Monday, February 28, 2005

In the Penal Colony

Well, Bob Herbert has said it; said it in the plainest language possible:

As a nation, does the United States have a conscience? Or is anything and everything O.K. in post-9/11 America? If torture and the denial of due process are O.K., why not murder? When the government can just make people vanish - which it can, and which it does - where is the line that we, as a nation, dare not cross?

When I interviewed Maher Arar in Ottawa last week, it seemed clear that however thoughtful his comments, I was talking with the frightened, shaky successor of a once robust and fully functioning human being. Torture does that to a person. It's an unspeakable crime, an affront to one's humanity that can rob you of a portion of your being as surely as acid can destroy your flesh.

Americans no longer have consciences, we just have pocketbooks; we no longer have governance, we just have a security-provider; we no longer have souls, we merely have appetites.

And this is the inevitable outcome of our reliance on technology, our faith in the material, our belief that we truly are Masters of the Universe. This is not necessarily a "Republican" or "right wing" point of view. The wholly alternative "Last Whole Earth Catalog from 3 decades ago began with these words, seen in no way then as arrogant or ignorant, but in fact as prescient and pragmatic: "We are as Gods, so we might as well get good at it." It is hubris, born of our warping of the legacy of the Enlightenment, hubris as much as venality, that has brought us to this point.

Review the movies of the last half-century or so, and you begin to realize Americans don't believe in government; they only believe in security. Police in movies and on television do not govern traffic, provide order for society, work for the common public good. They hunt bad guys, and they protect specific individuals, preferably nubile women, from harm. They are a security apparatus, a Praetorian guard for the middle class; nothing more. What more, indeed, do we need? Our technology, our "economic system," our own hard work, is what provides our needs. What need have we of anything else, except, of course, a security force, to make sure we can keep it and, at our leisure, enjoy it?

When we think of Ancient Rome, we don't think of the road system that spanned Europe, the engineering feets that created concrete domes and aqueducts and planned cities, and an economic system that lasted for a thousand years. We think of the short sword and the might of the Roman military, and the ability to maintain order through terror (crucifixion was the single most efficient combination of terror and execution ever devised; and when the streets of Jerusalem ran red with blood in 70 C.E., it was to uphold the "Pax Romana." It is that "Pax" that we solely remember and admire today, in America.)

We have lost our way, and we have done it willingly. I learned just how brutal my government could be during Vietnam. I lost all belief in the goodwill of my government, just as Mark Twain did in the 19th century. What he wrote in "The War Prayer" was repeated on the TV in my living room when I grew up. But I always thought the U.S. was superior in one way: that we would never countenance a "Hanoi Hilton" under U.S. government control. Now even Sen. John McCain doesn't speak out about what is done "in our name."

I am ashamed of us. We have no excuse, we have no explanation, and we have no soul. We have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage. I am convinced this is a moral universe. The only question left now is: when does it become clear to us what is already true, that we have destroyed ourselves as a country? When will we realize the message is being written in our bodies, and we are now the proprietors of Kafka's penal colony?

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