Adam Ash

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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Cloud of Torture over America (Immigrant Thoughts)

In 1979 I left my country, South Africa, a pariah nation, to come to America, the bastion of freedom and morality.

Carter was the president that year. He was the first president to put human rights on the foreign policy agenda. I admired a nation who believed in fundamental moral values to that extent.

Many wonderful things happened in the years that followed. The Berlin Wall came down. Vaclav Havel, a man who loves Frank Zappa, became president of Czechoslovakia. Nelson Mandela was freed; all South Africans voted in our first free election. America stopped its wholesale interference in the lives of South Americans. Along with South Africa, newly democratic countries there established Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to expose the torture and murder of former
regimes.

"The moral arc of the universe is long," said Dr. King, "but it bends towards justice."

Our moral arc was bending towards justice.

Then came 9/11. "We are all Americans now," wrote Le Monde. Young Muslims in Iran held candle-lit vigils for us. America, the bastion of freedom, had been attacked. Never was our moral authority higher. It was a moment to be seized. A moment that cried out for the words and actions of a Churchill, a Ghandi, a Mandela, a Dr. King.

But somehow this challenge to our moral authority overwhelmed us. Maybe we'd been hurt too much. Maybe all we could do in our shock and pain was feel rage.

We may not have seized the moment like a Ghandi or a Mandela would have, but we did some things right. Our President warned us not to blame American Muslims for what other Muslims had done. A proper American thing to say.

For myself, I felt two things. One, exorbitant rage. As a New Yorker, I wanted to go to Afghanistan, bomb the Taliban into oblivion, and put their women in charge over their men. Two, a grim self-critique. This terrible thing had happened in the context of U.S. foreign policy choices that had caused people in other countries immense pain.

I found many people agreeing with me on the first feeling. On the second, few. None in the media. Except for Susan Sontag. Here is an edited excerpt from what she wrote in the week after the tragedy:

"The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not an attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower,
undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?

"Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is O.K. But everything is not O.K. A wide spectrum of public figures, in and out of office, who are strongly opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by this Administration, apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush. A lot of thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense. But the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality.

"Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy -- which entails disagreement, which promotes candor -- has been replaced by psychotherapy.

"Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. 'Our country is strong,' we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be."

I thought she was right. But our politicians did not have the same moral clarity. In their moral obfuscation, they insisted the attack happened because our enemies hate our freedoms. Not much self-examination going on there. Still, superficial bromides are the currency of politicians. And in a moment of national pain and rage, self-examination might've been political suicide. Our politicians were attuned to what the nation could bear.

But if our national rhetoric lacked Sontag's insight, or Mandela's wisdom, or Churchill's vocabulary, we did some things right. We went after Bin Laden in Afghanistan. In the end, I was more upset about our rhetoric than our actions. I still felt proud to be American. In time, I believed, we'd be able to reflect on what had happened with more appropriate rhetoric. The good heart of America, that made human rights part of its foreign policy, would prevail. And in the years that followed, many of the matters mentioned by Sontag were widely discussed.

Yet today I am suddenly struck with a great uncertainty. Why? I'm not talking about those things that disturb so many. You know them. Our leaders wanted military bases in the heart of the Middle East to ensure control of oil supplies, and went to war for it, giving a range of reasons that had nothing to do with the real ones. Ken Lay, a poster child for saving his own ass while stabbing his employees in the back, is not in jail. For their breath-taking incompetence, George Tenet and Paul Bremer were awarded Presidential Medals of Freedom.

The list is endless. And disturbing. But not all that unexpected. Ripping off people, including your own employees, comes naturally to many business elites. Reasons for war are rarely rational or true. Business as usual, one might say. Given the shock and awe of 9/11, perhaps even predictable.

But there is something else I would not have predicted.

When I lived in South Africa, I grew up as a child disappointed in my people. My people were the Afrikaners, who were overrun by the British at the turn of the last century. We Afrikaners were herded into the first concentration camps ever established on our planet. A third of Afrikaner women and children died in them. In our pain over this (much
like the Israelis with the Palestinians today), we ended up punishing South Africa's blacks in a cheap-labor system called apartheid. Because of this, I was not proud to be an Afrikaner. But I did not reject my nation. I spoke and lived Afrikaans.

Then one day in my teen years, I read a newspaper article that said our police were torturing people in jail. Systematically.

I'll never forget what I felt then. I could not believe it. Sure, Afrikaners could be misguided. Sure, we could be cruel. Sure, we could be blind. But we were not the kind of people who would torture others on a face-to-face, one-on-one, person-to-person basis. We were Christians. We went to church every Sunday. There was a depth of human depravity -- inflicting pain on another human to the point of screams, letting people lie suffering in their own excrement -- below which we could not sink. We were not barbarians. We were not medieval. We were not the Inquisition. We were not beyond all moral reprieve.

Now America has Abu Graib. Guantanamo. Business as usual perhaps. Prison is not a picnic. Abuses happen.

But we also have something else. In the face of a proud tradition -- of wanting the world to look to us for moral leadership -- we have instructions from on high exhorting our soldiers to employ "aggressive" interrogation techniques. We have accountability that stops at Lyndie England.

We've built ourselves a slope, and we are slipping down it with breezy equanimity. We have memos from our officials about narrowing the definition of torture down to exclude everything except pain "of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure." Presumably, that leaves many "techniques" -- from drowning torture to cutting off fingers -- outside the definition of torture.

These are things that we can hardly bear to look at as fiction when they're depicted in a movie.

So imagine the fact. Imagine a country where the job of top cop goes to a man who trafficked in these suppositions, a man who says about the torture memo, "I don't recall today whether or not I was in agreement with all of the analysis." Imagine a country where the slip down the slope is so greasy, the country's leadership votes overwhelmingly for this man's appointment. What country is that? Apartheid South Africa? Chile under Pinochet? Russia under Stalin?

Imagine that country, and tell me whether that country has anything to do with America.

This is a big problem for me. I ended up rejecting my first nation, the Afrikaners, over this.

Look, I'm just another whiny New York liberal, I know. Just another no-account immigrant. But I felt great pride in choosing America as my second nation. Now I have a question to ask my new people: in all humility, given my sensitivity about this issue, tell me why I shouldn't, at this point, reject you too?

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