Imagine that you've arrived at the local multiplex for a weekend flick. Popcorn in hand, you settle in to watch Matt Damon star in a new thriller as a young American soldier imprisoned by the government for blowing the whistle on crimes witnessed while serving in a foreign country.
INT. MILITARY PRISON CELL - DAY
(Calendar pages flip by indicating the passage of months. July. August. September. October. Etc.)
The Damon character stands naked in front of his cell. His head is bent over, and he stares blankly at the floor.
GUARD (roughly): "Are you all right? I need a verbal response."
DAMON CHARACTER (voice shaking): "Yes, I am all right."
The Damon character is handed his neatly folded underwear.
GUARD: "You give it back at night. Every night. Got it?"
DAMON CHARACTER: "Yes."
GUARD (turning the lock on the cell door). "Are you all right?"
DAMON CHARACTER (weakly): "Yes, I am all right."
CUT TO: INT. SMALL EMPTY ROOM IN MILITARY BRIG - DAY
The Damon character shuffles slowly in a figure eight pattern. He stops to scratch his foot. The guard interrupts.
GUARD: "Exercise is over! You know the rules. No stopping. Are you all right?"
DAMON CHARACTER (robotically): "Yes, I am all right."
As our movie unfolds, we see the Damon character growing more detached from reality. Every five minutes, he is interrupted with the same question, "Are you all right?" Day in, day out. Each night, he must surrender his clothing, left naked in his cell without a pillow or blanket. Should he roll to a side of the bed where the guards can't see him, he is immediately awakened. He is kept alone in his cell for 23 hours a day, and his only exercise is an hour of walking in a bare room. If he pauses, he forfeits the rest of his time. The Damon character grows pale; his speech becomes broken, almost indecipherable.
Gradually he becomes catatonic, awaiting a trial that has never been set.
In this Kafkaesque film, the military personnel overseeing the treatment insist to the press that they can't explain why they strip the soldier because to do so would violate his privacy. They claim that they are isolating him and imposing bizarre restrictions out of concern for his safety. Members of the press corps don't believe the lies. But they nod in tacit agreement. "Traitor!" they whisper. They deadpan the story, as if it were just another routine case.
If we were watching all this transpire on the screen, we would know how to interpret the story. We would intuit that the soldier is up against some version of Big Brother, the Authoritarian State. We would squirm in our seats, waiting for justice to intervene. If this were a high-quality, complex film, we might not completely sympathize with the motives of Damon's character or totally agree with his interpretation of the crimes he witnessed. But we would root for him anyway, because as Americans we instinctively reject authoritarian control. We know that the Constitution protects citizens from the trampling of basic rights. And we sense that the violation of one is the violation of all.
Except when it happens in reality. Then we stick our heads in the sand. We make excuses. We say, "but this case is different."
Even when we do talk, we are careful. Cautious not to sound too soft. Many journalists have covered the detention of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the suspect accused of leaking cables to Wikileaks (Manning, as yet, has been convicted of nothing). But though he has been subjected to exactly the treatment as our fictional example, most -- with some brave exceptions -- have been reluctant to challenge the military or the U.S. government.
But as the treatment grows more obscene, reality becomes harder to ignore. Some have suggested that the abuse violates Manning's 8th Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment. A blogger recently called it "borderline torture." Today, we learn that a spokesman for the State Department called the treatment "ridiculous and stupid."
Why is it so hard time to call this treatment what it actually is? Torture.
Plain and simple.
Maybe it's because if we did, we would have to acknowledge truths too painful to bear. We would know that what had once happened to "foreign combatants" is now happening to Americans soldiers, and maybe it will soon happen to civilians, too. So we continue the doublespeak.
"Political language," wrote George Orwell, "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." ("Politics and the English Language", 1946.)
Orwellian language has justified things in our country's history that many good citizens knew to be wrong. Slavery. The subjugation of women. The internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Each time, many people failed to call for justice because they didn't see the victims as full citizens. Or even fully human. Some suggest that Bradley Manning gave up his protection under the U.S. Constitution when he joined the armed forces, an affront to the sacrifice of service if there ever was one. Others have declared him guilty without a trial, an attack on our precious tradition of presumed innocence. The niceties of civilization are jettisoned. The Bill of Rights becomes just a piece of paper.
We wait and we watch as the U.S. government defends itself from whistle blowers by torturing them in plain view. What stronger evidence that there is much to blow the whistle on?
Obama the Commander in Chief, the man who said that "the U.S. does not torture," does nothing (Update: Friday afternoon, Obama inquired with the Pentagon after Manning's treatment and was assured that it was "appropriate"). Eric Holder, the country's chief law enforcement officer, fails to intervene.
How does this story end in reality? Not well, I fear.
Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.