Wealthy Frenchman

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Stranger in the Mirror


We had elections in New York and around the country on Tuesday. But it seems to me that the biggest issue of our time is getting very short shrift from the politicians, and that’s the fact that the very character of the United States is changing, and not for the better.

One of the things that stands out in my mind amid the memories of the carnage and chaos of Sept. 11, 2001, is the eerie quiet — an almost prayerful quiet — that hovered over a scene on the western edge of Manhattan that afternoon.

I stood for a long time outside the triage center that had been set up at the Chelsea Piers sports and entertainment complex. Sunlight glistened off the roofs of ambulances lined up in military fashion on the West Side Highway. Doctors, nurses and other medical personnel were standing by, waiting for what they thought would be the arrival of legions of seriously wounded victims in need of emergency care.

There seemed to be very little talking. As I recall, most of the people maintained a kind of stunned, awed silence.

The expected onslaught of victims never came. As the afternoon faded, I headed east, along with others, toward the morgue at Bellevue Hospital.

What I thought was the greatest expression of the American character in my lifetime occurred in the immediate aftermath of those catastrophic attacks. The country came together in the kind of resolute unity that I imagined was similar to the feeling most Americans felt after Pearl Harbor. We soon knew who the enemy was, and there was remarkable agreement on what needed to be done. Americans were united and the world was with us.

For a brief moment.

The invasion of Iraq marked the beginning of the change in the American character. During the Cuban missile crisis, when the hawks were hot for bombing — or an invasion — Robert Kennedy counseled against a U.S. first strike. That’s not something the U.S. would do, he said.

Fast-forward 40 years or so and not only does the U.S. launch an unprovoked invasion and occupation of a small nation — Iraq — but it does so in response to an attack inside the U.S. that the small nation had nothing to do with.

Who are we?

Another example: There was a time, I thought, when there was general agreement among Americans that torture was beyond the pale. But when people are frightened enough, nothing is beyond the pale. And we’re in an era in which the highest leaders in the land stoke — rather than attempt to allay — the fears of ordinary citizens. Islamic terrorists are equated with Nazi Germany. We’re told that we’re in a clash of civilizations.

If, as President Bush says, we’re engaged in “the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century,” why isn’t the entire nation mobilizing to meet this dire threat?

The president put us on this path away from the better angels of our nature, and he has shown no inclination to turn back. Lately he has touted legislation to try terror suspects in a way that would make a mockery of the American ideals of justice and fairness. To get a sense of just how far out the administration’s approach has been, consider the comments of Brig. Gen. James Walker, the top uniformed lawyer for the Marines. Speaking at a Congressional hearing last week, he said no civilized country denies defendants the right to see the evidence against them. The United States, he said, “should not be the first.”

And Senator Lindsey Graham, a conservative South Carolina Republican who is a former military judge, said, “It would be unacceptable, legally, in my opinion, to give someone the death penalty in a trial where they never heard the evidence against them.”

How weird is it that this possibility could even be considered?

The character of the U.S. has changed. We’re in danger of being completely ruled by fear. Most Americans have not shared the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Very few Americans are aware, as the Center for Constitutional Rights tells us, that of the hundreds of men held by the U.S. in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, many “have never been charged and will never be charged because there is no evidence justifying their detention.”

Even fewer care.

We could benefit from looking in a mirror, and absorbing the shock of not recognizing what we’ve become.


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