Friday, October 28, 2005

Responsibility; or nothing at all

Athenae put me on the idea of the walls coming down. I was actually thinking about events today, and in the last 5 years, in connection with Aristotle and tragedy this morning, while lecturing on the subject. Not that W. is a "tragic figure," but his hubris has certainly exposed his all too obvious hamartia, and in classic tragedy the protagonist need not be a sympathetic character, merely an important one.

So maybe the walls are tumbling down. I hope so. But this is where they should really fall:

Washington - A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the US government to provide medical records on Guantánamo prisoners who are being force-fed while on a hunger strike and to notify their lawyers about forced feedings.

US District Court Judge Gladys Kessler acted after lawyers representing about a dozen men held at the prison for foreign terrorism suspects at the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, expressed urgent concern over their deteriorating health amid a hunger strike launched in early August.

Kessler stated in her opinion that the detainees' lawyers had presented "deeply troubling" allegations of forced feedings in which US personnel violently shoved tubes as thick as a finger through the men's noses and into their stomachs without anesthesia or sedatives.

"If the allegations are true - and they are all explicitly, specifically and vigorously denied by the government - they describe conduct of which the United States can hardly be proud," the judge wrote.

Julia Tarver, a lawyer for the detainees, had told the court she learned during a visit to the base several weeks ago of force-feedings that caused prisoners to vomit blood. Tarver wrote, "When they vomited up blood, the soldiers mocked and cursed at them, and taunted them with statements like 'look what your religion has brought you.'"

Tarver told the court that prison guards took a feeding tube from one detainee, "and with no sanitization whatsoever, reinserted it into the nose of a different detainee."
Many Guantánamo prisoners have been there for more than 3-1/2 years, and just four have been charged with crimes. Rights activists have denounced these indefinite detentions and treatment they say amounts to torture. Most detainees were picked up in Afghanistan after a US invasion in 2001 to oust the Taliban government and dislodge al Qaeda bases.
There may be no "recognition" by the protagonist of his error; but there certainly needs to be a reversal, and one carried out not just by the protagonist, but by his entire nation.

Jonah walked the streets of Nin'eveh, and preached a simple sermon: "Yet forty days, and Nin'eveh shall be overthrown!" And the king, and so all the people, heard and repented, and the kingdom was saved.

We put much weight on individual responsibility today, to the point that some will excuse Dick Cheney from any contagion or contamination arising from the indictment, or more especially the conviction, if it comes, of his chief of staff. Ken Lay to this day protests his innocence for actions taken by people directly under his authority and supervision. So too, the country will continue to consider itself apart from its leadership, and responsible only for encouraging justice, or for having the right criticism of those who are brought down by their individual hubris and their individual hamartia.

But tragedy is never about the individual. Ask Lear; ask Hamlet; ask Macbeth. It always involves the community; even if the tragic protagonist is Willy Loman, we are all indicted in the fall, we all bear responsibility for the failure, for creating and abiding by and supporting the system that made the failure not only possible, but inevitable.

That is what I see if Athenae is right and the walls are finally coming down. Not a cause for glee and dancing; but a reason to wear sackcloth and ashes and to repent. Because Donne was right, although he meant it in very different way: when the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

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