I’ve enjoyed making collages lately, bemused and sometimes shocked by the juxtapositions of images and the context that emerges from combining disparate elements. Sometimes my mind struggles to achieve a broad enough view to encompass, say, the image of Henry VIII and a crowd of war refugees from the conflict in Dafur. What narrative could connect these persons, these historical moments?
Recently, I’ve come to appreciate collages especially as I attempt to get my mind around the torture issue as it is played out in the media. The startling juxtaposition here is that torture emerged out of a context of “spreading democracy”, and that the active agent of that effort, the United States, views itself as “a city on a hill” a beacon of freedom and justice. At once the instances of torture were viewed as the work of a “few bad apples” who were certainly acting outside of the established protocols. Then, a messy trail of memos indicated that torture was a matter of policy, the implementation of which was justified for the sake of “national security.” These are, after all, dangerous times that call for “enhanced techniques.” And now that we have moved toward calling water-boarding what it is, namely torture, our leaders tell us that we should, however, “move forward” with the pressing need to address “current” realities.
This call to “move forward” is consistent with the ahistorical mindset of America; we take pride in our past to the extent we ignore its darker troubling traditions. And so we tout our occupation and conquering of what is now the United States, what we still call our Manifest Destiny, but never fully allow ourselves to consider the displacement and destruction of the native populations and cultures or the enslavement of a people whose toil and suffering made our wealth possible. Our “approved history” is like gauze to cover the deep wounds to our national psyche. In a way, leaping across time to the shame of U.S. torture, what is coming to light is hemorrhaging through this veneer, this gauze of exceptionalism.
According the Professor McCoy at the University of Wisconsin Madison, the United States has a history of utilizing “enhanced techniques”, torture. On this morning’s Democracy Now he traced a lineage of horror that includes the infamous Phoenix Program of the Vietnam Era and the Death Squad practices common from the 1950’s forward in Latin America (practices that the United States funded, trained, supported, and participated in). Following the disclosure of these events there was an outcry of disapproval, a wringing of hands, and then…amnesia.
The critic George Steiner in writing of the genocide of the Jews by the Nazi’s pondered the agonizing reality of Time that allows for such a horror to occur alongside the occurrence of happiness. How can a moment hold such contradictions? We struggle with the intimacy of such moments, and the failure of our moral imaginations leads—as it has in Europe and elsewhere—to denials that this genocide occurred at all.
That our national history holds similar contradictions provokes in us the shrill notes of patriotism, the brash refutations of Limbaugh, Hannity, and others who assert, “America does not torture.” Our national inability to look history in the face and attempt to reconcile our highest ideals with ugly realities distorts and perverts our politics, our economy, and our faith in democracy. The modicum of outrage mustered gets muted by cries of traitor or by blanket assignment to membership in the “blame American first crowd.” Forgetting becomes the only way out of shame, and so “moving forward” toward the future becomes the prescription, and “real Americans” only open their mouths to swallow this bitter pill.