June 13, 2006

The Horrors of Our Time -- and the Complacent, Criminally Complicit American Public (I)

In all the endless discussions about the catastrophe of Iraq and about what we ought to do now, one single threshold point is rarely emphasized by anyone any longer, including even those who strongly condemn this "optional war." That point is a very simple one, and it is utterly damning: Iraq posed no serious threat to the United States, and it would not pose such a threat in the foreseeable future. Moreover, our political leaders -- including everyone in Congress -- could and should have known it. In fact, almost all of them did know it, the interminable propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding.

This incontrovertible fact leads to only one conclusion: the invasion and occupation of Iraq had nothing to do with our self-defense, which means that it was and is entirely immoral at its foundation. The invasion of Iraq was completely unprovoked: it was a war of aggression, one that contravened every principle of legitimate international relations. This further means that every single death that has resulted -- of Americans, of Iraqis, and of anyone else at all -- is an unforgivable crime for which we as a nation bear the entire responsibility. The same applies to all the other incomprehensible costs of this disaster: all those who have been maimed and injured, the growing instability in the Middle East, the piling up of endless national debt, and the numerous other ways in which the Bush administration has made the world a significantly more dangerous place.

Let me state the critical point very clearly: horrors are being committed in our name every second of every day -- and most of us do absolutely nothing about it. We do not contact our representatives in Congress to demand that they stop funding this monstrousness without end; we do not fill the streets to make our government reconsider the nature of its actions; and we do not engage in other forms of serious civil disobedience, which would alert our government that a significant number of Americans object to the manner in which they allegedly are "protecting" us.

Let me be clear about a related point: I do not believe in collective guilt. Responsibility and guilt for wrongful actions belong to those individuals who commit them. But responsibility belongs as well to those who make such acts possible (by advocating for the underlying policies, by turning a blind eye to the consequences of those policies, or by enabling the continuing destruction by other means). And for those of us who are United States citizens, there is a more general sense in which the guilt for our conduct as a nation spreads out to touch us all. These actions are being taken in our name. Therefore, if we object to our government's conduct, it is our responsibility to make our objections known as loudly and as often as possible.

But for the most part, we are silent, and we do not protest in any significant manner. Thus, the horrors go on.

In the midst of this growing nightmare -- one which will very soon most likely get infinitely worse (and more on Iran soon) -- came the story of the suicides at Guantanamo. Every aspect of this story is horrifying in a manner that almost defies comprehension. One of the most sickening parts of it is the response of many U.S. government officials, and of many of those who support our foreign policy. There are also some crucial aspects of this story and the reaction to it that have received almost no attention.

I will deal with the suicide story and the reactions to it in the second part of this essay. But there are several posts of mine from last November that provide some necessary background. Because I consider these issues so important, I am reposting those entries directly below.

These stories help to make clear why suicide was the only action left to these individuals, and why their own deaths were the only remaining way in which they could make themselves heard. While they survived, almost no one would listen to their screams of agony, and almost no one did anything to stop their suffering. Even now, most people see no reason to protest this latest tragedy in any significant way, and our lives go on as before.

But it is our government that has made these horrors possible, and inevitable. Similar horrors continue to occur every day. And still we do almost nothing.

As long as this state of affairs goes on, and as I note in the second of these posts, we are all Barbara Bush. We all bear some degree of responsibility, however attenuated it may be, simply because we are Americans.

I will discuss all these issues in more detail in the concluding part of this essay. Here are the entries from November 2005:

Monday, November 14, 2005
Trapped "in a Grave," Between Life and Death

Two civil rights attorneys write about almost ungraspable horrors:
We recently returned from visiting with several prisoners in Guantánamo Bay's military prison, where there are still hundreds of faceless, uncharged prisoners who have been held for nearly four years without ever seeing an attorney.

When many of these prisoners arrived in American custody, they were initially relieved to be in the control of a country that valued justice and due process.

