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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Chronicles of Ozymandias

Freedom: A Requiem In Four Parts


Part 1: If you build it, we will hide

[The] new design provides for a level of bomb blast mitigation consistent with the NYPD’s report on the Freedom Tower and adequate to the threat….
—Raymond W. Kelly, New York City police commissioner, quoted in The New York Times, June 30, 2005
The darkness at ground zero just got a little darker. If there are people still clinging to the expectation that the Freedom Tower will become a monument to the highest American ideals, the current design should finally shake them out of that delusion. Somber, oppressive and clumsily conceived, the project suggests a monument to a society that has turned its back on any notion of cultural openness. It is exactly the kind of nightmare that government officials repeatedly asserted would never happen here: an impregnable tower braced against the outside world….

The temptation is to dismiss it as a joke….
—Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic, The New York Times, June 30, 2005

Pardon me if I don’t laugh. As I marked, if not quite celebrated, the Fourth of July thousands of miles east of what will become yet another site of American amnesia, I was again, as I am practically every day (usually after reading the news or the most recent book detailing the sheer scope of American horror, foreign and domestic), immensely relieved that I and my wife finally decided to turn our backs on the homeland of insecurity. It seems that the United States is dying a death of a thousand cuts, virtually all of them self-inflicted.

Before I proceed to bring in the Ghost of Freedom Future, however, I will, like Dickens, set the stage with the Ghost (or, at least one of many such) of Freedom Past: Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, April 30, 1975, a mere (?) generation ago. The city, and the (southern, arbitrarily divided, part of the) country “falls” to the communists, as the last Americans pile onto helicopters on the roof of our embassy and end another hastily knocked-off chapter—not only poorly composed but, this time, literally just thrown together at the last minute—in our endless, collective epic, humbly entitled, Building Everybody Else’s Nations (and subtitled: We May Not Have Gotten It Right Ourselves Yet, But At Least We Know What’s Good for the Rest of the World). Americans, of course, hate to look back, since the only direction we know is (fast-) forward (which is why even a generation is an eternity in the land of the unending frontier). But since we’re on the subject, both of memorials and of the Glorious Fourth, I do feel the need to address an obvious question: Do any of the millions upon millions of my fellow citizens who make their pilgrimage to the Vietnam Memorial year in and year out, and were there in great numbers again during this last Fourth of July weekend, ever pause, even momentarily, to reflect upon the obscene fact that the names etched on its wall are a mere token of the vast criminal enterprise that perpetrated a pitiless destruction and mass murder rare even by the hideous standards of the twentieth century?

Don’t take it personally. I was just asking. The point is that, beyond the obvious psychic (and political) self-defense of selective memory, Americans have been inordinately guilty, during the last few decades, of selective memorialization. I quote Nicolai Ouroussoff again:

At a recent meeting at his Wall Street office, [David M.] Childs [of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which was asked by New York governor George Pataki to “simplify” Daniel Libeskind’s design for the “Freedom Tower”] tried to deflect…criticism by enveloping the building in historical references….The fortresslike appearance of the base was partly inspired by the Strozzi Palace in Florence, the relationship between the base and the soaring tower by Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” sculpture [according to Mr. Childs].

But the tower has none of the lightness of Brancusi’s polished bronze form, let alone its sculptural beauty. And the Strozzi Palace’s rough stone facade is beautiful because it is a mask: once inside, you are confronted with a courtyard flooded with light and air, one of the Renaissance’s great architectural treasures. What the tower evokes, by comparison, are ancient obelisks, blown up to a preposterous scale and clad in heavy sheaths of reinforced glass—an ideal symbol for an empire enthralled with its own power. (“A Tower of Impregnability, the Sort Politicians Love,” New York Times, June 30, 2005)

In a New York Times poll last month, only 43 percent of New Yorkers said that they would work in a higher floor of a new building at the trade-center site. That was before the new plan for the “Freedom Tower” was unveiled, however. Now, in addition to its new, 200-foot (20-story), essentially windowless, concrete-and-steel base, the building will be set 65 feet away from West Street (originally it was “only” 25 feet) and 125 feet from Vesey Street. In addition, the first three floors of the base will be completely solid. It has undoubtedly already been forgotten by those who inhabit the island at the center of the world that, following the attack on September 11, the collective consensus of its citizenry was that any new building(s) that went up to replace the World Trade Center had to be “integrated” into the daily “street” life of the “neighborhood.” As things have turned out, the only precaution that apparently hasn’t been taken (yet) against any such possible integration has been to divert the Hudson into a moat surrounding this new and emblematic portal to the land of the free and the home of the…well, you know. But that’s what happens when one’s world, and life, and entire identity and sense of self, is, to quote the Times’s architecture critic one last time, “shaped by fear” (“A Tower of Impregnability…”).

