“People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word.”
— George Orwell, 1984
A couple of years ago I sat at a small table at Me n’ Ollies in Exeter, waiting to meet a N.H. state trooper who had called me out of the blue. I’ve forgotten his name and number now. Irish, I think. Perhaps he’ll call me back when he reads this; I’d actually like to continue the discussion we started that day. He was assigned to a task force working with Homeland Security and wanted to chat and get to know me.
He was pleasant enough, asking me about work, who I knew, where I had traveled over the years of my professional life, etc. We talked about Islam, about his encounters with Muslims in New Hampshire, issues of courtesy and hospitality that he wanted to know about. When I mentioned a particular person I had differences with he asked, “Is that someone we should know about?”
No, I answered. My guard went up. Did he/they think I wouldn’t report someone I perceived as a threat. Of course I would. Did they already know about this person and wanted to know how I would respond? Was this a test?
As an American, I had joined him for coffee to see how we could work together to make us more comfortable with each other. Support each other. I wasn’t there to be profiled.
Two months ago, America remembered the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
Three days ago the New York Times headlined, “Soldier Is Convicted of Killing Afghan Civilians for Sport.”
Two days ago, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we rightly honored America’s veterans.
Today, Americans should remember that this is the 10th anniversary of “Military Order of November 13, 2001, pertaining to the Detention, Treatment and Trial of Certain Non-Citizens in the War Against Terrorism,” signed by President George W. Bush.
After that executive order, the Guantanamo Bay facility became the focus and nightmare of U.S. intelligence efforts. A safe haven where the Constitution could be evaded became a symbol of America losing its way.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, planner of the 9/11 attacks, will face a military tribunal at Guantanamo after the administration initially announced he would be tried in New York. Concerns about the admissibility of the use of evidence obtained by torture, by waterboarding, by sleep-deprivation techniques, all banned by international treaties and conventions, and a public outcry about security concerns, compelled the Obama administration to back down.
America just announced it was putting the leader of the attacks on the USS Cole on trial. In a military tribunal, again after concerns about the admissibility of evidence.
Within weeks of Al Qaeda’s attacks on our country America began to change. We began to put who we are, what we believe, at risk. We started to become something we are not. People were “disappeared.” Extraordinary renditions. People were snatched off streets and out of their beds. Government officials speaking publicly about approving the worst forms of torture.
After the Patriot Act (Oct. 26, 2001), Bagram, Abu Ghraib, torture and drone warfare, all done in our name, we should pause, 10 years afterwards, and take stock of what kind of nation have we become?
Friends say I shouldn’t really worry about the Patriot Act and the abuses done in our name. When I ask them if they mind the government reading their e-mail or listening to their phones they shrug and say, “I have nothing to hide.”
I believe we should have the freedom to be private, to have secrets that are none of the government’s business, as long as they are neither criminal nor impinge on the rights of others. We are a nation of laws. The way to prove to the rest of the world who we are is to showcase the best of America. Embrace the adversarial trial system. Believe in the ability of juries to discern truth. Avoid evidence obtained by torture.
When an American general proclaimed, “My God is bigger than his God. I knew my God was a real God, and his was an idol,” was he, and others, using similar language, giving implicit permission to the troops, both on the battlefield, and in interrogation rooms, to value their enemy as less than human because they are not Christian? Is that why civilians are killed for sport?
After 10 years it’s time to reassess. Move beyond fear? Are our enemies, and our friends, and our citizens ready to claim a new vision? An ecumenical vision, global, equitable, opposed to criminality and terrorism but united on issues of fairness and social justice.
A young girl I admire, Grace, barely 18, a Phillips Exeter graduate, chose not to go straight to college. Empowered rather than entitled by virtue of that education, she is, as you read this, a resident in Harlem, a volunteer in a middle school there, working to share her gifts with students who didn’t have her advantages.
That is the kind of nation I want. Grace’s nation. A country that embraces the power and beauty of citizens to not just build infrastructure but to heal wounds and bring communities together. This is the kind of nation I want our troops to protect.
That is how we grow a nation.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.