Four years later, many just want to die. They starve themselves for long periods of time and attempt bloody suicides. The government responds by forcing tubes down their throats. People are trying to kill themselves to get out of custody, because they have no legal recourse. "They won't let us live, but they won't let us die," one of our clients explained.

Suits have been filed on behalf of well over a hundred of these detainees, asking that courts require that the government charge these people with crimes, even war crimes, or let them go. Now some in Congress are actively seeking to strip our courts of their historic habeas corpus jurisdiction to even demand that charges be stated by the government against those it wishes to imprison.


These men believe they are being kept as scapegoats by an administration afraid to admit it has made a mistake. Many of them have been held for years with no charges, "in a grave," as Aziz calls it.


The litigation strategy of the government is to prevent hearings on the merits through innumerable delaying challenges aimed at denying these prisoners any access to justice for as long as the president says the "war on terror" is continuing.


The writ of habeas corpus is supposed to be a rocket vehicle for justice, ensuring that no one is long imprisoned without good cause being shown. Many of these prisoners are entering their fourth year of confinement without any due process.


The logic of placing these prisoners on the edge of the American consciousness, just south of Florida, is to reassure us by their presence that somewhere, there are shackled men in small cells wearing orange and fitting our stereotypes. Their function is to be far enough away so that no one regularly thinks of the abuses they are suffering but close enough to make us feel safe - like the president and the government are doing something about terrorism. So we leave them there, suffering at the hands of frustrated interrogators and guards, an incomprehensible policy and an administration that seems to ignore the core values of constitutional peoples.

It is a decidedly un-American thing for courts to allow people, any people from any place, no matter what they may have done, to be held beyond the law, uncharged and unheard, under abusive, intolerable and illegal conditions based on untested government theories of enemy combatant status. This obviously also applies to the secret CIA prisons just revealed by The Washington Post.

If the courts do not begin to perform their historic functions, it will be fairly said that they abdicated their responsibilities in supine delegations of power to the president and thereby permanently weakened the critical role of the judiciary as the guardians of our most valued rights.

How hollow and startling in contrast is President Bush's insistent post-indictment reminder that vice presidential aide I. Lewis Libby is to be "presumed innocent and entitled to due process."

As we flew home, we couldn't help but think these cases are actually about whether America will remain America.

The effort now underway in the Congress to silence these habeas corpus cases by retroactively stripping all courts of any jurisdiction to hear them would shock our founders. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton extolled the writ of habeas corpus, along with the prohibition of ex-post-facto laws, as among the "great securities to liberty and republicanism."


Here is the second entry:

Tuesday, November 15, 2005
"For 13 Damn Days": Attention Must Be Paid

As I start reposting my previous series of essays based on the work of Alice Miller (about 50 major ones at last count, I think), I'll be adding quite a lot of new material to my earlier thoughts. Among other subjects, I will discuss in still further detail the sources of the many kinds of denial that affect most people, and how that denial serves to deaden people emotionally so that most of their own pain, as well as the pain of others, finally becomes invisible and inaccessible to them. Even though I have already written a few books' worth of essays on this general subject, a great deal remains to be said about it. These very complex issues affect every single area of our lives, without exception: politics, religion, war, philosophy, morality, and all the arts.

The psychological issues and dynamics that Miller describes so powerfully and perceptively, and with unflinching courage in the face of unending opposition arising from most people's resistance to hearing these truths, explain much that is otherwise utterly incomprehensible. In addition, these same issues intersect in numerous ways with the title and theme of this new blog; I identified some elements of the general approach I now plan to bring to much of my writing just yesterday. As is true of so many other areas, Miller's work helps us to understand how we arrive at the various kinds of stories we tell about every subject, and the purposes those stories serve. I hope to get started on this task in the near future.

The following is only one measure of the kind of denial I refer to, but it is an especially poignant and tragic one. Stories similar in general outline to the one below appear on Antiwar.com every day, usually several of them. I almost never see them discussed on any blog. I just did a Technorati search on this story's link. You perhaps will be surprised by what I found, but you shouldn't be. The message I received was the one I've seen many times before: "There are no posts that contain a link to that URL yet."