Then again, freedom’s just a word for nothing left to lose, including one’s sense of being and self-respect. It’s clear that things are morally awry in a culture when the collective memory is vetted by the chief of police. In a few years, all that will be left of September 11 in the consciousness of Americans—and, even worse, of most New Yorkers—is “an ideal symbol for…empire” that represents not only the imperium’s corrupt memorial to its own deadly self, but, above all, “a level of bomb blast mitigation…adequate to the threat….”

Part 2: Terror, A Theme

Recently, I read Paris: The Biography of a City, written by the English historian Colin Jones. Like any good historian, Jones understands that it is in the detail that we capture an entire, lost world. More to the point, and again like a good historian, he knows that the past often makes more sense than the present precisely because it is the past, and we at least have the guidance of historians to assist us in wending our way through it, whereas, as far as our own time is concerned, we only have ourselves and, worst of all, journalism, which is usually not so much a guide as a disorientation. Following are two excerpts from Jones’s book.

…[O]n 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794)…Robespierre was overthrown by his fellow Conventionnels. Much of the assembly had become fearful for their lives in a Terror which seemed to be spinning out of control the more that “Year II” advanced. The Law of 22 Prairial (22 June) had facilitated convictions in the Revolutionary Tribunal, so that the streets of Paris witnessed the ever-more frequent passage of tumbrils [sic] on the way to the guillotine. It was rumoured that it had been decided to shift the place of execution out to the east of the city in the present-day Place de la Nation…because the soil under the guillotine on the Place de Grève was becoming so sodden with blood that there was a risk of contamination of urban water supplies. Some 2,600 individuals perished in this way at the hands of the Revolutionary Tribunal. (pp. 234-235)

We now move ahead 77 years, to 1871.

The Mur des Fédérés is the site of one of the most chilling and sickening acts of political violence in Paris’s long (and in this domain) rich experience….From March 1870 the Parisian National Guard had been formed into “federations” and, once the Commune experience began, the term fédéré was used interchangeably with “Communard” or “supporter of the Commune.” On 28 May 1871, following a frenetic manhunt through the tombstones, 147 Communard rebels were shot in the Père-Lachaise cemetery against the south-east perimeter wall. The remains of nearly a thousand more Communards were brought here from killing spots within the city and dumped into grave-pits….

To the Left, the Mur des Fédérés represented the savagery to which bourgeois government was driven by fear of proletarian revolution, but it was also a heroic site commemorating the irreducible bravery of the working classes. At the end of the Paris Commune, the government stationed in Versailles had sent the army to dislodge the rebel Paris Commune from power. As they moved out of the centre of the city, the Communards not only left a trail of incendiarism and destruction behind them; they also shot prisoners taken as hostages, including the archbishop of Paris, Monseigneur Darboy. There were atrocities on both sides, but in terms of numbers killed the government troops were far more brutal and ruthless: 20,000 deaths…plus even more arrests and imprisonments…as against about a thousand army casualties.

What gave piquancy to the Left’s commemoration of the Communards at the Mur des Fédérés, was that it was they, rather than the Versailles troops, who were most severely attacked by writers and intellectuals—surprisingly few of whom had a good word to say for what one writer called “this orgy of power, wine, women and blood known as the Commune”…. (pp. 328-329)

Entire treatises on the ethics of memory, historical justice, and historiography as war, and retribution, by other means can be written based on the multiple moral and social implications bursting out of the 400-plus words penned by Jones above. I will limit myself to the few paragraphs that follow, and only to stress how Jones’s historiographical conscience speaks directly to our time and its moral disorder.

The word, “terrorist,” of course, was born in the period of what my father (like all European liberals of his generation and before) called the “Great French Revolution.” We in the US never did because we thought our own “revolution” was much greater. It wasn’t, of course. It wasn’t even a revolution, properly speaking, but, rather, what would later come to be called a national liberation movement (which is why it was so admired by many later heads of other such movements, including, notably, Ho Chi Minh). In Europe, and the rest of the world, however, it was always the Great French Revolution—until very, very recently when, with the collapse of communism, all that we thought had been solid in the Western world built by the Enlightenment melted into air, and even an entire school of French historians (many of them former communists) turned on the revolution with a vengeance that only converts to a competing ideology are capable of, and which they reserve singularly for their former comrades.

