Revolution #166, May 31, 2009
An Open Letter to New Graduates, Students, and Youth
Silence Plus Torture Equals Complicity
It’s spring 2009, students were finishing final exams and graduating, looking at the life ahead of them. Young people are filling their summers with activities and friends.
At around the same time on May 4, U.S. airstrikes massacred 147 people in Afghanistan, including teenagers. What were their hopes and dreams, what do their lives count for? Do WE have a responsibility to THEM? And if so, what is it?
At the same time we have now read memos that show that this government, from its very highest levels, held detainees and legally justified their torture; that they were, and some are still, being held indefinitely not knowing why, or when, or if, they will be tried, kept in solitary confinement, interrogated for up to 20 hours a day, brutally tortured or even killed. And now, we have also been told by Barack Obama that extensive photographs documenting this torture are going to be suppressed because if people saw them it might “inflame” the opinion of Americans, and people around the world, and endanger the troops in Iraq. Do WE have a responsibility to society, to humanity, to oppose this?
Obama has in the past few weeks, even as he is SAYING that he opposes and forbids torture, been DOING things that in fact make it legitimate; this includes censoring these photos that show how widespread and truly ugly it was; the constant lie that those responsible have been held accountable; and his active work to prevent anyone who committed these crimes from being prosecuted. Creating the new “framework” within which these things can be maintained as a tool to be used “when America needs it.”
What does it mean for something to be legitimized? It means that it is not only accepted as “the way things are,” but it is codified into law as “the way things are supposed to be.”
Even while Cheney is out there criticizing Obama and continuing to argue for the more unvarnished “anything goes” approach, Obama’s policy is in actual fact not fundamentally any different than that of the Bush regime. As Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor and former U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Council under Bush, wrote in the New Republic, “President Obama has not changed much of substance from the late Bush practices, and the changes he has made, including changes in presentation, are designed to fortify the bulk of the Bush program for the long-run. Viewed this way, President Obama is in the process of strengthening the presidency to fight terrorism.” (May 18, 2009)
Pause for a minute and think about this. If you voted for Obama or supported Obama because you felt this would represent a real departure from all that, because you wanted to feel good about America, because you felt that you were a part of something for the first time in your life, something that really could bring about change, that mobilized this generation to do “something.” Well, this is the content of that something, this is the change we are getting. This is really just re-branding the Bush program.
If you would argue that this is better than having to swallow what the likes of Cheney, Bush, or McCain put out and promote, and that Obama has to do some of these things in order to be President, isn’t it time to start questioning what kind of framework is that, and what kind of government requires such terms, rather than finding yourself justifying all of the things you are against?
We Have Been Taught to Think Like Americans
Obama said in his speech on May 20 that “Now, this generation faces a great test in the specter of terrorism. Unlike the Civil War or World War II, we cannot count on a surrender ceremony to bring this journey to an end. Right now, in distant training camps and in crowded cities, there are people plotting to take American lives.”
In a certain sense what this generation does about the War on Terror will in fact be “a great test”—but not in the way that HE means. What Obama means is how “we” will go forward with military commissions and preventative detentions. What he means is how the U.S. will act in its interests to further dominate over and exploit the Middle East, as part of entrenching its position as the sole superpower in the world. What he means is how the U.S. will regain its veil of legitimacy for the American people and the people of the world, in the course of going forward with this program of imperialism. When he says “we” he is trying to enlist us in the war for these interests. We must reject that, for those are the interests of empire, and that empire stands on a platform of bones.
But this will be “a great test” for us in whether or not we take meaningful political action that will contribute to stopping and reversing this course. To quote Revolution newspaper: “Any people that does not resist such crimes, and demand prosecution of the torturers and, even more so, those who formulated the policy at the highest levels, reveals themselves to be complicit in those crimes. And in passively allowing the humanity of others to be degraded and attacked, they lose their own.” To be against this and talk about how much you hate it, this is important, but this is not enough. Silence plus torture, equals complicity.