None. Not a single one. The same has been true for almost every story like this I've excerpted in the past, and there have been quite a number of them over the past couple of years. I am still unable to rid myself of the shock of surprise I always feel. But it's much more than surprise: it's profound disbelief, mixed with immense and inexpressible sadness. Two lives, and probably many more than that, have been irrevocably altered -- and largely ruined. And to judge from the discussion in the blogosphere at least, no one has even noticed.

Our entire culture is immersed in this same kind of denial. It spreads everywhere, and touches everything. This is a large part of the reason why the senseless slaughter in Iraq began at all, and it is a major part of why it continues. It explains what makes most wars possible. Terrible tragedy happens, lives are destroyed, and no one even acknowledges that it's happened. Many critics of the war are very familiar with Barbara Bush's now infamous statement , and they condemn it in no uncertain terms:
"Why should we hear about body bags and deaths," Barbara Bush said on ABC's "Good Morning America" on March 18, 2003. "Oh, I mean, it's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?"
Many people undoubtedly feel they are helpless to do anything about stories like the following one, so it is futile to get too upset about them. And after all, tragedy happens every day to countless people, war or no war. And yet, people find time to discuss every other aspect of the war, many related issues, and every other subject under the sun. But when stories like this happen, as they do many times a day, almost no one even notices. So how exactly are we that different from Barbara Bush? For the woman and her son in this story, there isn't any difference. Our motives for largely ignoring such reports may not be Barbara Bush's at all, but the silence is the same in the end.

Here is the story [unfortunately, that link no longer works]:
Anchorage, Alaska - She wasn't at a protest held today outside of Elmendorf Air Force Base, but she wasn't cheering President Bush either. Former Alaska gubernatorial candidate Diane Benson had her thoughts on her son, who suffered terrible injuries yesterday in Iraq.

Diane Benson cherishes her box of photographs of her son's military service even more so today.

"All I know is I was abruptly woken at 8:20 in the morning Sunday morning, that something bad had happened to my son," Benson said.

Benson's son, Latseen, a U.S. Army specialist, became the victim of a roadside bomb in Iraq. He lost his legs and still has not regained consciousness. Latseen Benson was on his second tour of duty in Iraq. Benson says after her son's first tour, Latseen tried to get out of the Army after his four-year commitment ended Oct. 31, but the military's stop-loss order kept him in and sent him back to Iraq.

"So for 13 damn days my son's life is ruined," said Benson.


Bush rallied support for the war in Iraq at Elmendorf today. There is a different tone in Chugiak, where the quote "Before one more mother's child is lost," from anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan hangs on Diane Benson's door.

"There is no Bush signed up for the service, no Bush standing there ready to be deployed. Instead my son gets to do it a second time when he didn't want to. He was ready to leave.

"He had done his commitment. He should have been allowed to leave. I would say all those things and more to Bush. My son's life is ruined today," said Benson.

Latseen Benson now clings to life at a hospital in Germany, facing a long road to recovery that will never make him whole. Benson says her son will be transported to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She says she plans to travel there in the next couple of days to be with him.
I'm reminded of Linda Loman's anguished cry about her husband's fate in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman":
"Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest man that ever lived. But he's a human being and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to go to his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person."
At least Willy Loman had lived his life, as ultimately unfulfilling and unhappy as it was. Latseen Benson's life had barely begun.

Attention must be paid. And yet comparatively few people even notice. Do you wonder why terrible, avoidable tragedies and unnecessary wars continue without end through all of history, down to our own day? In very significant part, this is why. Think how different our world would be, if every story like this one were burned into our minds every time it occurred, if every television network and every major newspaper highlighted these reports every morning and every night. We would probably not be able to bear it. We would demand that the horrors stop.

It is the silence that permits them to continue. The tragedies happen many times every day. Periodically, we collectively agree to take note. Most of the time, the events pass by, largely unremarked.

Attention must be paid. But we have learned not to notice and, for the most part, we say barely a word.

