Monday, July 18, 2011

The War on Terrorism

Such facile rhetoric, but so ubiquitous, so common that one never stops to question it. Keep it simple and keep it coming. Isnt that just what Hitler recommended in Mein Kampf? And it has worked. Perhaps too well.

The government, along with a host of ideologues, would have you believe that we are winning this war. We subdued Iraq, we have suppressed the Taliban, chased them to the margins of Afghanistan, and we have hunted down and killed Public Enemy Number One, Osama bin Laden. It's a peculiar kind of war, an executive action, not ratified by Congress, fought against a shadowy enemy whose only identifiable characteristic in most people's minds is the turban, in a territory that resists clear definition. Who conceived this war? A bunch of foreign policy wonks, international affairs experts, defense experts, cabinet advisors, and a deluded president. Just who is it we are fighting? Iraqis? Afghans? Chimerical weapons of mass destruction? Chimerical members of Al Qaeda? And where do we fight this war, Iraq -- or Iran, which we accuse of channeling dissent across its border? Afghanistan -- or Pakistan, in those "wild" frontier regions that no one can control? Yemen?

The truth is that the enemy as well as the territory is a vague ideological construct which allows for a rather too broad scope or field of action, targeting Guantanamo detainees, neighborhood mosques, muslims, "ragheads," "sand niggers," dissenters, civilians as well as anyone toting an AK 47 -- that most unAmerican of weapons.

The war on terror is theater, pure and simple. It dramatizes different value systems. Its director and producers intend it as a rousing confirmation of American values, a vindication of our power and our resolution. A resounding answer to the attack on 9/11. A national katharsis. To those of us who refuse to step to the martial drumming, it is theater of the absurd. Nonetheless, it is certainly tragic, because the actors really die -- idealistic young volunteer soldiers and hapless civilians.

The script is heavily clich├ęd. Predictably the bad guy dies. But the play refuses to end. The war on terrorism has its own momentum, a perverse will of its own. The rhetoric is so broad, so adaptable, that new threats, real or imagined, keep popping up, new battlefields beckon. One has to ask, who is the real winner in this interminable war?

We killed the bad guy, but the damage he did to the country outlives him. I was recuperating in a nursing home when the staff excitedly brought me the news that Osama bin Laden had been shot. I was known for having been a victim of 9/11 and they thought I would be pleased by the news. They kept asking my reaction. But I couldnt give them a satisfactory answer. I'm not sure it meant much of anything.

The planes that struck the towers struck through them to the core of our society. They turned us into a nation of paranoids and jingoists quick to sacrifice civil liberties in the name of national security. They amplified police powers at the expense of human rights. They provided an excuse to subvert our own most basic legal principles such as due process. They caused us to expand big government by adding on another useless bureaucracy, the interestingly named Department of Homeland Security. They drained our economy through two bootless wars with uncertain results, which in turn have brought us to the point where we are -- incredibly -- debating the need for social welfare programs that protect and nurture the weakest among us (not just the poor but also the infirm, and senior citizens and children) -- programs like social security that each of us earns, because we pay for it and rightly expect to benefit from it when the time comes. They exposed the weaknesses of our news media, which subsequently provided a classic example of what Chomsky calls the manufacture of consent. And they have diverted our attention from the primary business of perfecting our own democracy while we waste dollars and human lives on propping up shaky parodies of democratic government in places we dont understand and cannot control.

Who wins? Not the American people. Not the military either, at least not in the conventional sense, except insofar as they have been able to use the war to test their new toys, defend their budgets, and amplify their role in American foreign policy. If anyone on "our side" wins it must be the capitalists who profit from the war, the weapons manufacturers, technology companies, security companies (what we used to call, more honestly, "mercenaries") and engineers.

We chose war instead of peace. We chose to define our lives in the terms set by the rhetoric of war and terrorism. And in the end, we imprisoned ourselves just as surely as we encarcerated suspects in Guantanamo. In the words of the immortal Pogo, "we have met the enemy, and he is us."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Nursing Home Sketches: Eugene

Despite the heat, I customarily sat outside everyday in the courtyard to get away from the arctic air conditioning and dreary ambience of institutional housing. There were two courtyards, one that was beautifully landscaped with trees that afforded some shade against the fierce sun, and the other that was treeless but had a little babbling pond where a couple frogs lived briefly. I would sit in one or the other for as long as I could withstand the heat, reading some Latin American literature or studying Spanish grammar. There almost never came any other resident, I suspect because most of them were immobile.

However, I could always count on seeing Eugene at some point in the day, since he liked to sit and even dine outside. Eugene suffered from gout and his swollen legs prevented him from walking, so he sat in a wheelchair which he couldn’t drive since he also had broken his arm. His stay was temporary and he went home a week before I did. The CNAs would pilot him to the courtyard and leave him there, often forgetting to retrieve him. Once I came upon him late one afternoon and discovered that he had been sitting in the hot sun for hours and was thirsty and sweaty, worn out with the heat. I got out of my wheelchair and pushed his back into the cool hallways where the nurses could take care of him.

I liked Eugene instantly. He was simple and straightforward, and I knew I could talk to him honestly about sensitive subjects without fear of offending. Since I was down South for the first time, I was keenly interested in its race relations, which I have come to feel are a unique product of the history and circumstances of this region. It feels different to me from what I experience in the North.

So one day Eugene and I were talking about whites and blacks in Florida and how segregation still prevails in subtle and not so subtle ways – the blacks live there, the whites here and so on. Relations are genial, but there is always a deep sense of unalterable and insurmountable difference between the two communities. One of my neighbors in Ocala, a lovely person with a big heart, once told me point blank that she would never enter the black neighborhood, implying that she feared its lawlessness and animosity. Having been raised in a very mixed New York nabe and educated in its public schools, I could never understand this mentality. It is natural for me to be among people very different from myself.

Eugene and I spoke quite candidly about these attitudes and at one point he floored me when he divulged that his father had been shot down in the street, right in front of the boy Eugene, by some crazed racists. I couldn’t imagine the pain and fear that this must have caused him, and yet he was not scarred by the event. He bore no hatred, his soul was free of its distortions.

I admired him. But I was impressed also by the nearness of history, by its power to reach out and shake our complacency. I lived through the Civil Rights Era, I remember vividly King’s I Have a Dream speech and his assassination. And yet I think of this almost as ancient history, a period whose struggles have no visceral connection to the concerns of the present. But here was Eugene, a living bearer of that history, who magically brought it all back to life. That day he taught me the meaning of that history, as experienced by lone individuals, and the magnificent courage of such persons who suffered its shocks without losing their humanity.

Unsurprisingly, Eugene viewed his current physical distress with equal equanimity. Severely tested, he wasted no time on idle complaint or bitter reproach. The day the CNA abandoned him to the sun’s lashing, he uttered not one word against such negligence.