A few weeks ago, I was going through some of my father’s photo albums from the early 1930s, when he was in high school in Georgia. Among them was a picture of a prison gang, of black men dressed in black-and-white-striped uniforms, chained at the ankles, hoeing the field next-door to the school. At the moment the album fell open to this particular picture, the media was abuzz with Senator Dick Durbin’s apology for comparing Guantánamo Bay to Nazi camps and Stalinist gulags. The air was highly charged because Amnesty International had made similar accusations; the Red Cross was expressing concern that American doctors were overseeing the administration of torture; the American Civil Liberties Union was expressing outrage that the government was using specious categorizations of “material witness” status to detain people without charge; the Italian government was indicting CIA agents for snatching an Italian citizen and sending him to Egypt to be tortured. There were investigations of thirty-three deaths of detainees in various American camps around the world (there has been little official accounting for those deaths and little public outcry at the lack thereof). And the Center for Constitutional Rights was calling attention to the one-year anniversary of its Supreme Court victory in winning access to federal courts for detainees. Unfortunately, this decision has not resulted in a single detainee having enjoyed a judicial hearing or been privy to any evidence against him, for the Administration has maintained that although enemy combatants may have “access” to the courts, they have no constitutional rights the United States is bound to respect.
As I meditated upon this messy time of ours, it seemed to me that the comparison to Hitler and Stalin is undoubtedly doomed for dismissal as an unconscionably disproportionate overstatement and that the better, if no less upsetting, comparison is to our own history of dual justice during the time of Jim Crow. Also in the news was the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen, the Klansman who planned the murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, during the summer of 1964. National attention had been sparked by the fact that two of the victims were white men. During the search for them authorities found at least nine other bodies, the remains of black men whose disappearances and murders had attracted no publicity at all.
I am not suggesting that there is a direct comparison to the brutality of those times and the complexities of the war in which we find ourselves now engaged. But I do worry that, however indirectly or unconsciously, our history shapes our approach to the present and to what we perceive as threatening. My father’s daily regard of that field full of men still lives within him; and the life narratives my father passed on to me are haunted by those men. Some of them were dangerous criminals, but some were victims of a contract labor system under which they could be arrested pretty much at random, imprisoned on trumped-up charges and lynched with impunity at any time. The randomness of their confinement and the carelessness with which they might die fostered, rather than suppressed, an oppositional politics of identity in the African-American community.
Today most Americans look at Edgar Ray Killen and think of him as an archaic exemplar of home-grown terrorism. It is sometimes harder to remember that the Klan’s politics were premised on fears of its own–fears of rebellion and of outsiders and of evil overtaking law-abiding Christians. A desperately traumatized sense of threat drove their militancy. A sense of innocence within and terror without. The rule of law was not something that “the lesser races” could understand, thus justifying the suspension of that law. “Can’t take the chance” was the mantra of those times.
At the moment, “why take a chance” seems to be the only standard to which We the People hold the Commander in Chief and to which he in turn holds soldiers. We must own up to how grandly amoral a license that is. President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Alberto Gonzales are surely neither Nazis nor Klansmen, but should we not be troubled by the uncomfortable moral territory into which they have drawn us and those soldiers on the ground? It is hard, I think, to come to grips with the fact–and it is established fact, according to our own military–that some of the men in our detention facilities are innocent of terrorism, as innocent as were some of the men working on the chain gang in 1930s Georgia. It does not make light of the threat that Al Qaeda presents to insist that we also not ignore the shape of our own fear and the ethical dilemma that our present policies present.
Consider this language from a 1937 recruitment poster for the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi; consider how familiar its rhetoric is, in its panic-stricken sense of embattlement: “There comes a time in the life of every man when he has to choose between the right or wrong side of life.” “There are today many alien forces entering the United States of America bent upon its destruction.” “We have nothing dishonorable to hide, but we must remain Secret for the protection of our lives and families.” “Our governmental principles are precisely those of the Original U.S. Constitution.” “The inherent balance and reason of this system has little or no attraction for these persons of alien culture. They generally prefer to shirk Individual Responsibility, grab up as much material wealth as they can, and accept Centralized Authority and Dictatorship, in the hope that they can buy special favors and privileges for themselves.” “The issue is clearly one of personal, physical Self-Defense or Death for the American Anglo-Saxons.”
The news of the past few weeks also included an apology in the Senate for its resisting, during the better half of the twentieth century, passage of a federal anti-lynching law. It was a small thing, probably insignificant, but more than a dozen senators absented themselves from that vote.