Complicity is when a group of guys stand by and allow their friend or friends to drug and rape a woman, and they know that it’s going on but they choose not to know, they don’t confront it, they justify it in a hundred wrong ways, or they give a faint half hearted objection and convince themselves there’s nothing they can do.
Complicity is like the story in the novel The Kite Runner where the lead character Amir, a young boy who watches as his best friend is raped in an alley, rather than stop and risk losing the race he is involved in. He is just a little boy, but because of how he has been taught and how this has been built up, he will not give up the personal and material gains of winning the race for the sake of the humanity of his friend and himself.
To be complicit means that YOU have allowed something to go on. To lose your humanity means that you lose any real sense of right and wrong, and any real grasp of your relationship to the rest of society and the world. It means that future generations will look back, and make a negative example of us, they will say “never again.”
Stop Thinking Like Americans, Start Thinking About Humanity
When I was a recent college graduate in 2004, organizing on a university campus, a handful of us were putting on orange jumpsuits and black hoods to expose the reality of torture, bringing out the facts and the reality, and struggling with students to act. We had come to understand some basic things about the situation and refused to turn away from it. It was not the popular thing to do, but we felt it was really necessary. At that time we grappled with the fact that people were looking at the Bush regime and thinking of Hitler, that there was a danger of Americans becoming complicit in the crimes of their government, and we have since had to look at the reality that overwhelmingly people have not come out and acted to stop this even while so many came to hate Bush and what he represented.
Now, many are getting behind the same system and what is in essential respects the same program but with the new face of Obama. There have been times when a few thousand walked out, resisted, or spoke out, and this has been significant, but it has not been enough. For those of us who have acted and do know, it’s on us to go out and challenge others, not to look around and say that so many students are apathetic or passive, so what can we do but go off in our corner and retreat to something that will be more appealing, and end up with something far less meaningful in relationship to the world.
It is simply a fact that we are a generation now coming of age in an era of open torture and open-ended war, an era of doing away with fundamental legal rights. This is not just a moral question. Whether we resist this, has everything to do with what kind of future we will get.
What Is A Life Worth Living?
When you are coming up, there’s something that goes on universally. Whether you’re a young person here in the belly of the imperialist beast, or a young person in an oppressed country, there are moments where you step back from the day-to-day experience of life to see something bigger than yourself. You ponder, why are things the way they are? Restless and full of anguish, you feel as if you’re “choking”on the air around you, you wonder does the world really have to be this way? For some people, you fight this thought, you hold it back, ignore it, swat it away. For others you welcome it, and for most, you only have a fleeting moment once or twice in your short lifetime to really look at the world and look at your life and wonder why, and dream of how it could be different. This is one of those times where we have to step back and look honestly at what’s happening on this planet and what our role and relationship is to it.
In a way this is only the beginning, because when you look out on the world as it actually is, what you see is a worthless system of exploitation and oppression here and all over the planet. A lopsided world where some have the choice to be a lawyer or a doctor and others “have the choice” to go off and fight U.S. wars or work at McDonalds or in the underground economy, and others still can “choose” between working in a factory for pennies or becoming a sex slave.
A system that offers those choices is a system that requires your resistance—and your active grappling with the whole question of revolution, and a digging into the truth about socialism and communism. To that end, there is another challenge: to get with the revolutionary movement this summer, a movement that’s out to emancipate all humanity.
The question is posed with great urgency: will we look back and see that these generations acquiesced, that we accepted the carrying out of horrible crimes for the sake of the privilege both real and perceived, of being an “American.” Will this continue on for years, perhaps decades with new heights of destruction and inhumanity? Or will we start thinking about humanity, and what is good and what is required, not for me as an individual above all else, but for the people of the world. Will we resist?
World Can’t Wait is calling for protest on May 28 demanding prosecution of war criminals and the release of the torture photos. This is a time for everyone to look honestly and deeply at the reality in the world and their relationship to it. This is a time to act.
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