So, following 1989 (ironically enough, the bicentenary of the formerly great French Revolution), it became the conventional consensus, even among many historians and “intellos” in France to look, quite literally, upon the Jacobins as proto-Bolsheviks and the revolutionary Terror as the archetype for the Soviet Gulag. It is a cliché that all historians write of their own time regardless of the period under inquiry; a reason we read multiple histories of the same period, in fact, is because one historian’s perspective can illuminate it in a way that another’s cannot. In historiography, therefore, contending grinding axes are a good thing. The danger in intellectual revisionism, however, is dropping the baby as one discards the bathwater.

Suffice it to say that revolution and terror have been synonymous in the English-speaking world ever since Burke (and even more so, again, from the time that Dickens, that great moralist of the British liberal middle classes, made that simplistic formula the pablum of received wisdom in a far, far, more effective way than the Irish reactionary ever could have). So, to be told that Robespierre was a Leninist avant la lettre is to be told nothing new, and certainly nothing of substance. We all grew up with Madame Defarge knitting murderously. Indeed, for those of us who made our own intellectual and moral way to the left, that was one of the first images that haunted us, and had to be exorcised through our private, invariably individual examination, and understanding, of who Madame Defarge was—and wasn’t.

It’s here that Jones’s insight into the subsequent historical defamation of the Paris Commune as an “orgy of power, wine, women and blood…” is especially acute, and poignant. The point is not so much that the victors write history as that they edit it, and pass it on formally and ritually, from schoolbooks to national holidays. It is this emendation of history that distorts moral perception even more than the original, ideological myopia. Regarding the very word, “terror,” one cannot seriously argue that it was a slander hurled against the Revolution by its enemies when the Revolution itself adopted and used it as a basic weapon in its defense. “The terror,” Robespierre famously declaimed, “is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible.” Well, yes, but then why didn’t “the Incorruptible One” just refer to it as “the Vigilance,” or “the Alarm,” or “the Security,” or even “the Defense,” or, simplest of all, “justice” itself? Precisely because he wanted to strike terror into the hearts of the Revolution’s enemies, not vigilance or alarm or security or defense—although he did believe he was acting in the name of justice and in defense of republican “virtue,” of which, he also insisted, terror was “an emanation.” (We all know now that the notion of “enemy of the Revolution” represented, by the Year II, not fact so much as revolutionary contention. Yes, revolutions do devour their offspring—not to mention, oftentimes, their parents as well.) In the event, the left cannot blame the right for tarring it with a pitch of its own manufacture. What the left can do, however, is point to the fact that most of that revolutionary pitch was used to seal a historic democratic victory against the reactionary assaults of a dying regime, and that the genuinely “great” resonance of this triumph changed the course of nations, peoples, and the world as a whole.

Which leads us to the notorious issue of numbers. What price progress? And what is the human, civilizational worth of the notion itself. No one can say exactly, and yet everyone knows it. In their recent book, the historians Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton quote from a letter sent by an Ohio corporal in the Union army to his wife in 1864. “If I do get hurt,” the man wrote, “I want you to remember that it will not only be for my Country and my children but for Liberty all over the World that I risked my life, for if Liberty should be crushed here, what hope would there be for the cause of Human Progress anywhere else?” (The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000, p. 303) In his extraordinary Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln blamed the fratricide then ravaging the nation on Americans themselves:

If…He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth compiled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

To this day, the Civil War remains, by far, the bloodiest slaughter of Americans. Almost as many men died in it—roughly 620,000 soldiers—as have died in all the other wars combined that the United States has ever waged. Was the conflict “worth” it? Should it have been fought at all? These are not merely academic questions; they are questions that can only be posed by those whose sense of the world is uncomplicated to the point of aphasia.

Colin Jones cites “some 2,600” victims of what probably remains the most frightful, pre-Soviet nightmare of purely political (as opposed to racial or ethnic) violence in the West’s collective unconscious. He then cites “20,000 deaths” that most of the West’s otherwise brilliantly informed citizens have undoubtedly never heard of. Let us dig a little deeper. As Arno Mayer showed a few years back in The Furies, his brilliant shredding of revisionist theories of violence and terror in the French and Russian revolutions, revolutionary violence only becomes extreme when it is attacked, not simply by domestic reaction but also by a coordinated foreign assault. It is conveniently forgotten by most (if it ever was known) that while Louis XVI was not executed until January 1793, two and a half years after the popular investment of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the first foreign armies, urged on to holy war by the Vatican against French democracy (another oft-forgotten detail), had already invaded France in August of 1792. Furthermore, it was only the day after—September 21, 1792—the French defeated the Prussian-led forces at the Battle of Valmy, and thus halted the foreign advance on Paris, that the revolutionary convention declared France a republic. The social revolution, in other words, was the consequence of a national and, above all, patriotic defeat of foreign occupiers.

