Christmas Cheer

i am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together
see how they run like pigs from a gun
see how they fly

i’m crying

—John Lennon

Rasmussen Reports is not a reputable polling firm. But the results it obtained when it queried the American people on whether they approved of subjecting Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab to waterboarding and other forms of torture—58% said yes, while 12% were “not sure”—sound about right.

To begin to understand why, we can start with the news release on the poll from Rasmussen itself. There, Mutallab is not once mentioned by name. Instead, he is referenced variously as the “plane terrorist,” “the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day,” “the Nigerian Muslim,” “the bomber,” and “the Detroit bomber.”

Neither was Mutallab identified by name by the Rasmussen pollsters when they queried respondents. Instead, Mutallab was referenced solely as “the suspected bomber.”

These people, then, were not really considering whether or not to torture an individual human being. They were focused instead on an act. In the Rasmussen survey Mutallab was rendered an unperson—stripped even of his name—and reduced but to a thing that he did. And history shows that when once you succeed in dehumanizing a person, you make it possible to do to him anything at all.

I am rereading Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Millennium, a brash attempt to assemble a world history of the years 1000 to 2000 CE. This is not a work that encourages the reader to exclaim, “What a wonder is man!” Instead, wherever one travels, in time or in space, there are human beings doing monstrous things to one another.

Hernan Cortes at Cholula in 1519, massacring three thousand civilians “to alleviate the Spaniards’ stress.” Basil “the Bulgar-slayer,” who in the 11th Century blinded 14,000 men after the battle of Kleidion, “save one man in every hundred, spared one eye with which to lead home the rest.” Turkish boys not permitted to take names until they had “lopped off heads in battle.” Michel de Montaigne, reacting to European repugnance at the cannibals of Brazil, observing “there is more barbarism in eating men alive than to feed upon them being dead”: four years later his words proven true, in the sentence meted out to Balthasar Gerard, assassin of William of Orange: “it was decreed that his right hand be burned off with a red-hot iron, that his flesh be torn from his bones with pincers in six different places, that he be quartered and disemboweled while alive, that his heart be torn from his bosom and flung in his face, and that, finally, his head be taken off.”

We cannot say that we today are not of these people. Living among us still are victims and perpetrators of that mid-20th Century bureaucratized and industrialized crusade to eliminate from the earth the Jewish people, condemned as “vermin,” undeserving of continued existence. “The Germans,” says film director Werner Herzog, “were a dignified people, the greatest philosophers, composers, writers and mathematicians. And, in the space of only ten years, they created a barbarism more terrible than had ever been seen before.” Over 100 days in 1994, the Hutu stamped out half a million Tutsi, as “cockroaches.” Ten years later, 62 million Americans voted to return to the office of the presidency George II, despite the exposure of the Abu Ghraib outrages, and George II’s explicit, public rejection of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation that War on Terra prisoners in US custody be afforded “humane treatment.”

Now, Rasmussen would tell us, an even higher number of Americans would comfortably subject Mutallab to a procedure that since the European Dark Ages has been classified as a form of torture, officially considered as such in American criminal law since 1901, and prosecuted as such by the US Justice Department as recently as 1983.

What is waterboarding?

“It’s not simulated anything. It’s slow-motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of blackout and expiration—usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. You can feel every drop. Every drop. You start to panic. And as you panic, you start gasping, and as you gasp, your gag reflex is overridden by water. And then you start to choke, and then you start to drown more. Because the water doesn’t stop until the interrogator wants to ask you a question. And then, for that second, the water will continue, and you’ll get a second to puke and spit up everything that you have, and then you’ll have an opportunity to determine whether you’re willing to continue with the process.”

What does waterboarding do to those waterboarded? This is Abu Zubaydah, after his waterboarding:

“He spent all of his time masturbating like a monkey in the zoo. He went at it so much, at some point I heard he injured himself. They had to intervene. He didn’t care that they were watching him. I guess he was bored, and mad.”

“He masturbated constantly. A couple of guards were worried about it. He wasn’t brazen about it—he wasn’t facing the camera. He’d do it at night, facing the wall, but it was rigged so there was no place for him not to be seen. This was closed circuit. He complained to the interrogator that he would never have the chance to feel a woman’s touch again, and lament that he would never have children. He freaked, though, at one point, because there was blood in his ejaculate. He saved it for the doctors in a tissue, to show them in the morning. The doctor said not to worry.”

What does waterboarding do to the waterboarders? This is a CIA officer, after his waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed:

“When you cross over that line of darkness, it’s hard to come back. You lose your soul. You can do your best to justify it, but it’s well outside the norm. You can’t go to that dark a place without it changing you.”

Notwithstanding the clownish antics of buffoons like Christopher Hitchens, sane and reasonable human beings would not wish something like waterboarding inflicted on themselves, or on people like them. To urge that someone be waterboarded—or that the flesh be torn from their bones with pincers, or that they be exterminated like “cockroaches,” or fed into ovens as “vermin,”—it is necessary to “Otherize” them. To make them someone not like you.

Rasmussen, in the case of Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, made this easy for its poll respondents. The pollsters did not allow Mutallab even a name, and all the terms they used to describe him served to Otherize him—the “plane terrorist,” “the Nigerian Muslim,” “the bomber.”

