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His Dream Deferred

Jan
7
2005

It’s noteworthy that today’s paper carries two stories about cruelty and injustice, from two different eras. It is ironic that they should run together just over a week before Martin Luther King’s birthday.
One, the Mississippi Burning arrests. It’s been more than forty years since three civil rights activists were taking to a wood outside Philadelphia, Miss., and shot dead. Today, a 79-year-old former Ku Klux Klansman is charged with their murder.


He was indicted on the same day that former White House Counsel Albert Gonzales testified before Congress and defended memos he wrote justifying the use of torture in the war on terror. Gonzales, who will become U.S. Attorney General, the man responsible for enforcing this nation’s laws, says he doesn’t condone torture. Of course he doesn’t. That’s why Gonzales had to take part in a legal process to redefine torture. Clever, no? Here’s part of the NYTimes account of the hearing:
…a draft memorandum written by Mr. Gonzales, discussed why he believed Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan were not subject to the full protections of the Geneva Convention and described some provisions of the agreement as “quaint” and “obsolete.” Mr. Gonzales said Thursday that he stood behind the legal reasoning outlined in that memorandum, which was later adopted by Mr. Bush.
“I think the decision not to apply Geneva in our conflict with Al Qaeda was absolutely the right decision for a variety of reasons,” he said. “First of all, it really would be a dishonor to the Geneva Convention. It would honor and reward bad conduct. It would actually make it more difficult, in my judgment, for our troops to win in our conflict against Al Qaeda. It would limit our ability to solicit information from detainees. It would require us to keep detainees housed together where they could share information, they could coordinate their story, they could plan attacks against guards. It would mean that they would enjoy combat immunity from prosecutions for certain war crimes. And so for a variety of reasons, it makes absolutely no sense.”

There’s a link here and it should not be ignored. It’s a horrible way of looking at the world one that needs to be repudiated once a generation. But it looks like we – as a nation – are going to take a pass this time. I always thought the idea behind convenants like the Geneva Convention wasn’t to “reward bad conduct” but to demonstrate to those who behaved “badly” that fair, rational and humane treatment of those you dispise to the point of murder was possible. But I guess that’s a “quaint” way of looking at the world. It didn’t used to be.
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” — “Letter from Birmingham Jail” 1963
The Civil Rights movement has been so Hollywoodized by now that it’s hard for white folks to remember one very painful fact: people – black people – died. And they died at the hands of whites.
Black people died because they wanted to vote. They died because the looked the wrong way or said the wrong thing to the wrong (white) person. They died because of lousy health care, poverty, bad jails, and a cruel judicial system that treated them inhumanely. They died because white folks didn’t want to think that people with dark skin were their equals and to maintain that distance they used violence, fear, and intimidation. They used torture.
[W]e are the heirs of a past of rope, fire, and murder. I for one am not ashamed of this past. My shame is for those who became so inhuman that they could inflict this torture upon us. — Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” 1967.
Now, defenders of the war in Iraq and the Bush Administration’s war on terror will tell you that they working – working hard – to protect the rights of freedom-loving peoples to vote, to escape poverty, to escape from beneath the boot heel of oppression, to create a government in the Middle East that is modern, democratic, and respects the rights of all its people. They’ll say they’re on the side of civil and civic rights. They are. We all are.
But the ways in which this administration has gone about implementing this change have mixed propaganda and proselytizing the nation’s mission as a democratic global savior with legal reasoning and political legerdemain. It’s hard to tell where one starts and the other leaves off. This administration has been careless and arrogant. In their zeal – created by real, genuine fear and a profound and poorly understood fear of fear — they have placed the people of the United States above those of other nations; nations where, as Jon Stewart points out they don’t celebrate Christmas and where light-skinned people are hard to find. We know that the FBI was worried about torture in Guantanamo Bay and in Abu Gharaib. The Red Cross was, too. They were ignored. We know that many of those rounded up and jailed in Abu Gharaib were caught in mass raids and it’s becoming increasingly clear, didn’t have any information to relate. We don’t know the status of those still being held in Guantanamo but there’s increasing evidence that many are not the hardened enemy. We know that paranoia about Muslims as terrorist has led to false accusations being made against U.S. military personnel at Guantanamo. A lot of grief has come from what we as a nation now know we didn’t know. And what we didn’t want to know.
In its build-up to war, in thought, action and – as Gonzales’ memo demonstrates – deed, the Bush administration encouraged Americans to think of Iraqis, terrorists, Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs, and Persians as one big Jesus-hating, Jew-baiting towel-headed enemy who don’t deserve the same protections under the law as this nation provides its citizens. They didn’t mean to do this. But it happened. And it’s no different from what was done to black folks.
It was argued that the Negro was inferior by nature because of Noah’s curse upon the children of Ham…. The greatest blasphemy of the whole ugly process was that the white man ended up making God his partner in the exploitation of the Negro. — “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” 1967.
What’s sadder is the reaction that Gonzales’ memos are receiving. There’s so little outrage it’s laughable. People are calling for hearing to define torture so it can used as a tool of war. This is horrible. The torture conducted at Guantanamo Bay, at Abu Gharaib, through Afghani camp and detentions centers didn’t just hurt the U.S. in the Muslim world, as Gonzales – ever the lawyer, focused on the narrow answer to the broader question — acknowledged in his testimony. It hurt this country’s reputation around the globe. It repudiated everything we believe we stand for and much of what we used to represent.
The fact that normally sound-thinking pundits happily accept the fact that leaders of this country swapped memos on how to define torture in a way that subverts the meaning of the Geneva Convention is almost as frightening as the behavior that triggered these comments. It should not be necessary to invoke King’s name or his many apt comments to remind people that respect for human dignity is the bedrock of this nation’s democracy, regardless of political party affiliation. It should go without saying that attempt at defining “torture” are void of respect for anyone and while that may not lead immediately from a Senate hearing room to a jail where a a young woman hold a man by a leash and poses for photographs but that’s where we ended up.
The problem with hatred and violence is that they intensify the fears of the white majority, and leave them less ashamed of their prejudices toward Negroes. — “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” 1967.
I’m no mushy Liberal. I didn’t like the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan but I understood its political and military purpose. I do not think turning the other cheek is in order when it comes to dealing with organizations like Al Qeada. But I do not like the Iraqi war and the deceptions that got us there. I think there are other ways – more lasting, more profound but requiring more money, patience, and time than this administration is willing to invest – to make the Middle East a peaceful place.
[I]t must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks the instruments of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight. — “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” 1958
So – once again, this time with stronger, deeper, sadder emotion – it’s time to bemoan the Bush Administration’s deliberate and cynical conflation of the so-called “War on Terror” and the Iraqi invasion. The thinking that linked these two events has brought us to a dark and terrible way of looking at the world and ourselves.

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