and empathy goes a long way toward creating a world without “us” and “them.” But it does not go far enough; one can empathize with another’s torment but still believe they are “them.” If you doubt this, summon a mental image of some of the men and women who stormed the Capitol January 6, with their QAnon strut and Proud Boy swagger. Now ask yourself whether they are “us.” The time it takes to answer that question is one measure of empathy’s limits.

For me, the final step came when I gave up on the idea that I am different. I long ago relinquished the conceit that I am possessed of any particular strength of character or backbone that makes me uniquely able to resist the forces in life to which other people routinely succumb. In fact, I believe quite the opposite is true, and that it is true for all of us. At least, that seems to be the lesson of both history and psychology. If I labored under the exact same mental and physical conditions as my clients—if their past were mine, with all its violent assaults and pressures stretching back a lifetime—I would in all likelihood do exactly the same thing they did, no matter how exalted or debased. Indeed, it seems arrogant to imagine otherwise.

I am certainly not the first to arrive at this view. Nietzsche had the same thing in mind more than a century ago when he warned against hubris:

The fact that one has or has not had certain profoundly moving impressions and insights into things—for example, an unjustly executed, slain or martyred father, a faithless wife, a shattering, serious accident—is the factor upon which the excitation of our passions to white heat principally depends, as well as the course of our whole lives. No one knows to what lengths circumstances … may lead him. He does not know the full extent of his own susceptibility. [A] wretched environment makes him wretched.

Thus, we find ourselves in yet another cage, this time shared not just with prisoners but with all humanity: We are imprisoned by our autobiography. It is not a cage that implies the inability to choose, but a cage that all but guarantees my choice would be the same as yours if my history were the same as yours. Not the trivial choices in life, like the clothes I might wear on this day or that, but the profound choices that define our existence, like how we respond to loss, shame, rage, and pain.

Once I arrived at this place, I found it impossible to separate myself from others, or to believe that my “us” is any different from another’s “them.” In the end, I concluded there is no them, there is only us.

It’s not as idyllic as it might sound. If there is no them, then Dylan Roof is us just as much as the worshipers he shot and killed in a South Carolina church. If there is only us, then just as I could be George Floyd, I have to accept that I could also be Derek Chauvin. I can (and do) condemn Roof and Chauvin for what they did, but I also insist that their actions do not cast them beyond the circle of humanity. They remain “us,” regardless of what they did.

I know my philosophy will not appeal to those who find security in the barricades they have built in their head: Muslim and Christian. Republican and Democrat. Human and monster. I know I do not speak to them. Yet I know that we are them, and they are us.

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