Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Second Acts
That the case of Emmett Till, the Mississippi teenager murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, should reenter the national consciousness on this particular day--and not two weeks before or two weeks after--almost makes you think that the universe is trying to tell us something. Yesterday, Luc Sante wrote in the New York Times that the expressions on the faces of the American MPs posing with Iraqi captives are like nothing so much as the faces seen in crowd photographs of lynchings during the early 20th century. At Best of the Blogs, Josh Hammond pondered yesterday's cable-news juxtaposition of the stories of Till, Nick Berg (the beheaded American), and Kobe Bryant, and suggested that the Abu Ghraib scandal is no more an isolated case of a few bad apples than the lynchings were: "both cases show the consequences of indifference to human rights that starts and is sustained at the top." Jerry Bowles also invoked Till as he wondered whether the beheading of Berg is proof that we're fighting barbarian hordes in Iraq. Jerry's answer--no. They're no more barbaric than Till's killers, or the killers of James Byrd or Matthew Shepherd.

With all this history floating around in the ether, it shouldn't be a surprise that a senator from Oklahoma would rise to defend the abusers of prisoners. After all, there were plenty of people ready to defend the rights of lynch mobs back in the day. Precisely what's going on in James Inhofe's brain isn't clear to me--and I damn well don't want to go poking around in there any more than necessary. His comments during the Taguba hearings yesterday were as foolish and indecent as anything ever uttered in the Senate. But his tone of aggrieved righteousness shouldn't be mistaken as something belonging only to him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that there are no second acts in American lives, but he was wrong. America is all second-act, and third, and fourth, and fifth, because we can't remember the preceding acts. We have a handicap--unique among the peoples of the world, I think--of being unable to remember history, and being unable to learn anything from it. It's what makes foreign press commentaries on the world so very different from American ones--the sense of history with which journalists like Robert Fisk and John Pilger approach their work is inescapable. Americans, however, are forever wiping the slate clean and starting over. (Perhaps it's a hangover from the days when people could pack up and move on to the next frontier whenever a new start was needed.) So, instead of remembering the barbarity in our own past--from the annihilation of the Indians to our own record of lynchings--and using it to help us understand the pictures from Abu Ghraib and the conditions that led to them, we stare open-mouthed at the photos and wonder how they could have happened. And then, as Josh observed, we try to comfort ourselves by saying, "It's just the actions of a few bad apples" and "This is not the America we know." And then, just as Inhofe has done, we turn on the messengers, and blame them for making us feel bad about ourselves.

I don't have an ending for this entry--no philosophical pronouncement, no wry observation to tie it up with a lovely blogosphere bow. That would require things to make sense, and most of the time, they don't anymore.

Recommended reading: Far-East expert John Feffer says the neocons want to do for North Korea what they've done for the Middle East. Be very afraid.

This morning on Best of the Blogs: Quote of the Day.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?