Sunday, February 20, 2005

Invisible Insane

I've started this post a few times and am having a hard time honing it. It's about Abu Ghraib. It's about what I think are the sources of torture and why I find myself writing a play where I'm a little too sympathetic to those who commit such atrocities. None of my answers seem complete and they all seem a little conjectural, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, my knowledge of people directly involved in the conflict on any and all sides is somewhat limited, so I have to make this up. My father says my imagination has always exceeded my experience anyway.

Having read a lot of articles about Abu Ghraib, the Human Rights Watch report on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and so forth, I'm confident that the White House just-this-side-of-explicitly endorsed torture and coercive tactics in general as a matter of principle. (Look at Gonzales, our beloved new Attorney General, said in 2002 that the war on terrorism "in my judgement renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners"; Justice Department attorneys wrote on torturing al-Qaeda suspects that "necessity and self-defense could provide justifications that would eliminate any criminal liability." The Geneva Convention and the Convention Against Torture claim that no exceptional circumstances could possibly exist to violate their findings, but hey, we're the U.S., all this is fine with us. I believe that the above things were said and meant; I believe that the U.S. was more than willing to turn a blind eye, and would have done so indefinitely had the photos from Abu Ghraib not emerged, and will continue to do so with all other situations until and unless similar concrete and undeniable evidence--pictoral, because as Frank Rich has pointed out, the duration of scandal in the U.S. is dependent upon how many new visual images pertaining to it there can be--emerges. Literary or verbal documentation simply won't cut it.

What I don't believe is that each method of torture and coercive interrogation used at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo or elsewhere was created and/or explicitly endorsed by anyone higher up than the Specialists or guards in question. I believe they came up with these things themselves. Which really isn't a big deal, but in our society of if-you're-not-with-us-you're-against-us (a philosophy that both liberals and conservatives do tend to ride), it gets complicated to talk about more than one distinct group doing something wrong.

A friend from a conservative family who is not a conservative herself said that her brother returned from Iraq to believe (after she dodged the subject with him for a long time) that Bush had indeed betrayed them. (He also didn't like Kerry, which is reasonable, and voted for a third party.) I imagine there are a decent number of soldiers who feel the same way--by no stretch all, and probably there are many people who feel betrayed who would not attribute said feeling of betrayal directly to Mr. Bush the Younger. That is the same as, or similar to, Vietnam, I think--the way that in the U.S. during Vietnam, anti-war sentiments became anti-soldier sentiments, and there are people who blame the difficulties of being a soldier in Vietnam on the decisions the U.S. government made and people who blame it on the lack of support coming from the American citizenry. Whichever one or ones we ourselves believe to be true, I imagine that a lot of soldiers feel betrayed, feel as though what they are going through is not seen by the American public, by the society to which they have, in the past, felt themselves bound. And if you feel such distance from and such dissonance with the creators and enforcers of the social mores to which you've been accustomed, it's not a wonder that you create a system that corresponds with your own emotional life. Which corresponds to the paraphrase my father's father used to do of "Out of sight, out of mind"--"invisible insane." The feeling that your presence has no effect on "your" society, on what is supposed to be significant to you, can make you lose contact with norms, and a lack of understanding of what connects you to others socially is, in my view, a substantive part of insanity. I think this actually applies to a lot of different situations, not just the military in Iraq.

I'm not really sure where I'm going with this yet, but it does have something to do with the balance of globalization with individual cultures, with our resistance to the Geneva Convention being this simultaneous assertion of our have nothing to do with the rest of the world and our denial of our responsibility for any of our actions in it, and how that seems weirdly to work out on a much more microcosmic level like Abu Ghraib. Out of sight--not able to be kept in check, either (in the case of the soldiers) out of being ignored or (in the case of America) avoiding the efforts of the rest of the world to keep us in check, to have our inner workings remain under the radar--invisible. Out of mind--without conscience, in some ways, without participation in any collective thought or in the system you claim to adhere to, that's in both the cases of the Abu Ghraib soldiers and the U.S. itself--insane. But is sanity actually just a matter of adherence to, knowledge of, ability to adjust oneself to, social mores and the choices a society makes?


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