Tag Archives: natural disasters

American Impunity Abroad and at Home

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A university in Texas has asked me to speak to students in January on the subject that we’ve come to call by the shorthand “Ferguson,” and I’ve been wondering what to say. It’s a topical and rhetorical landmine. But the world today is one giant minefield, so the only way to avoid the risk of stepping on a mine is to acquiesce in silence and paralysis. I’m not willing to pay that price for safety, because both personal freedom and the fate of American society are at stake.

Part of the problem with “Ferguson” is precisely that we’ve hastened to make it a shorthand term, the better to pigeonhole it or explain it away, not unlike “Sandy Hook” or “Katrina” or “9/11.” The truth is that each of those events is connected to every other; everything is connected to everything else. The source of our self-induced perpetual confusion is our stubborn insistence on slicing and dicing events, then filing them severally in convenient pigeonholes in order to forget about them, because we find connecting and remembering too painful and demanding.

These musings are on my mind now, because of the long-awaited release of the report detailing just how viscerally and morally disgusting has been the CIA’s torture regime worldwide since 2001. I’m appalled, of course, like any right-thinking person, and ashamed, as every self-respecting patriotic American should be. But to say that is very far from sufficient, and the fact that so many of us “like” each other’s well-meaning, self-satisfied liberal pieties and commentaries on Facebook is actually part of the problem.

But what does torture of terrorism suspects by the CIA have to do with “Ferguson,” anyway? All too much. The connection lies in the demonstrated fact of impunity for those who hold brute power. How is it that CIA interrogators on one hand, and urban and suburban police officers on the other, can intimidate, brutalize, and even kill hapless and/or innocent unarmed civilians, and get away with it? The answer in both cases is the same: because we, the innocent bystanders, are afraid of what will happen if we hold them to account. We’re afraid not only for our own physical safety, but also of what we would learn if we admitted that the state under which we live has squandered its moral and political credibility.

Consider all due caveats about the honest service and good intentions of most police officers and even CIA agents duly inserted here. But those are irrelevant, because the reality of severe abuse by at least some in both categories is too obvious to ignore. The men with guns and tanks and riot gear know that they can misbehave with impunity because – to articulate our situation with brutal candor – they have guns and tanks and riot gear, and we don’t. That is the case both overseas and in nondescript Midwestern suburbs, and therein lies the connection.

If what we really want is to understand, then what we need is to find the courage to face the reality of what the state is and does. There are real terrorists in the world who commit real, despicable acts of terrorism. But what the CIA torture report lays bare is that the American imperial state, under the feckless ostensible leadership of any president, considers a terrorist anyone it sees fit to consider a terrorist, and that it considers itself and its personnel entitled to mistreat such people any way it sees fit, with impunity. Meanwhile, on the home front, as a friend of mine remarked recently, “The line between a long march or protest rally and an urban riot is drawn by the state, and enforced by the police.” Impunity is what makes the state the state.

What this means is that none of us is either safe or free, except to the extent that we are willing to be free in our own minds and spirits. Necessary to maintaining personal freedom is accurate awareness. One thing that’s accurate to say is that those of us who are white Americans have enabled the American state’s impunity, by mumbling to ourselves and each other that the terrorists are Muslim and brown and the urban rioters are black. We’ve averted our eyes because we have not personally been on the front lines, and we’ve drunk our own Kool-Aid. Others don’t enjoy such luxuries. But there is an upside to living life on the business end of the state’s bootheel, as James Baldwin knew circa 1963:

The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that.

It’s human nature to want to believe in the rightness of our own actions and intentions. But it’s precisely human nature that is the problem; the fact that human evil is predictable does not make it excusable. Nor does fobbing off the evil on singularly evil individuals like Hitler or bin Laden or Cheney. We must be willing to consider ourselves culpable, and to put ourselves at risk.

Innocence insisted on too strenuously is tantamount to guilt. Graham Greene depicted the sinister aspect of American innocence abroad with exquisite insight in The Quiet American, his novel of Vietnam published in 1955. At home in the same period, no one saw America more clearly than James Baldwin: “They have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know and do not want to know it. It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence that constitutes the crime.”

