08/27/2014 07:53 am ET Updated Oct 26, 2014

Public Executions

Public executions at the hands of Islamic terrorists, Brazilian prison gangs, or arguably, the local Missouri police, force some stomach-churning questions. Critics will scoff at lumping Syria together with Ferguson and Cascavel. But beheadings, no longer the terrain of the Middle Ages or the fundamentalists, are about terrorizing, unless of course their intended audience is just numb.

In the last two weeks, the entire world watched as the parents of Michael Brown and James Foley wept for their sons. The Brazilian media coverage of the Ferguson, St. Louis and Missouri governor and state police, and of their botched handling of the protests, correctly included analysis of American race and class divides, the militarization of the police, and the partial justice of America's legal system. An unscientific review of Brazilian social media reveals an interest, albeit with a tad of schadenfreude, in the unfinished business of the American civil rights movement.

But I also detect a bit of denial. Where is the public outcry in Brazil over not one but two incidents this year of prison violence so severe that a total of four inmates were decapitated? Why are human rights groups like Conectas or Human Rights Watch or the project at Candido Mendes University such lone voices when it comes to prison conditions and the race and class distortions of the Brazilian criminal justice system?

The blasé reaction to the beheadings unfortunately seems all of a piece with the apparent tolerance of persistent, disproportionate targeting of black and/or poor Brazilians at the hands of a militarized police. By contrast, during last year's protests, when the victims of excessive police force were light-skinned journalists, the volume and intensity of outrage by the public, media and elected officials went positively viral. Today, the silence is deafening.

By contrast, the beheading of the American photojournalist by the Islamic State in Syria is a national tragedy that has compelled a potentially major shift in national security strategy. One of the victims of the Cascavel beheadings was a rapist, not an intrepid photojournalist. But the essence of a society governed by laws is that the identity of the victim does not shape the response of the legal system or the conditions of incarceration. Like Cascavel, New York City's Rikers Island, an understaffed prison recently revealed to have subjected inmates to what can only be described as torture, stands out as a prime example of such bias.

The United States and Brazil have the world's third and fourth largest prison populations, respectively. A few years ago Brasilia and Washington launched a happy-sounding "joint action plan on racial and ethnic equality." How about we launch one on racial profiling, prison conditions and militarization of the police?

This article was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de São Paulo. It is originally available here.