(Cross-posted at Balloon Juice)
This is a follow up to John Cole’s Thug Nation observation.
He’s right, of course: we’ve allowed our fears, and the cynical manipulation of those night sweats, to lead us to surrender rights and values that a decade ago we might have thought untouchable.
It is funny – in a tragic kind of way — that someone like the odious Ken Cuccinelli can claim that a mandate to purchase health insurance is an assault on liberty, while actual, unequivocal, physical and mental tyranny passes without comment.
Which is not to say that I am unsurprised that the Big Lie party plays in that particular sandbox. Rather, it is the fact that we don’t deny such folks the regard of civil society just shows how far we’ve sunk.
That is: horrible as the story of Private Bradley Manning’s incarceration is, it should come as no surprise to anyone.
I say so so baldly because of a meaningless coincidence. Just yesterday, I happened to finish Dave Eggers’ remarkable book Zeitoun, a work I recommend to anyone reading this.
There, Egger tells the story of one family’s experiences during Katrina. The title character, Zeitoun, a Muslim from Syria moved to New Orleans, where he met and married Kathy, a convert to Islam, and with her, put together a successful business as a painter, contractor, and property owner/manager.
When Katrina came, Kathy and their children left the city before the storm, eventually reaching friends in Phoenix. Zeitoun stayed, feeding abandoned dogs, rescuing those he could with a canoe he’d bought at a yard sale, checking on his property around town – until he was arrested without warning or explanation, denied a phone call, and disappeared into a makeshift prison system set up by FEMA, in which all normal recourse to courts and process disappeared.
Here is Egger’s description of the first makeshift outdoor prison in which Zeitoun found himself, set up withing a couple of days after Katrina hit in the New Orleans train and bus station:
…The parking lot, where a dozen buses might normally be parked, had been transformed…
Chain-link fences, topped by razor wire, had been erected into a long, sixteen-foot-high cage extending about a hundred yards into the lot. Above the cage was a roof, a freestanding shelter like those at gas stations. The barbed wire extended to meet it…
It looked precisely like the pictures … [Zeitoun had]seen of Guantánamo Bay. Like that complex, it was a vast grid of chain-link fencing with few walls, so the prisoners were visible to the guards and each other….
The space inside [each] cage was approximately fifteen by fifteen feet, and was empty but for a portable toilet without a door. The other object in the cage was a steel bar in the shape of an upside down U….
[Prisoners] could stand in the middle of the cage. They could sit on the steel rack. They could sit on the ground. But if they touched the fence again there would be consequences….
The men were not given sheets, blankets or pillows…They asked [the guard] where they were supposed to sleep. He told them that he didn’t care where they slept, as long as it was on the pavement, where he could see them.
It gets worse from there. With Zeitoun’s arrest, the rest of the book reads as if Kafka met Cormac McCarthy in some dive in the French Quarter.
As Eggers documents, Zeitoun was both a witness to straight physical torture, and, if being forced to dig out an infected splinter with the shards of a broken Tobasco bottle counts, was a victim of it too.
The kind that leaves less marks — that too. Certainly, if you run the simplest of tests: what would one say of such treatment if it were documented in Iran, say, or North Korea, then what Zeitoun suffered- along with hundreds of others, American citizens and legal residents — was a gross violation of basic human rights.
And all of this was done through a “system” that most closely resembled the arbitrary exercise of the state monopoly on violence we associate with tinpot dictatorships.
Which is to say is that the transformation of America into anything but a shining city on a hill has been unfolding for a while.
It was happening right in front of us back their in the Big Easy, when an incompetent and often criminal administration sought to mask their grotesque failures in fights against a mythical terrorist threat along the levies.
It was happening before that, when the GOP fought the 2002 election on the “with us or with the terrorists” platform.
It is sure as hell with us now.
I drove home tonight through the pleasant neighborhood in which I am privileged to live. I looked at the quiet streets, the trees, the lights in ground floor windows as folks got ready for dinner. And I thought of a friend of mine who lives a few blocks from me, a rich guy, who told me recently that he was moving a significant chunk of his money to Canada – that he actually went to Montreal in person to open the account – because as an old Jew whose dad had raised him in the memory of the ‘30s and ‘40s, there was the whiff of those times coming round again.
Travelling along these streets, there’s no visible sign that my friend might be right, that the banks may continue to go sour; that some crazy act in New York or Chicago or Dallas might set off another round of Hunt The Other; that passports might not work so well; or, as Eggers writes of Zeitoun, that men and women in black vests may burst into your own building and heave you down a hole into which you simply disappear.
But it could happen here. To anyone, to any of us. We know it can. It already has.
Images: Fra Angelico, St. Lawrence before Emperor Valerianus, 1447-1450
Gustave Doré, Newgate Exercise Yard, 1872
Master E. S., Temptation of Despair, c. 1450.