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Forty Signs of Rain, by Kim Stanley Robinson

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Forty Signs of RainI discovered the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson a year or so ago through his magnificent Mars trilogy and have become a big fan of his signature blend of speculative science, politics, and character-driven narrative. Forty Signs of Rain is the first in a different and earthbound trilogy about the science, politics, and real-life impacts of global warming. Published the year before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, it’s remarkably prescient and realistic in its portrayal of a similar flood hitting Washington, D.C.

The fact that D.C. is the capital of the United States is not coincidental; in fact, the fact that it’s both the seat of American power and a notably vulnerable city, infamously and ill-advisedly situated in low-lying swampland, is central to the story Robinson has to tell. We tend to think of Washington as an abstraction, the place where the politics happens. Robinson brings home its topographic and meteorological realities vividly and with verve, as only he can do, in the novel’s dramatic final chapters.

The fictional narrative in Forty Signs of Rain calls to mind two first-rate nonfiction books I’ve read recently: Straw Dogs by the British philosopher John Gray – Robinson’s characters reflect often on how human beings are, after all, animals like any other – and Rebecca Solnit’s fascinating A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. One recognizes the behavior of real human beings early in the climactic storm, before the worst has happened, when one of the main characters stops in at an Iranian-owned deli near his office near the National Mall:

The Iranians nodded silently. Five years earlier they would probably have been closing the deli, but this was the fourth “perfect storm” synergistic combination in the last three years, and they, like everyone else, were getting jaded. It was Peter crying wolf at this point, even though the previous three storms had all been major disasters at the time, at least in some places. But never in D.C. Now people just made sure their supplies and equipment were okay and then went about their business, umbrella and phone in hand. Charlie was no different, he realized, even though he had been performing the role of Peter for all he was worth when it came to the global situation. But here he was, getting a pastrami sandwich with the intention of going back to work. It seemed like the best way to deal with it.

“It was strange,” reflects the same character a few pages later about himself and his officemates, “to see how they were directly involved in an obviously historical moment, right in the middle of it in fact, and yet they too were watching it on TV.”

In my review of A Paradise Built in Hell and in my recent speech at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus , I reflected that

Solnit shows that those in power respond to disasters by circling the wagons to protect their own interests both institutional and personal and by sending in the troops, not to rescue victims but to control and even criminalize them, whereas ordinary people often quite spontaneously rescue and comfort each other and assemble themselves into communities of mutual aid and support.

Part of the interest of Forty Signs of Rain lies in how it illustrates how even the powerful are, in the end, hapless and vulnerable creatures like the rest of us. In a scene that directly illustrates a major theme of Solnit’s book, a different Robinson character leaves his office at the National Science Foundation to join the many volunteers trying to protect Arlington National Cemetery from the flooding Potomac:

Frank nodded at anything said his way, not bothering to understand, and worked like a dervish. It was very satisfying. He felt deeply happy, and looking around he could see that everyone else was happy too. That’s what happens, he thought, watching people carry limp sandbags like coolies out of an old Chinese painting. It takes something like this to free people to be always generous.

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Human Beings Are Better Than We Give Ourselves Credit For

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A Paradise Built in Hell coverIn A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, the wonderful San Francisco-based writer Rebecca Solnit shows us how ordinary people on one hand, and established authorities on the other, have responded to natural and other disasters, from the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco to Hurricane Katrina. There are exceptions in both categories, but generally speaking Solnit shows that those in power respond to disasters by circling the wagons to protect their own interests both institutional and personal and by sending in the troops, not to rescue victims but to control and even criminalize them, whereas ordinary people often quite spontaneously rescue and comfort each other and assemble themselves into communities of mutual aid and support.

After the 1906 earthquake, for example, ordinary people in San Francisco organized and ran for each other ad hoc soup kitchens, while the mayor and his cronies were busy scheming to relocate Chinatown from the prime real estate it occupied to the far southern edge of the city. The overall impression Solnit leaves us with is an optimistic one: that “just the way things are” is not really the way things are – that human beings are actually a much better species than we tend to give ourselves and each other credit for, if ever we’re left to behave freely without coercion.

Read more about A Paradise Built in Hell in the text of my speech delivered on the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colorado on October 17, 2014, “Why Bother Trying to Change the World?”

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