Tuesday, July 04, 2006


Making America Infamous in History

Last week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the military tribunals created at Guantánamo Bay by Mr Bush to try (trans: hold indefinitely) ‘terror suspects’ violate both American law and the Geneva Convention. My Liberal instincts desperately hope this will lead to some action, and the end of this obscenity. It’s an horrific way to treat the people involved; goodness knows what it’s doing to their friends and families; and it’s a giant recruiting poster for terrorism. But I have another reason. I have dual nationality – I’m an American citizen, and I want to feel proud of my country. Yet every time I hear a news report about the actions of the American government, I feel nothing but disgust. It’s not media bias. It’s that the facts are repellent.

Dual nationality’s a funny thing. I’m not half-British and half-American, but wholly both. You’ll probably not be too surprised to hear that I feel wholly British and only intermittently American, but I passionately want America to be seen for the force for good that it should be. It should be a great exponent of democracy and inviolable human rights. Instead, it boasts of violating them and comes across as a tyrannical bully that believes anyone outside its shores is a lesser being, and is probably the most hated country in the world today. Of course it’s not the worst – not by a long way. Of course it was stirred into what it’s doing by the monstrous acts of individuals who must be stopped. But that’s not an excuse for what they’re doing, let alone to people against whom they have no evidence, or to whole populations. The hypocrisy and adventurism of Mr Bush and his cronies have made them the biggest bully in the world, and everyone knows it. With standing up to bullies perhaps the deepest gut instinct of a Liberal, I can’t help feeling torn.

There are two ways I cope with the horrendous practices of my country. First, and easiest, is to remind myself that it isn’t ‘America’ that’s doing this, but only its current government, which scraped into power by (respectively) just losing and then just winning an election. In much the same way, I don’t believe Mr Blair represents the best of British. The second is to try and lower my emotional response to each outrage. You can’t go through life in a perpetual state of appalled horror; with so many terrible stories of what the American government and military have got up to, particularly in their treatment of prisoners from Guantánamo Bay to Iraq, I try to feel sorrow rather than spleen. And you’d think it’s difficult to still feel the surprise that opens up sheer outrage. After all, while it was heartening to hear from the Supreme Court that Camp X-Ray violates American military law and the Geneva Convention, can a single person have thought it was a surprising or controversial verdict that this disgusting abuse violates all the legal and ethical principles on which America is based? Which only leaves the question of how it could have taken them so long to come to it, and how long the US government is going to put off acting on it.

The continuing awfulness of it is a constant, grinding shame. Yet, somehow, the US administration does continue to hit new lows, and with surprise comes a towering rage at what they are doing in my name and that of every other US citizen. When detainees were driven to suicide in despair after three years of abuse, I couldn’t believe that the US administration would claim this was “a PR stunt,” let alone “an act of war”. I don’t use the hyberbole of ‘insanity’ or ‘evil’ to throw at political opponents, which leaves me with a problem. Faced with those sort of statements, what other vocabulary is appropriate?

When you’ve tried so hard to inure yourself to continuous horror, surprises aren’t good. Something terrible that comes from an unexpected angle takes the lid off your pressure cooker of anger and shame. That’s why, I suspect, I found myself speechless with rage a couple of weeks ago when I heard a Radio 4 programme about the American occupation of Babylon. I’m afraid I was so close to apoplexy at the time that I didn’t take note of it, but it reported a newly founded US base camp fifty miles or so from Baghdad (that is, so far out of the way that the siting can’t be anything but deliberate). It’s the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Babylon was one of the greatest civilisations of the ancient world; the Hanging Gardens were among the Seven Wonders. Now there’s a heliport built slap-bang next to them that’s shaking the archaeological ruins to pieces, and soldiers are scooping up shards to fill sandbags. This is wilful and deliberate desecration of history, and I can only think that it comes from the same motivation as war crimes like the rape of women in occupied areas; to humiliate and degrade the conquered. Unless, of course, it’s because Babylon gets a bad press in the Bible and Mr Bush’s religious fundamentalists have decided it’s time to rip up the grave as ‘punishment’.

Possibly the great American movie, DW Griffith’s Intolerance, built a spectacular set of the walls of Babylon to evoke awe and majesty. Ninety years later, look at what American forces are doing instead. It makes me look at how history will judge the United States, and I feel bitterly ashamed and shockingly angry at Mr Bush.

Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt is still infamous after two centuries for his soldiers shooting off the face of the Sphinx for target practice – and that’s only an apocryphal story. From illegal wars, to mistreatment of prisoners, to literally destroying an ancient culture, what Mr Bush is doing is making America infamous in history.

Happy Fourth of July.

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