Let us now examine the repression of the Paris Commune. In July 1870, the Second Empire of Louis Bonaparte went to war against Prussia; by September 2, the Prussians had crushed the French at Sedan and took Louis prisoner, along with 80,000 troops. Two days later, the Third Republic was declared, as the Prussian army surrounded and laid siege to Paris. I return to Colin Jones: “Famine conditions led to most mammals from the Vincennes zoo—along with any dog, cat or rat that could be found—being consumed by hungry Parisians. In January 1871 Edmond de Goncourt turned down the offer of elephant steak and camel kidneys from a vendor on the Champs-Élysées, and contented himself…with having snared a blackbird which he intended to eat for dinner” (p. 324). In the same month that Goncourt sat down to a meal of blackbird—January 28, to be precise—the fledgling Republic surrendered to the Prussians; it was a moot point, as Wilhelm II had proclaimed himself Kaiser of all the Germans 10 days earlier in the Hall of Mirrors of the palace at Versailles.

By March 3, the Germans were marching down the Champs-Élysées and out of Paris, having handed over the city’s administration to the Republic, which rewarded the long suffering of the Parisians during the city’s horrible siege by immediately deciding to abandon the French capital and repair to Versailles to establish its provisional government there (after also ceding Alsace and Lorraine to the Germans). That was the final straw. Units of the national guard were still armed and in control of several hundred cannons; they were now joined by their fellow Parisians. When the Versailles government sent in the army to recover the cannons, a crowd confronted the soldiers, who, in the end, refused to fire and retreated. Paris was in the hands of its municipal government, called the Commune.

The rest is bloody history. Indeed, the French call the suppression of the Commune la semaine sanglante, or “Bloody Week.” In addition to the 20,000 Parisians butchered by the government on May 21-28, 1871, 35,000 were arrested and 5,000 were condemned to penal servitude in New Caledonia. This was all done, of course, under the watchful eye of the Germans, who allowed the provisional government to rearm to the extent it needed to murder…its own citizens. It’s no wonder that the Third Republic was so despised by so many French for so long, and came to an ignominious end after the Germans occupied France again 70 years later and allowed Marshal Pétain to dissolve it and replace it with his own collaborationist regime. (The phrase, “St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre” is, in the moral lexicon of the West, synonymous with pogromist butchery. One-tenth the number of people—2,000—died in 1573 as died in 1871. I do not want to get into—in fact, I despise—that comparative exterminationism of the competitive victimhood that has become so popular, and obsessive, in our time. Still, six million dead Jews slain throughout the European continent, as opposed to a couple of hundred murdered in a Ukrainian village, is of another criminal magnitude entirely, not only quantitatively but morally, and is precisely what separates a pogrom from the Holocaust.)

One final point about terrorism. La semaine sanglante will not be found in any weighty tomes about terrorism past or future, although Robespierre’s name does crop up in the introductory chapters of many such. Both Robespierre, however, as well as the Communards, those commemorated by the Mur des Fédérés as well as all those who perished anonymously, did what they did in order to defend their country, against foreign invasion in the first instance and foreign rapacity in the second. Nonetheless, the historical “conscience” of the civilized West has consigned both to eternal obloquy. Is it possible that Osama bin Laden knows this—actually, knows more than most of us who denounce him in the West—and understands that historical infamy is sometimes the greatest honor to which a human being can aspire?

Part 3: Future Imperfect

There’s no such thing as legacies. At least, there is a legacy, but I’ll never see it.
—George W. Bush

I’m not sure about that, but it doesn’t matter. There will be hundreds of millions of Americans, and billions of others, who will see the legacy, and feel it. The question is, of course, what will it be. Let us pause for a few moments to take in the world around us.

Item: In a dispatch from Kabul published on June 30, the New York Times’s Carlotta Gall wrote that, “For the first time since the United States overthrew the Taliban government three and a half years ago, Afghans say they are feeling uneasy about the future.” She continued:

Violence has increased sharply in recent months, with a resurgent Taliban movement mounting daily attacks in southern Afghanistan, gangs kidnapping foreigners here in the capital and radical Islamists orchestrating violent demonstrations against the government and foreign-financed organizations.

