Concerned that a much-needed international perspective is missing from the debate in this country over the course of American foreign policy and US relations with the world, The Nation asked a number of distinguished foreign writers and thinkers to share their reflections with us. It is our hope that, as in the early 1980s, when a “letter” in these pages from the late E.P. Thompson expressing rising European concern about the Reagan Administration’s nuclear weapons buildup was instrumental in building common bonds beween antinuclear movements across the Atlantic, this series will forge bonds between Americans concerned about how Washington is exercising power today and the rest of the world. We begin with a letter to an American friend written by the South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, whose opposition to apartheid resulted in his spending seven years in prison.
This is an extraordinarily difficult letter to write, and it may even be a perilous exercise. Dangerous because your present Administration and its specialized agencies by all accounts know no restraint in hitting out at any perceived enemy of America, and nobody or nothing can protect one from their vindictiveness. Not even American courts are any longer a bulwark against arbitrary exactions. Take the people being kept in that concentration camp in Guantánamo: They are literally extraterritorial, by force made anonymous and stateless so that no law, domestic or international, is habilitated to protect them. It may be an extreme example brought about by abnormal circumstances–but the criteria of human rights kick in, surely, precisely when the conditions are extreme and the situation is abnormal. The predominant yardstick of your government is not human rights but national interests. (Your President keeps repeating the mantra.) In what way is this order of priorities any different from those of the defunct Soviet Union or other totalitarian regimes?
The war against terror is an all-purpose fig leaf for violating or ignoring local laws and international agreements and treaties. So, talking to America is like dealing with a very aggressive beast: One must do so softly, not make any brusque moves or run off at the mouth if you wish to survive. In dancing with the enemy one follows his steps even if counting under one’s breath. But do be careful not to dance too close to containers intended for transporting war prisoners in Afghanistan: One risks finding one’s face blackened by a premature death.
Why is it difficult? Because the United States is a complex entity despite the gung-ho slogans and simplistic posturing in moments of national hysteria. Your political system is resilient and well tested; it has always harbored counterforces; it allows quite effectively for alternation: for a swing-back of the pendulum whenever policies have strayed too far from middle-class interests–with the result that you have a large middle ground of acceptable political practices. Why, through the role of elected representatives, the people who vote even have a rudimentary democratic control over public affairs! Except maybe in Florida. Better still–your history has shown how powerful a moral catharsis expressed through popular resistance to injustice can sometimes be; I have in mind the grassroots opposition to the Vietnam War. And all along there was no dearth of strong voices speaking firm convictions and enunciating sure ethical standards.