"I came here to drink milk and kick ass. And I've just finished my milk." - Moss, The IT Crowd

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

More needs she the divine than the physician

I haven't posted much original material lately because, frankly, I've been spending too much time reading news and doing research, and it seems like 99% of what I find is so damn depressing. It's easy to start feeling hopeless and helpless, and those sentiments make it hard to keep writing about the things you believe need to change. I know that my blog posts are not going to change the world or, most likely, ever be read by more than a tiny handful of people, but I feel strongly that I should try to use the free time I have right now to speak up about the things that I see going awry in my home country. I didn't have the luxury of time to do much of that during the war-mongering legislative nightmare that followed 9/11, beyond writing a few e-mails and standing to be counted at a couple of anti-war demonstrations; and I believe I have a duty to speak my conscience in writing, to stand up and be counted in a more public way, now that I am fortunate enough to have a little time to do so. What's difficult is motivating myself to keep the words flowing.

Writing public blog posts that can be readily connected to my real-world identity makes me anxious. I am a private person who likes having a quiet life and getting along with my friends and neighbors. It's not easy to speak out on controversial subjects when you believe that your government is more interested in quieting dissent than in righting wrongs, and when you know that your words may one day be held against you in a job interview by someone who believes that blind obedience is better than integrity, critical thinking, and compassion. But while these are valid reasons for feeling anxious, they are not valid reasons for failing to stand up for what is right. Principles should matter more than personal convenience, and I struggle constantly (as I think most people do) to integrate that belief into actual daily life in a constructive way. I need to keep writing in this blog - and, if you're reading, I need your encouragement to help me keep at it. Otherwise I'll end up just staring at my computer screen, feeling guilty for not posting, and wondering how in the hell my country is going to pull itself out of the mess that it's in.

I love the United States and my home state of Texas very deeply, although I'm sure many people whose idea of patriotism is "America first, right or wrong" would be surprised by that. It is the fact of that love that drives my need to speak. Just as you feel duty, out of love, to tell a dear family member or friend that their behavior is self-destructive or morally bankrupt, I feel, as a U.S. citizen and registered voter, a duty to speak when my country's government does things that I know are morally wrong. It's not giving aid and comfort to the enemy - it's being a responsible citizen of conscience. It's the only way I can live with myself.

My preference is to minimize talk about my personal frame of mind on this blog. We live in a confessional society, where the right to privacy is trivialized and many people are willing to sacrifice all privacy and dignity for even a fleeting chance at the most debased kind of fame. But I'm finding it necessary to talk a little more about what motivates me in order to break through this dry spell and get my writing mojo back. (All this is by way of apology for the lengthy personal digression above.)

What I actually wanted to post about today was the recent revelations about the prisoners at Guantanamo that have come out from the recent Wikileaks release of additional classified documents received from Bradley Manning. The extrajudicial prison camp at Guantanamo, where officially sanctioned torture once ran rampant and the rule of law was held in abeyance, is a permanent stain on the honor of the United States. MY country. MY honor. There is no way to simply remedy what we have wrought here, to just make it right through the physic of good governance. That is why I quoted Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth in the title of this essay. This should be troubling all of us, because the smell of what the United States has done in Guantanamo will never entirely dissipate no matter how long we scrub our hands. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten it.

These actions were taken by OUR government, in OUR names. Yours and mine. And our government has not yet begun to take responsibility for its actions. This should outrage every American citizen of conscience who, like me, is actually foolish enough to believe that tosh in the Declaration of Independence about "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Being scared of the boogeyman is not a sufficient reason to deprive any person of those rights. These rights apply to ALL persons, not just American citizens. Not just white English-speakers who believe what you believe. Believing that your electability may be hurt if you release someone unjustly imprisoned, because some voters are scared of the boogeyman, is not an excuse for continuing to violate human rights on an ongoing basis.

All our country can do at this point is atone, much like that was all we could do after the scandal of the Japanese-American internment camps in World War II. But the process of atonement cannot begin until we actually cease engaging altogether in the morally repugnant behavior that we need to atone for. One of my reasons for voting for Barack Obama was that he stated clearly, unequivocally, that the camp at Guantanamo must be closed, as a matter of principle. That promise now lies in ruins, and it is becoming increasingly clear day by day that this was not a serious commitment - it was just another political bargaining chip to be gambled away in the name of cutting deals to get half a loaf.

The fact that thousands of Americans died on 9/11, and that so many of us were devastated with heartbroken horror on that day and for many days thereafter, is no excuse for engaging in morally repugnant behavior of our own in some misguided attempt to punish a small gang of terrorist criminals, many of whom already died in their own attacks. I said this before we invaded Afghanistan, and I said it before we invaded Iraq. No one in power was listening then, and I don't expect anyone in power is listening now. But that is no excuse for failing to speak up, which is why I felt compelled to post today.

The other thing I wanted to say is that Bradley Manning DID speak up. He spoke up in the most powerful way anyone has in this country since the Pentagon Papers. It's appropriate that he's being court-martialed, because his alleged actions broke the law and the trust invested in him as a member of the military. He's also a bona fide hero. He knew that he was taking a huge risk, and he did it anyway, because he thought Americans should know what their government -- elected by them and paid for by their tax dollars -- was doing in their name, and that this imperative was more morally compelling than his conflicting duties as a soldier. No doubt, like most whistleblowers, he also had other, less altruistic motivations for what he did. It doesn't change his heroism. I don't think I would have had the courage (perhaps foolhardiness) to do what he did. But I'm glad he believed that accountability and integrity in government policy were more important than secrecy and privilege.

I also have no doubt that there has been some damage done by the papers leaked by Bradley Manning, and that there will be unfortunate unintended consequences.  However, I would rather have the damage and unintended consequences of sunlight on our government's actions than the slow and steady corrosion caused by unchecked and unchallenged government privilege.

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