“Three years on, the people are still hoping that things are going to work out, but they have become suspicious about why the Americans came, and why the Americans are treating the local people badly,” said Jandad Spinghar, leader of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in Nangarhar Province in the east….

Item. On the same day that Gall’s report was published, the Times ran a dispatch from Basra, in which their reporter, Edward Wong, wrote that:

With the Aug. 15 deadline for writing a new constitution bearing down, a cadre of powerful, mostly secular Shiite politicians is pushing for the creation of an autonomous region in the oil-rich south of Iraq, posing a direct challenge to the nation’s central authority….

“We want to destroy the central system that connects the entire country to the capital,” said Bakr al-Yasseen, a former foe of Mr. Hussein who spent years in exile in Syria. He is one of the chief organizers of the autonomy campaign, which is supported by Ahmad Chalabi, the one-time Pentagon favorite and scion of a prominent Shiite family from the south, among others.

Mr. Yasseen, who has ties to Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president and a Kurd, is demanding for the south the same broad powers that the Kurds now have, including an independent parliament, ministries and regional military force….

Less than 10 days later, the Times ran another dispatch from Basra, again by Edward Wong, which began, “The loudest sounds emanating from musicians’ row these days come from explosions.” Wong went on to explain.

Ahmed Ali walked through a shop that sold musical instruments before it was gutted by a bombing a week earlier, the latest in a series of mysterious attacks in this narrow alley in the last half-year, he said. The men here, just a block from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, sell instruments by day and perform at weddings in the evening.

“They say it’s forbidden by Islam,” Mr. Ali, 18, said as he went back to his own shop, its shelves stocked with drums. “We’re afraid of everything. I’m afraid of it all. I’m afraid even when I’m talking to you.”…

The once libertine oil port of Basra, 350 miles south of the capital and far from the insurgency raging in much of Iraq, is steadily being transformed into a mini-theocracy under Shiite rule….

The [music] bazaar is just blocks away from a strip where sidewalk alcohol vendors once thrived, before armed vigilantes and policemen drove them away….

Few women walk around without a head scarf and full-length black robe. A young woman who gave her name as Layla said she could wear jeans without a robe a year ago. But seven months before, as she strode from her house, a group of men came up to her and warned her that she was improperly dressed.

She says she no longer goes out in public without a robe.

Item. The West was stunned by the recent victory of the most “un-Western” and anti-American candidate in the Iranian elections. But, as William O. Beeman, director of Middle East studies at Brown University, wrote earlier this month on TomPaine.com, “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had not even been officially declared the winner of Iran’s presidential contest before the attacks began.”

But Ahmadinejad is not some semi-literate rabble-rouser, Beeman writes; he “has a Ph.D. in civil engineering…and ran a tight ship as Tehran’s mayor. His modest life style and sober demeanor gained him the trust of many Iranian voters.” Ahmadinejad is also the first non-cleric in 24 years to be elected president of Iran’s Islamic republic. To anyone who followed the run-off election between him and the brazenly opportunistic former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, it was obvious that Iranians had voted, more than anything, as they had wanted to vote and not as the West had wished they would; in fact, they had voted, to a certain manifest degree, against any further Westernization of their country, against the West, and, above all, against the US. They also voted for Ahmadinejad en masse, giving him a famous victory against Rafsanjani, 61.6 percent to 35.9 percent, respectively (with roughly 56 percent turnout).

Item. On the same day as the Iranian run-off elections, a judge in Milan ordered the arrest of 13 Americans, all presumed to be CIA agents. I quote the report in The Economist (July 2-8):

Relations between Italy and America have been tense ever since the accidental killing of an intelligence officer by American troops in Iraq in March. Now a new sore point has emerged: “extraordinary rendition,” the CIA’s phrase for snatching terrorist suspects and sending them to third countries where torture is routine. This week Silvio Berlusconi’s government, a staunch ally of the Bush administration, summoned the American ambassador in Rome to explain the disappearance in Milan two years ago of a Muslim cleric suspected of belonging to a militant Islamist group.

…[Italian] investigators have knitted together the story of what happened….

The [Italian] prosecutors’ reconstruction was presented to a judge who…ordered the arrest of 13 American suspects, on charges of kidnapping. Her order has been passed to the European Union’s prosecuting unit, Eurojust, which means that police across Europe will soon be obliged to arrest the suspects.

