Tuesday, September 8, 2015
September 8, 2015: AmericanStudying 9/11: Do No Harm
[Even—perhaps especially—recent, painful, and controversial events and topics demand our AmericanStudying. So this week, I’ll offer a handful of ways to AmericanStudy September 11th, 2001, and its contexts and aftermaths, leading up to a special memorial post this weekend.]
On doctors, dark histories, and remembering the worst of what we’ve done.
While many if not most of the facts of what has happened for the last decade and a half at Guantanamo Bay (to say nothing of the even more opaque Black Sites around the world) will likely remain forever unknown or at best uncertain, more and more information about that profound stain on our recent national identity is nonetheless beginning to come out. A few years ago, for example, we learned of an extensive medical study, conducted and written-up with all the experimental and analytical rigor and precision one would expect from such a report, that detailed at great and extremely wrenching length the contributions of many physicians to the torture regime’s efforts at Gitmo. This past year, a similar report was released on psychologists’ participation in those torture programs. I understand the dual allegiances held by any military physician, but it is impossible to read these reports and not recognize just how fully, in serving their military masters, these doctors and psychologists violated every line of their medical oath and ethics, most especially the pledge “to abstain from doing harm.”
It’s especially difficult for me to read these reports because I know, from various sources not only journalistic but also personal (a connection whom I will not throw under the bus here spent time working at Gitmo in a role I try not to think about, and reported with no sense of outrage that one of the prisoners he encountered there was a young boy), that many of the hundreds of prisoners held for well over a decade in this facility are at best collateral damage from the war in Afghanistan, and at worst even more grotesquely wronged than that (for years it was standing military policy in Afghanistan to pay locals a reward for turning in “terrorists,” and I can only imagine how many of those turned in were as a result simply someone’s enemies or adversaries or even just targets of opportunity; at one point at least over 80% of the prisoners in Gitmo had been captured not by US forces but by proxies in this way). One of the prisoners about whom I’ve read a good deal (through Glenn Greenwald) is a teenage boy, and another a middle-aged father to a large family; in cases like those I can’t help but read report like these and imagine my own children or myself, taken thousands of miles away from family and loved ones and brutalized for more than a decade with no possibility to prove or even genuinely argue for my innocence or standing in any way.
Despite the powerfully specific and un-generalizable realities of that place and situation, however, I can’t help but also connect them to a broader AmericanStudies concern of mine, and one at the heart of my next book project. We have a national tendency to seek to whitewash over our darkest histories, partly for cowardly or jingoistic reasons (“We’re the greatest country in the world and shouldn’t go around apologizing for ourselves!”), but also certainly for more understandable and even logical ones (a desire to build community through shared forgiveness and moving past our differences and divisions, for example). Yet I firmly believe that this tendency has the potential to do great harm, not only in allowing us to forget and so perhaps repeat our darkest errors, but also in keeping us from genuinely striving to be the best version of ourselves; that version depends precisely on engaging with all of the times and ways in which we have come up short of that best version, and then finding a path through and beyond that engagement to something more real and strong. While that’s far from easy, it’s most certainly possible; I would note for example the amazing Stasi Museum in Berlin, a place where Germans and visitors alike can engage with and seek to understand one of the darkest eras in that nation’s history.
Could we as Americans do the same—building an Internment museum, an Indian Wars museum, a Slavery museum, a Torture Museum? I don’t know that we could, but I know that in all of those historical cases we already have, in much of our literature and art and scholarship, complex and dark and powerful engagements with those histories, and with who and what we are through and, perhaps, beyond them. If I can add my voice to that mix in a way that gives us a slightly better chance of doing real good, now and in the future, I’ll have lived up to my own oaths for sure. Next AmericanStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? 9/11 contexts and analyses you’d share?