November 17, 2007

Careful the Things You Do: Wishes Come True, Not Free

How do you say to your child in the night
Nothing's all black, but then nothing's all white?
How do you say it will all be all right
When you know that it might not be true?
What do you do?

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say "Listen to me"
Children will listen...

-- Stephen Sondheim, "Children Will Listen," Into the Woods
In "When Awareness Is a Crime," I wrote about the lessons imparted to the Illinois high school students who had peacefully protested the occupation of Iraq. That piece followed up an earlier post, "You May as Well Break the Goddamned Rules."

In the earlier essays, I considered the impact on these students' lives and futures of expulsion, which was the threatened punishment for many of them. So with regard to practical concerns, this is certainly very good news indeed:
Morton West High School officials, under fire recently from parents and free-speech advocates for threatening to expel students involved in an anti-war sit-in at the school, announced Tuesday that they will not expel any of the protesters.

District 201 Supt. Ben Nowakowski said in a statement that 14 of the 18 students who faced expulsion will be cleared to return to class Wednesday and that four students who bore more culpability for the disruption can return to class Friday.


School officials charged 38 students with "gross disobedience and mob activity" for taking part in a Nov. 1 sit-in at the school cafeteria to protest the war in Iraq. Parents and students immediately complained that the penalties were too severe overall and unfair because certain students, such as varsity athletes and students with good grades, got lesser penalties.

"It's wonderful news," said Rita Maniotis, president of the Parent Teacher Organization, who acknowledged the unfairness of her daughter -- a junior honor student with a 4.5 GPA -- getting a less severe penalty than other protesters. "But it's not like our kids are walking away with nothing. Most have already served their suspensions. I'm just glad they aren't going to be expelled."

Parents' next concern, she said, is to talk to the school board and make sure the penalties don't appear on the students' records.
I remind you of this statement from one of the students:
"All we were trying to do was promote peace and recognize that people are dying every day," said sophomore Adam Szwarek. "They said it was insubordination."
Place the critical facts side by side: the United States government launches an illegal war of aggression against a nation that was no threat to us, and that was known to be no threat to us. The actions of the United States unleashed a genocide, which continues today. Our major media work relentlessly, day after bloody, slaughter-filled day, to prevent anything close to the full truth of the horrors of Iraq from reaching the American public. Most Americans willingly succumb to moral indifference, to a cruel disregard of what their government does abroad.

Yet these few, lonely students found out the truth of what is transpiring -- and they insisted that we "recognize that people are dying every day." They were determined to make people aware of this truth, in the desperate hope that those with influence and control over our government's actions might stop this continuing bloodbath. For this, they were accused of "gross disobedience and mob activity." They were "disruptive" and "insubordinate."

As I observed in an earlier essay, "The United States as Cho Seung-Hui: How the State Sanctifies Murder," the state may do literally anything: it may engage in mass slaughter, it can destroy entire nations even when those nations never threatened us, it may murder without consequence -- and it may do all this simply because it is "the state" that does it. I wrote:
Cho was a detestable, sickening amateur. The governing class of the United States, together with its military of unprecedented strength, are professional killers. Even now, as all our politicians make calculations for the 2008 elections their overriding priority, there is no sense of urgency whatsoever about ending this ongoing, monstrous crime.

What explains the difference in our national reaction to Cho's killings and the neverending horrors of Iraq? There are many factors involved, including some I have analyzed in detail: our national narcissism, the racism that is woven into our history and into our foreign policy, the mythology of "American exceptionalism," as expressed by Albright and shared by the governing class and foreign policy establishment, and the related and inevitable conviction that we are entitled to be the global hegemon, as I'm discussing in "Dominion Over the World."

And here is one further reason for the difference. It is hardly an original observation to note that States, especially technologically advanced States like America, are capable of infinitely greater destruction than a single individual. But a large part of our horror in reaction to Blacksburg is that we know the identity of the single killer: this man destroyed all these lives. The guilt and the responsibility are unequivocal and undeniable. Many sins can be laid at the feet of the State, particularly when a State has metamorphosed into an advanced stage of fundamentally corrupt corporatism, where nominally private business and enterprise become inextricably intertwined with the workings of vast government bureaucracies, when often unidentified enforcers are capable of favoritism or punishment on a vast scale. When the State is also engaged in widespread intrusiveness into and surveillance of most aspects of its citizens' lives, that State has almost certainly passed the point of no return. But one sin of the State is notably terrible in its specifically moral implications: it dissolves guilt and responsibility, and it cloaks human action in protective anonymity. The State, including the government of the United States, destroys countless lives both at home and abroad every day. With rare exceptions, we are unable to say: "This person caused the destruction." We don't know who did it; everyone did, and no one. "The system" is responsible. Guilt for the State's crimes is undetected, and undetectable.
Much more on these issues will be found in the earlier article.