Obliged, perhaps, but not able to. All 13 suspects apparently escaped Italy before their arrest warrants were issued and, in a form of rendition as usual, are undoubtedly back in the US or in a part of the world, such as Afghanistan or Iraq, that is now considered de facto US territory.

Item. On June 30, the International Herald Tribune published a dispatch from Eric Schmitt in Washington; among other things, it reported that:

The Pentagon has promoted or nominated for promotion two senior army officers who oversaw or advised on detention and interrogation operations in Iraq during the height of the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal….

A third officer…the former top intelligence officer in Iraq, took command earlier this year of the army’s intelligence center at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

An independent inquiry led by a former defense secretary, James Schlesinger, faulted the officers for their actions in Iraq, but a subsequent review by the army’s inspector general exonerated them, clearing the way for their advancement, military officials said.

Item. In the same issue of the Tribune, Arlie Hochschild described a vile new twist in what the Pentagon calls the GWOT (or Global War on Terrorism). It is a truly chilling report, entitled, “Children, too, are abused in US prisons.” Here are parts of it:

…Under international law, the line between childhood and maturity is 18. In communications with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the Pentagon has lowered the cutoff to 16. For this reason among others, we don’t know exactly how many Iraqi children are in American custody.

But before the transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government a year ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported registering 107 detainees under 18 during visits to six prisons controlled by coalition troops. Some detainees were as young as 8. Since that time, Human Rights Watch reports that the number has risen.

The figures from Afghanistan are still more alarming: the journalist Seymour Hersh wrote last month in the British newspaper The Guardian that a memo addressed to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shortly after the 2001 invasion reported “800-900 Pakistani boys 13-15 years of age in custody.”

Juvenile detainees in American facilities like Abu Ghraib and Bagram Air Base have been subject to the same mistreatment as adults. The International Red Cross, Amnesty International and the Pentagon itself have gathered substantial testimony of torture of children, bolstered by accounts from soldiers who witnessed or participated in the abuse.

According to Amnesty International, Muhammad Ismail Agha, 13, was arrested in Afghanistan in late 2002 and detained without charge or trial for over a year, first at Bagram and then at Guantánamo. He was held in solitary confinement and subjected to sleep deprivation.

“Whenever I started to fall asleep, they would kick at my door and yell at me to wake up,” he told an Amnesty researcher. “They made me stand partway, with my knees bent, for one or two hours.”

A Canadian, Omar Khadr, was 15 in 2002 when he was captured in Afghanistan and interned at Guantánamo. For two and a half years, he was allowed no contact with a lawyer or with his family.

Akhtar Muhammad, 17, told Amnesty that he was kept in solitary confinement in a shipping container for eight days in Afghanistan in January 2002.

A Pentagon investigation last year by Major General George Fay reported that in January 2004, a leashed but unmuzzled guard dog was allowed into a cell holding two children. The intention was for the dog to “‘go nuts on the kids,’ barking and scaring them.”

Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, formerly in charge of Abu Ghraib, told Fay about visiting a weeping 11-year-old in the prison’s notorious Cellblock 1B, which housed prisoners designated high risk. “He told me he was almost 12,” Karpinski recalled, and that “he really wanted to see his mother, could he please call his mother.”

… A Pentagon spokesman told Hersh that juveniles received some special care, but added, “Age is not a determining factor in detention.”

Some of these children may have picked up a stone or a gun. But coalition intelligence officers told the Red Cross that 70 percent to 90 percent of detainees in Iraq are eventually found innocent and released. Many innocent children are swept up with their parents in chaotic nighttime dragnets based on tips from unreliable informants….

Item. Meanwhile, back in the heartland…: two days before the previous story ran in the Tribune, the Times published a story entitled, “How to Market Hummers to the Masses.” I quote in part:

…[L]ast month, Hummer introduced the H3, a squatter, scaled-down version of its top-selling H2. The H3 is being billed as the Hummer for people and pocketbooks of all sizes….

About 17 inches shorter in length and 6 inches lower in height than the H2, the H3 is petite by Hummer standards. It’s also the least expensive Hummer, with a base price around $30,000….

