At the Obama rally two weeks ago, I ran into an old reporter friend. He was doing his thing so we didn't talk much. Once in a while, he'd look over, smile, or just give me a look. Later he came over. He teased me about my clapping during the speech. He said that now he knows that I'm for closing down GITMO.
At first I was self-conscious. I used to be a staffer, and staffers were supposed to prepare the red meat, not eat it. Still, I didn't care. Of course I should clap at the promise to close down GITMO. That was literally the least I could do.
I was reminded of this yesterday after I read Frank Rich's "The Good Germans Among Us." He asked if we as Americans are any better than the "good Germans" who claimed ignorance of the crimes committed in their names:
I have always maintained that the American public was the least culpable of the players during the run-up to Iraq. The war was sold by a brilliant and fear-fueled White House propaganda campaign designed to stampede a nation still shellshocked by 9/11. Both Congress and the press -- the powerful institutions that should have provided the checks, balances and due diligence of the administration's case -- failed to do their job. Had they done so, more Americans might have raised more objections. This perfect storm of democratic failure began at the top.
As the war has dragged on, it is hard to give Americans en masse a pass. We are too slow to notice, let alone protest, the calamities that have followed the original sin.
In our political dialogue, we tend to act like evil comes only in the form of overseas dictators. Evil is always them, not us. After Katrina, we were reminded that indifference kills just as effectively as malicious intent. That most of us have more to fear from the enemy at home than the enemy abroad.
I am grateful to Mr. Rich for having the courage to suggest that the call is coming from inside the house. That we need to start looking at ourselves, and what we're not doing to hasten the end of the regime's worst atrocities. That it's time to acknowledge how culpable we really are.
George Bush is no Hitler. But that doesn't change the fact that we're committing murderous sins at home and abroad. We have to know that 20, 40, 60 years down the line, learned folks will make their cases for and against us. Were there any "good Americans"? Is it possible to even be a "good American?" Or "is there something inherent in the American character that makes us so susceptible to indifference, so given to greed?"
I used to live in Houston, Texas. I'd joke with friends that there's no reason to live in Houston unless you have shares in Exxon-Mobil or Dow. Why? Because you should enjoy the fruits if you're going to suffer the consequences. This was a joke, but there's some truth there. The air quality remains horrible. No amount of Pacifica radio, organic produce, (and in the meantime, protest) is going to change the fact that you still breath the same air everyone else breaths--air infused daily by the surrounding refineries and chemical plants. No matter how pure our portfolios or our politics, we were still Houstonians.
Just like we're all Americans. Not just human rights, due process-loving Americans. But George Bush, Dick Cheney, waterboarding Americans. If I go overseas and stay in a hotel that's been targeted by terrorists, I doubt they'll stop to Google the guest list and see that once or twice I blogged against the use of torture and decide whoa-ho, I should be spared! Despite the choices I make as an individual, at a fundamental level, I am still an American. With all its privileges. And all its baggage (with containers of new pieces arriving every day).
Call it group karma. Call it group culpability. Call it unfair. Doesn't matter. The fact is that individuals can suffer for crimes they themselves did not commit only because they were a member of the group.
Ask a German. They know something about group culpability. They also know something about feeling blamed for crimes that happened before they were born.
Can you imagine a life where shame is permanently affixed to your sense of nationality? This can be our future. How much so depends on how much we do now, today, and tomorrow.
The current administration is expert at making us feel powerless. Our Democratic leadership only seems to reaffirm. Yet, we can't give in to despair. Every small action we can take, we must take. Even if it's just clapping at a clap line. Even if it's calling senators and letting them know you really mean it. Even if it's more. Much more.
Because as we know, there were more than "good Germans" during WWII--there were the kind that resisted, the kind that put their lives on the line to hide people, to do what they could to act with love, bravery, and fairness, and doing so under wartime stresses and deprivations.
We can resist our government without ending up on the firing line. Don't let this power go to waste.