Regardless of what sort of instruction they might receive at home, Americans as soon as they are enrolled in school enter an environment in which they are systematically subsumed in Otherizing. They soon come to understand that their school is better than any other school—”be true to your school”— and then that their town is better than any other town, their state better than any other state, and their nation better than any other nation. People learn to cleave to these things as superior, simply because they are a part of them. We are now preparing to take this thinking off the planet, as many people believe it is perfectly acceptable to wholly denude other worlds . . . because this planet is better than any other.

Having been successfully processed through these Otherizing factories, people emerge prepared to approvingly, unthinkingly respond to such you/me, fight/flight, lizard-brain formulations as George II’s notorious “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” And someone like Mutallab, who is a “terrorist,” willing, it is said, to do anything to “us”  . . . well, it is appropriate, and even necessary, for us to do anything to him.

Science types once argued that this sort of thing is natural, that human beings come equipped with a “selfish gene” that evolved as a boon for survival. Thus, the aged Oregon logger Henry Stamper, in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, would be perfectly justified in asserting, as he did, that, under any and all circumstances, if the US was at war with another nation, he would fight with the US; if California fought with Oregon, he would side with Oregon; if Oregon bickered with his town, he would stand with the town; if the town clashed with his family, he would support his family; and if his family opposed him, he would opt for himself.

Except that now science types have discovered that human beings are in fact “wired” for empathy. When study “volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.”

This reaches into the animal kingdom. “[A]nimals can sacrifice their own interests: one experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.”

“We evolved in a world where people in trouble right in front of you existed,” says neuroscientist and philosopher Joshua Greene, “so our emotions were tuned to them[.]”

Those who seek to enlist others in supporting the infliction of suffering do so by ensuring that the suffering is not inflicted on “people in trouble right in front of you,” but at some distance . . . or by working to portray those “right in front of you” as not “people.”

Thereby, people can assemble to blithely, even eagerly, watch as organs are removed from the living body of Balthasar Gerard. Or, closer to our time, and place, as black men are beaten, hung, and set ablaze, for “reckless eyeballing.”

James Jones discovered empathy by killing a man. Frank MacShane, a Jones biographer, describes how Jones, during World War II, there on Guadalcanal,

stepped into the jungle to defecate. Squatting down, with his trousers around his feet, he suddenly heard a high keening sound. Whirling around, he saw a Japanese soldier running at him with a bayoneted rifle. Jones got up as quickly as he could and the two men began a bloody and gruesome duel[.] Although the man was badly wounded, he refused to die, and only with the greatest difficulty did Jones finally succeed in killing him. Covered with blood, nauseated, filthy, and exhausted, Jones went through the man’s pockets and found a wallet containing two snapshots of the soldier standing with his wife and child. He staggered back to the command post, told the captain what had happened, and said that he would never fight again.

MacShane later describes Jones working, night after night, “blind drunk,” to recreate this experience for his novel The Thin Red Line. In doing so, Jones wrote to his publisher, he came to understand that

“the dead, frozen like flies in plastic, realized—at the moment of death when of course they stopped—that humanity must grow to feeling, to empathy, or become extinct. But the dead cannot speak.” Jones wanted to speak for them, but he knew that no one would listen.

In my little corner of the world, probably the most ornery and consistent publishing practitioner of empathy is Anthony Peyton Porter, who posts a column each week at the bottom of the penultimate page of the local once-“alternative” weekly.

He regularly riles people, because he a man who has managed to break free of “be true to your school”; he is, as Rickie Lee Jones once put it, “beyond all towns, and all systems, until now, and though it is long past too far, he keeps going.”

His work is regularly greeted with such missives as “I have rarely been this turned off by an author. In these few columns I have read of his, he has defiled teachers, children, and dogs.”

I mostly wrote this piece so I could point you to two of Porter’s, here and here. There he writes about Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab. Not as “the plane terrorist,” “the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day,” “the Nigerian Muslim,” “the bomber,” or “the Detroit bomber.” But as a human being. Porter sees him clear. Below I’ve conflated passages from both pieces. The originals, as ever, are best.

Because he’s a human being, I want Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab to be treated with kindness and compassion, and one of my gentle readers objects. Yes, Mutallab apparently tried to commit murder, of which I do not approve. It’s just that I don’t think there’s any use whatsoever in punishing him, except to intimidate the rest of us and encourage the goons.

I’m curious about why Mutallab couldn’t think of anything else to do with his life but blow it up, and I think that his real motive would be useful to know before the body scans get to the gas pumps—“No Cash, No Clothes.”

I [cannot] rationalize Mutallab’s behavior. Nobody can, because his behavior was not rational. That’s why we should just get him some therapy, generously paid for by Uncle Sam.

I just can’t get past “Love your enemies” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and believe me I’ve tried. No matter what he had done, if Mutallab were my son, I would want him cared for compassionately and to get the help he needs. The guaranteed torture of his confinement will please only sleazy greedy fearmongers and the scaredy cats who support them, and as usual that’s enough.

I’d like to see Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab get a break. I was clueless at 23. Totally. So were you.

Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab is a somewhat sheltered and very young man, nervous, fearful, depressed, and conflicted—he put it off as long as he could; the plane was landing, for Pete’s sake. Now he’s in jail and his legs hurt. He’s learned his lesson. Suppose that after hours of screwing up his courage to face his own death, when he finally made his move, he was sobbing. Suppose he were your child.


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When I Worked

February 2010
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