“Hummer has a huge opportunity as a brand to expand into lots of segments down the road,” said Liz Vanzura, Hummer’s marketing director. “With the H3, there are a lot of people that can say, ‘Hey, now I can get one.’ So it’s a larger audience for us.”…

Item. Three days after the previous story, the Times published a report by Kenneth Chang that began, “Whether or not it contributes to global warming, carbon dioxide is turning the oceans acidic, Britain’s leading scientific organization warned yesterday….[T]he Royal Society…said the growing acidity would be very likely to harm coral reefs and other marine life by the end of the century….” The society’s 60-page report, according to the Times, “was timed to influence next week’s Group of 8 economic summit meeting.” Six days later, the Times reported that “Bush arrives at [the] summit session [of the G8], ready to stand alone” on global warming and environmental issues generally.

Item. On the same day as it ran the previous story, the Times published a report by David Cay Johnston about those Americans who can presumably afford the H1. I quote excerpts:

The number of affluent individuals and married couples who paid no federal income taxes jumped more than 15 percent in 2002, to 5,650, new government data showed yesterday.

The chances of having a large income but not paying taxes on any of it are growing, according to the data, issued in the Internal Revenue Service’s annual report to Congress on well-to-do Americans who live tax free. About one in every 436 high-income Americans paid no taxes in 2002, up from one in 531 in 2001 and one in 1,010 in 2000.

Over all, the top 2 percent of earners, the 2.5 million filers with income of $200,000 or more, paid almost 27 cents in taxes for each dollar of income they reported in 2002, other I.R.S. data showed….

Among that high-income group, however, almost 83,000, or one in 33, paid less than a dime in taxes for every dollar of income. An additional 79,000 paid less than 15 cents. The average for all Americans was 13 cents.

Congress taxes Americans on their worldwide income. Of the 5,650 individuals and couples who paid no income taxes to the United States, only 728 paid any to a foreign government, while 4,922 lived completely free of income tax.

Item: Finally, a dispatch from Reuters, sent out over the wires on the same day as the Times story above.

Washington (Reuters)—The US House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly voted to block the Bush administration from approving a Chinese company’s attempt to acquire U.S. oil and gas producer Unocal Corp. The House approved the measure 333-92 and attached it to a spending bill for the departments of Treasury, Transportation and other agencies for the fiscal year that starts on Oct. 1.

The House also voted 398-15 for a nonbinding resolution calling on the Bush administration to immediately conduct a review of the possible takeover. The resolution also states that a CNOOC [China National Offshore Oil Corporation] takeover of Unocal could threaten US national security.

In the items above, I tried to give as varied a picture as possible of this particular “point in time,” as they say in Washington. More relevantly (and frighteningly), I arbitrarily chose two weeks from the end of June through the beginning of July—which means, naturally, that any comparable period chosen, before or after, will produce the same amount and ratio of truly unsettling news.

***

Intermezzo of Blood: July 7, 2005

It is July 14 today. When I began this essay, on July 4, I didn’t think it would take me so long to complete it. So, what began as a reflection on one “revolution” has ended up, I suppose invariably, as a consideration of the meaning of that wellspring of all modern revolutions. It is a famous story: When Zhou Enlai was asked his estimation of the French Revolution, he replied that it was too soon to tell. It is the same with all fundamental moments of historical (re)definition.

The previous section, “Future Imperfect” was written on July 7. In fact, I’d just finished writing the last item about CNOOC’s bid for Unocal when my wife called my mother-in-law in New Hampshire to wish her a happy birthday. It was my wife’s mother who told us about the attacks that day that had struck London. We immediately turned on the BBC, and learned of the events.

It’s taken me a week to get back to this piece. There is nothing I intend to—or, at this point, can—write about what happened in London. After a while, ethical, existential pain is the same as physical pain: a constant throbbing, an invasive presence, that ultimately leads beyond anger to exhaustion and, worst of all, resignation. It’s already become a cliché: Everybody knew that London was going to be the next victim of…what, exactly? Oh, yes, of course, “terrorism.” The vile actions of “them,” who despise our “values” and believe only in a “cult of death.” Mr. Blair, Mr. Bush, Britons, Americans, we—all of us in the West—are guilty of nothing at all, except wanting to bestow our unique, ineffable goodness and multicultural and omniconfessional concord on the benighted and wretched of the earth. There really is nothing I can write about London. There comes a moment when elemental decency, and self-respect, dictates silence.

