Over dinner recently, a friend of mine mused that “at least it’s not as bad as the McCarthy era.” Perhaps not. But granted that the war against terrorism presents challenges whose form we have not confronted before, the level of secrecy and aversion to rules of both domestic and international law is troubling. Here’s more in the ever-growing list of my concerns about what is happening to our nation.
1. Whose idea was it to make a deck of bad-guy playing cards, of all things? If what Gen. Vincent Brooks says is literally true–that those pictured are to be “pursued, killed or captured”–then this “collectible” deck is little more than a gussied-up hit list. As such, the poker-styled playfulness trivializes what those with no sense of humor might carelessly interpret as our own home-grown fatwa. It is chilling, hearing commentators speak not of Saddam Hussein’s death, but of “taking out the ace of spades.”
2. We must be concerned that Iraqi military casualties are still unaccounted for. One hears estimates of 7,000 Iraqi prisoners of war, 1,800 civilian casualties. But there is not even a rough guess of the number of deaths of soldiers or Republican Guard or paramilitaries or fedayeen or armed villagers. If we speak of “acceptably low” casualties for our side, must not we think about what would be an “unacceptably high” toll on the other? a hundred? a thousand? a million? We wanted to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Given the extraordinary superiority of our military force, does not morality demand that we ourselves not wreak massive destruction, massive injury, massive loss of life? We must know these things.
3. There must be some greater public debate about this new doctrine of “pre-emptive” war. It licenses unprecedented global adventurism. Yet discussion of it seems stymied by the Bush Administration’s rather skillful employ of the rhetoric of displaced agency. The war was repeatedly described as “Saddam’s choice.” Saddam left us “no option.” This is the moral equivalent of saying, “The devil made me do it.” The truth is, we chose to invade after a good bit of forethought, not under the threat of immediate attack. Whether one thinks this lowered standard is good or bad, we must not fool ourselves into thinking we were passive. We must take full responsibility for our role as agents and instigators.
4. Everywhere, it seems, there are unexplained disappearances and detentions. This week I’m in Indiana, where an item in the Bloomington Herald-Times reads, “One of our students brought us this disturbing news: her father, a naturalized American citizen from India, had disappeared from the New York airport upon his return from a business trip to Germany. It was verified that he was on the flight and his luggage showed up at the family home a few days later…. After frantic calls to hospitals, police, relatives, even the FBI, the family hired a lawyer.” Almost a week later, the FBI admitted that they had him; and after three weeks and the intervention of the Indian Ambassador to the United States, the father, a prominent advertising executive, was ultimately released. There were no charges and, still, no explanation.
5. According to a report in Business Week, “Since September 11, various federal agencies, including the State Dept., Customs Service, and FBI, have created lists of suspicious travelers, Americans and foreigners. All told, some 13 million people (equivalent to 4.5% of the U.S. population) are now on the terror watch list. Security experts and common sense say 99% of those pinpointed aren’t terrorists.” One wonders what criteria they’re using. National Public Radio reported recently that police in Colorado classified the American Friends Service Committee as a “criminal extremist organization.”
6. Heard the one about Massachusetts proposing to charge antiwar protesters for the costs of the police’s time in arresting them? Or the proposal to charge a fee of up to $125 in order to file a claim with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination? Sounds goofy? Welcome to the privatization of the freedom train. Welcome to our new, wholly corporate world, in which one pays for entry into free-speech spaces or discrimination-free zones, in which domestic civil rights are reconceived not as inalienable, but more like the perks of going first class on the Acela Express.
7. I am tired of the panopticon. After my last trip, I found a little notice at the very bottom of my suitcase. It said that my luggage had been searched “for your protection” and that if I had any questions I could call a toll-free number. I do wonder where my night lights have gone. Two rather nice little night lights have been taken from my luggage on two separate occasions, and I can’t quite figure out why. Perhaps night lights were added to the list of dangerous objects. Perhaps it’s a fetish of Big Brother’s. I guess it’s not worth pursuing. But those unseen hands. At the bottom of my suitcase…
8. I want to know what’s happening to us behind the wall of this war. I want more focus on the collapsing economy that is driving us to such lengths as Mayor Bloomberg’s suing Mongolia for back taxes in order to fund New York City’s public schools. And I wish we could turn to other pressing issues: Many people will miss seeing a marvelously intelligent documentary, Race–The Power of an Illusion (I must disclose that I had a small advisory role). The broadcast has been scheduled for three Thursdays: April 24, May 1 and May 8 on PBS, to very little publicity. It was supposed to have been widely reviewed, including a spread in Newsweek, but many of the reviews were shelved to make room for more war coverage. I recommend it just now because it documents the invention of race as the slow historical metastasizing of pseudoscientific miscategorization, careless brutality and fear. It is a timely reminder that social divisions are made, not inevitable. If you miss it, information about distribution may be obtained through California Newsreel, www.newsreel.org.