The State seeks to make moral responsibility impossible of ascertainment. But the fact that the links establishing moral responsibility are significantly more complex to identify does not mean they are impossible to identify. And in fact, they are not. In fact, we know all too well those responsible for the carnage in Iraq: all those in the Bush administration who dishonestly propagandized for this war, and all those who planned, supervised, and implemented the invasion and occupation, and who continue to carry it out today. To these individuals, we must add all those in government who supported these plans in various ways -- and all those who might have opposed this war and whose opposition might have mattered, but who failed to do so. The general principles and the degree of moral responsibility involved are those I identified in discussing the guilt of the Republicans and of the Democrats with regard to passage
of the Military Commissions Act
Given the very considerable lead time they had, the Democrats in Congress could have been educating their colleagues -- and all Americans -- about why habeas corpus is the foundation of our political system. They could have explained why, in the absence of habeas corpus, none of us is free -- and why our liberty would become only an illusion to be destroyed at any moment. The Democrats could have explained the momentous nature of this battle, and why the administration could not be allowed to succeed. They could have made certain that enough Democrats understood the issues and were committed to the fight -- and they could have at least ensured that the bill would not be passed in the manner it was: on a thoughtless, depicably hasty schedule, designed only for electoral purposes. By means of a filibuster or utilizing some other mechanism provided by their endless rules, the Democrats could have prevented passage of this bill prior to Congress's adjournment.

With proper preparation, and with the requisite understanding that freedom itself was imperiled, the Democrats could have achieved these aims. All of us would be forever in their debt. Surely liberty itself is worth such a battle, isn't it? But the Democrats did none of these things, so the bill passed. Thus, they share in the guilt and responsibility. The guilt and responsibility that accrues to the Democrats is not as great as that of the Republicans, but it is surely great enough. And when your freedom, and that of your family and friends, and that of every single one of us, is destroyed in this manner, how do you even go about measuring degrees of guilt? How do you say this failure is worse than that one? The bill passed. They all failed, Republicans and Democrats alike. In principle, torture was enshrined and liberty was destroyed.
Even though they have controlled Congress for almost a year, the Democrats have given no indication that they intend to repeal the Military Commissions Act. If liberty has even a dim chance of being saved, and if torture as an instrument of government policy is ever to be ended, the Act must be repealed. The Democrats will not do it.

In the same manner, the Democrats could have defunded the Iraq slaughter at the earliest opportunity. Instead, they continue to fund the charnel house's operation; moreover, they lie about the nature and purposes of legislation they themselves write. They claim they act to "end" the occupation, while they do nothing of the kind. (See here and here, too.) And the Democrats will not impeach anyone in this administration, when impeachment is also a minimum requirement for salvaging anything of value left to the United States as a political entity.

So the majority of individuals in our national government are responsible in varying degrees for crimes of immense magnitude. Yet not one of them is called to account. Instead, high school students are punished, because they dared to protest these horrors. Because they failed to observe our informal but fully effective national ban on disobedience, the students were singled out and hunted down, as heretics and witches were once hunted down. Burning can take many forms: suspension and threatened expulsion are only two of them.

We may be grateful that these brave students have escaped the most severe punishment. But what lessons do you think they may have learned from this episode? As I described in the earlier piece, they have learned that the operation of justice is excessively fragile, and that justice is meted out depending on how willing you are to accommodate yourself to the demands of authority in areas that should be irrelevant. They have learned that justice often depends on matters of race and class. They have learned that certain punishments may be avoided, but only if public protest is significant and sustained. In the absence of such protest, these students' futures would have been altered significantly, and perhaps destroyed in large part.

With regard to the subject of their protest, the students look to our national leaders, and they see that no one -- no one, with only a handful of exceptions -- recognizes the horrors the students see, and is committed to ending them. They see a government made up in large part of criminals, and they see that these criminals are suffering no negative consequences at all. The students were punished, and might have been punished much more severely -- but no one in Washington suffers a similar fate on any scale.

Do you think these students will protest the next time? Do you think they will still believe it's worth it? We might hope they will, but who could blame them if they did not? Many of them may take the path of least resistance, as the vast majority of adults do. They will have learned the most fundamental lesson, the one most necessary to the continued operation of the criminal State: they will have learned to obey.

When enough people learn to obey in this way, the horrors that are unleashed are terrible to contemplate. Consult history in any era to see what happens; the twentieth century is particularly instructive. After this episode, the wish of many adults that these students learn to obey may now be granted. Keep in mind another part of Stephen Sondheim's lyric:
Careful the wish you make
Wishes are children
Careful the path they take
Wishes come true, not free...
The wish for unquestioning, unresisting obedience is coming true in America, more and more each day.

May God help us all.