This Week Has Been Full of Torture, Police Brutality, and Snow

The CIA torture report was released on Wednesday.

I remember, in high school, taking a class on American history with a boy who planned to join the Army. He was incredibly, painfully patriotic, in the kind of way our little liberal Bay Area town rarely saw – he defended the Iraq War, he called America the greatest country in the world completely without irony, he wore an American flag to school the morning after Osama bin Laden was killed. I must have gotten in a hundred different arguments with him over my high school career; they were, ultimately, the best arguments I’ve ever had, and I certainly think we both learned a lot from each other.

The moment I’m thinking of- it was January, I think. We were slogging through the nineteenth century; we had just finished with the Civil War, and everything was railroads and robber barons, financial panics and forgettable presidents.

And the United States’ policy towards Native Americans.

And I don’t remember what it was; I don’t remember what we were reading or why we were reading it. I just remember this boy in my class looking at me from over his textbook and saying, slowly and sort of painfully, “This is the first time I’ve ever been ashamed of America.”

We’re not good at shame, in America. I think it must be something about our national psyche – something about our relentless optimism, our drive, our push towards horizon and tomorrow and future. Something about our tendency towards dreaming; we love hope, love our city-on-a-hill, love Gatsby’s green light. We love the idea of America tremendously. America itself, the gritty and grainy and imperfect reality of it – that’s a little harder for us to love, a little harder for us to even see.

This isn’t new. We’ve been talking about the broken promise of the American Dream for over a century; it’s almost a cliche, at this point. The Dream is that in America anyone, no matter who they are, can achieve economic success, and the Dream isn’t true. Not everybody gets the white picket fence and the yard with rabbits. Not everybody can.

But most young people, I think, never really expected that. We all read Of Mice and Men as teenagers, we were all raised by disillusioned hippies; we never quite believed that we could be anything we wanted to be when we grew up.

We did, I think, expect to live in the greatest country in the world.

Not explicitly, of course, and most of us would never have put it that way. Certainly the left-wing communities I grew up in spent most of their time moaning about how much they hated America and wanted to move to Canada, how much they despised the Bush administration, how our health care was awful, we had too many guns, the oil lobbyists had too much influence. But there were certain basic assumptions no one ever voiced, because they didn’t need to: that we lived in a free country, that we lived in a country where everyone had fundamentally equal rights under the law, that we lived in a democratic country.

That – no matter how awful our government might be – we lived in a country that was fundamentally good. That in the great story of modern world history, America was the white hat. That we were the good guys.

I’ve said I’m ashamed of America many, many times.

Over the past few months I’ve watched my friends get tear gassed for disagreeing with policemen; I’ve watched Americans, all of them black, most of them younger than me, die for the same reason. I’ve seen policemen use medical vehicles for military purposes, which is illegal even in war. I’ve seen journalists arrested in my chosen hometown, I’ve seen journalists tear gassed in the hometown of my birth. I’ve seen a friend of a friend sent to jail for providing legal defense for people accused of terrorism, and I’ve learned that the American government has spied on lawyers defending people accused of terrorism. I’ve learned that the American government has spied on people because they were Muslim. I’ve learned that the American government tortured people.

I’ve seen person after person say that they’re disgusted, but not surprised.

I don’t know when I’m going to get to that point.

I am surprised. I am surprised every single time. I feel shocked, and sick, and scared. There have been multiple mornings where I’ve lain in bed, overcome by symptoms I’ve previously only experienced when suffering from depression – one morning because police used ambulances as a trick to corral protesters, one morning because I saw a friend from home say that she walked home through tear gas, and this morning because the country that I love beyond words and beyond belief has done things to other human beings that are inhuman.

I don’t know when I will stop being surprised.

I don’t know if I want to stop being surprised.

What’s the alternative? Numbness? Compassion fatigue? The idea of no longer being surprised by horror – it seems like an agreement to lower my expectations, and I don’t know how to do that, I don’t think I want to do that. Feeling this sick and scared and sad all the time hurts, but I can’t, I won’t say all right, I guess that means it’s time to stop feeling sick and scared and sad. I can’t hush the part of me that hurts. I can’t do that, because the part of me that hurts is my conscience.

This is not the first time I have said I am ashamed of America – but God, it feels like the first time I have ever really, in my heart, been ashamed of America.

It’s the first time I’ve ever really felt that the enormous and brilliant and unspoken promise has been broken. That America, the country I love and have loved and still cannot stop loving, is not great. That it is not the good guy.

Snow’s finally come to New York. The streets are always wet, the wind is cold, and the sky is dark more often than it’s light. In winter we tend to realize how vulnerable we really are: small, helpless animals, who can so easily freeze to death in the forest, or on the city sidewalk, or somewhere in Afghanistan, deep underground, sitting naked on a concrete floor.

We tend, in this season, to instinctively huddle into each other for warmth. We light candles; we gather with our family and friends. The world is dark, and cold, but it contains people who love you – and in the depths of December that is enough.

On Wednesday at noon I went to a die-in in the NYU library. I wasn’t sure initially about participating – after all, I’m white, and it’s not my brothers and sisters who are being killed – but the Black Student Union, who was running the event, told me they wanted me to do it: “you’re allowed to because you’ve been invited to,” they said, “and we’ve talked about it, and this is the way that we want you to show your support.”

There wasn’t enough space on the floor for all the people who were participating. I found my head resting on someone’s ankle, someone’s hand under my thigh, someone’s elbow pressing into my side. We lay on the ground, stared at the ceiling; I didn’t know who I was lying with, what gender they were, what race, what religion. And some of us were holding hands, and we were all singing the same songs, chanting the same chants, and I felt like I was part of something soft and painful and vulnerable. Something warm in the cold.

Winter seems like it’s a little harsher every year.

And warmth, and light, and love – they’re good, they’re necessary, they help us survive. But god, god, we deserve to see spring.


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