***

Part 4: His Terrible, Swift Sword

Did Mr. Bush ask his father for any advice [about invading Iraq]? “I asked the president about this. And President Bush said, ‘Well, no,’ and then he got defensive about it,” says [Bob] Woodward. “Then he said something that really struck me. He said of his father, ‘He is the wrong father to appeal to for advice. The wrong father to go to, to appeal to in terms of strength.’ And then he said, ‘There’s a higher Father that I appeal to.’”
—Interview with Bob Woodward, cbsnews.com, April 18, 2004

Those of us who grew up in America under a radically different, and civil, dispensation, before the country was hocked to Heaven, cannot even begin to understand, let alone recognize, the outlines of a nation that was founded, in Jefferson’s famous words (in a letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, in 1802), behind “a wall of separation between church and State.” Jefferson’s most public, and acidic, political opponent, John Adams, might have disagreed with his successor in most other things, but not in this. In describing the overarching constitutional framework of the 13 original states, the second president of the United States wrote that, “The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and, if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history….” And just in case there was any doubt as to what he meant by “the simple principles of nature,” Adams was categorical: “It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service [of the governments of the 13 states] had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses….” (A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America)

As for Madison—the architect of our constitutional framework—his dread of religion was overt and unmitigated. “What influence…have ecclesiastical establishments had on society,” he asked, not at all rhetorically. He answered the question himself. “In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people.” He went on to warn against those “convenient auxiliaries” that “[r]ulers who wish to subvert the public liberty” find in “an established clergy.” (Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments)

Madison would have been appalled, and fearful for the future of his country, by the influence, not simply of religion but of fundamentalist Christianity in the nation’s government today: “The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles,” he declared. It is not difficult to deduce what he would have made of the contemporary institution of White House “prayer breakfasts,” and of the men who have imposed them. He would also have been deeply dismayed by the fundamentalist penetration (as with most of the Founders, he would not have hesitated to call it subversion) of the armed forces (the size of the armed forces in a time of peace is also a fact of current American reality that would have profoundly disturbed the Founders): “Better…to disarm…the chaplainships for the army and navy,” he wrote in 1817. (Both quotes in this paragraph are from Madison’s Monopolies, Perpetuities, Corporations, Ecclesiastical Endowments.)

Still, in the end, it is not so much the “faith” abroad in the land today that makes the United States such a fearsome landscape to behold. It is the nature of that faith. It is truly sobering to reflect again on that Ohio corporal’s letter to his wife during the Civil War: “…it will not only be for my Country and my children but for Liberty all over the World that I risked my life, for if Liberty should be crushed here, what hope would there be for the cause of Human Progress anywhere else?” The complexity of sentiment here is immense, and of a character that Americans today are entirely incapable of understanding. When that corporal speaks of risking his life “for my Country and my children,” he does not mean what we, today, think he means, but something radically opposed to our currently deluded, and altogether false, patriotism. His patriotism, on the contrary, leads him to a love of country that is pure, precisely because it is stripped of all false consolations. What he means, of course, is that he is willing to die in a war against other Americans, which further means, above all, that he is willing to kill other Americans, both “for Liberty all over the World” and “the cause of Human Progress.” This is a genuinely—most Americans today would say chillingly—revolutionary avowal. And it points to the revolutionary essence, both of the Civil War and of the man who presided over it with such utter (Jacobin?) tenacity.

When Lincoln was reelected in 1864, he received a letter of congratulation that subsequently became famous, although (unsurprising, this) it is little-known in the United States itself. It was sent by the International Working Men’s Association in London and composed by the organization’s corresponding secretary for Germany, Karl Marx. It begins:

Sir: We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.

It continues: “From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class.” And concludes:

The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest [sic] of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

In August 1862, a month before the Battle of Antietam, and the Emancipation Proclamation that ensued from what proved to be the war’s single bloodiest day, Marx wrote a prescient article for the newspaper, Die Presse. “So far,” he said, “we have only witnessed the first act of the Civil War—the constitutional waging of war. The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand.” It was, indeed, and was to lead to “the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.”

Or, at least, so was thought by many “workingmen” at the time of Lincoln’s assassination. In the end, of course, black Americans were re-enchained, and the “social world” of which the International Working Men’s Association dreamed was left brazenly unreconstructed, in ruins, in fact, to this very day. Still, there was a time in America when soldiers from Ohio believed that “Human Progress” was worth the killing of Americans by Americans; when the “workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class”; and (how far away it all seems) when the president of the United States did not consider God to be his adjutant—let alone his “Father”—but his, and his nation’s, “mighty scourge.”

And, of course, there was even a time, before the time described above, when Americans believed, as Jefferson wrote to John Adams, that “the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus…will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” Sadly for all of us, however, that day came and went a long time ago.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of greekworks.com.
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