And here is the third post:

Friday, November 18, 2005
Ignoring the Horror: Now, We Are All Barbara Bush

I should be used to it by now, but it continues to astonish me that certain kinds of stories are not given much more attention, both by our media and by the American public. I've written about the Guantanamo hunger strike [see above], and also about the casual sadism and inhumanity of some comments from Rumsfeld.

Newsweek notes some recent developments :
A Guantanamo detainee who has engaged in a three-month hunger strike to protest his treatment is so "severely malnourished" that he may be "in significant danger of dying," according to an outside doctor who has reviewed the prisoner's recent medical records.

The prospect that a Guantanamo detainee may starve himself to death—and potentially provoke an international outcry—has raised concerns among some Defense Department officials as they wrestle with how to contain an inmate protest that has proven more intractable than they anticipated.

But last Friday, a federal judge—after hearing testimony from a Guantanamo physician identified in court only as "Dr. X—rejected an emergency motion asking the detainee be immediately evacuated to a medical facility in the United States. U.S. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly concluded that Fawzi Al Odah's condition had stabilized and that he was receiving adequate medical care, making an evacuation "unwarranted."

However, Thomas Wilner, a lawyer for Fawzi Al Odah, a Kuwaiti detainee who has been refusing food since Aug. 9 and who has been force fed through a nasal tube since early September, said he feared his client would not survive. "We're concerned [Al Odah] is dying, it's as simple as that," said Wilner.
This story, like many similar ones, leads to the inescapable conclusion that the Bush administration is not concerned about the grave issues raised by the nature of the Guantanamo detention facility, nor about inhumane conditions there, nor even by the fact of the hunger strike itself. Their major anxiety centers around how the world might react to these events, especially if a prisoner were to die. Torture and death don't bother them -- but bad PR does.

In a post the other day about a horribly wounded soldier and his mother, I noted Barbara Bush's infamous statement about her "beautiful mind," and why she chooses not to trouble herself with "body bags and death." I then wrote:
Many people undoubtedly feel they are helpless to do anything about stories like [this one], so it is futile to get too upset about them. And after all, tragedy happens every day to countless people, war or no war. And yet, people find time to discuss every other aspect of the war, many related issues, and every other subject under the sun. But when stories like this happen, as they do many times a day, almost no one even notices. So how exactly are we that different from Barbara Bush? For the woman and her son in this story, there isn't any difference. Our motives for largely ignoring such reports may not be Barbara Bush's at all, but the silence is the same in the end.As long as the horrors at Guantanamo go on, and they are but one example of the many horrors now occurring, and until the public and Congress raise enough of an outcry so that they stop, we are all Barbara Bush.

People come perilously close to death protesting indefinite detentions that may go on for years or even decades, while others are maimed or killed every day. Even though we discuss the arguments about the general policies, as indeed we must, we hardly ever talk about the individual people who directly suffer the consequences of our actions. We have learned not to notice, and we harden and constrict our souls. We remain silent. And the horrors go on.


And here is one other essay, written just over a year ago, that offers some important background: Understanding the Significance of Guantanamo: The Symbol of Omnipotent Power. At the conclusion of that entry, I wrote:
[T]hese are among the reasons I consider Bush unquestionably to be the worst and most dangerous president of my lifetime -- and perhaps in all of American history. I only pray that irreversible damage does not occur before Bush leaves office. But I have to admit, very unhappily, that I am not prepared to place a bet on that proposition -- not any longer. The indisputable desire of this administration for absolute power over every single one of us cannot be denied. Bush and his defenders may refuse to acknowledge them, and our media may fail to discuss them, but those are the facts -- if one is willing to face them, and to admit what they mean.

Whether Bush and his enablers will admit it or not, in fact the policies they seek to implement would make the United States itself into one gigantic Guantanamo: where any one of us can be detained indefinitely merely upon the word or desire of one person, with no charges ever filed against us, and where we can be abused or tortured, and perhaps even murdered, at will. And no one and nothing would be able to stop or even question them. That's the future they want so desperately -- and I suggest that you always keep it in mind and never, ever forget it.