We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
—Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963
Recently a couple of articles in The New York Times for Sunday, March 20, of this year caught my eye. My attention was drawn to them both at least in large part because, around that same time, I was writing posts for my preceding series on “Faith in Trauma,” which included some discussion of the classic 1967 book by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern: Grundlagen kollectiven Verhaltens (Munich: Piper Verlag)—eventually translated into English as The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior (New York: Grove Press, 1975).
The first of the pieces in that Sunday’s Times that drew my attention was on the front page of the op-ed section. It was a column by Eric Fair, who was a civilian contractor helping United States forces conduct interrogations in Iraq after the U.S. invasion of that country in 2003, under President George W. Bush. Fair assisted in the torture of Iraqi prisoners—what the Bush administration, of course, preferred to call the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” since, after all, “the United States doesn’t torture,” as Bush blithely insisted.
Fair’s piece was given the title “Owning Up To Torture,” and served, among other things, to advertise his since-released memoir Consequence. What first made me notice the piece was the line inserted by the editors in large, boldfaced print near the end of the first of the article’s two columns. It read:
Men like Donald Trump and Ted
Cruz don’t have to bear the cost
In one paragraph late in his article, Fair writes about how during this election season both Trump and Cruz have repeatedly “suggested that waterboarding and other abhorrent interrogation tactics should not be considered illegal.” A bit later, Fair adds that, given “the opportunity to speak to other interrogators and intelligence professionals, I would warn them about men like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.” Fair says he “would warn them that they’ll be told to cross lines by men who would never be asked to do it themselves”—just as neither Trump nor Cruz ever would be—but that “once they cross the line, those [same] men will not be there to help them find their way back.” He concludes his article by writing: “As an interrogator, torture forced me to set aside my humanity when I went to work. It’s something I’ve never been able to fully pick back up again. And it’s something we must never ask another American to do.”
In that final sentence, by the pronoun ‘we’ Fair obviously does not mean fellow “interrogators and intelligence professionals,” since it is precisely they whom “we” must never again ask to do the sorts of things “we” have in the past asked Fair and others to do in Iraq—and all too many other places. Presumably, by “we” Fair means the United States as a nation.
In their 1967 book Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlichs address the German nation’s inability to mourn its Nazi past from 1933-1945, and especially to mourn the victims of Germany’s many acts of aggression and genocide during that period, the many millions of people the Germans murdered in those years. That inability to mourn was still all too definitive of Germany at least in 1967, twenty-two years after the end to World War II, as it may well still be today, almost half a century further on.
Fair’s article—and the book it advertises, which has since appeared and which I’ve also now read—raises the same issue for the United States as a nation today with regard to its actions in Iraq after we invaded that country in 2003, just thirteen years ago. If we as a nation are not able to mourn those we have asked such men as Eric Fair to torture and murder in our name, then neither will we be able to heed Fair’s admonition that we never again ask such a thing of anyone.
It is all too easy to say “never again.” The hard part is to keep our word, once we do say that. Part of what makes that so hard, in turn, is that, in order to keep our word, we must first truly acknowledge and mourn all we have lost by having once done what we now say we will never do again. Can we so mourn?
Our national history gives us scant reason for optimism that we can.
* * * * * *
The second piece in the same recent Sunday New York Times that drew my attention was a book review of The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights With One African Family, by Gail Lumet Buckley, daughter of Lena Horne and a descendent of the same Calhouns. The review was by Patricia J. Williams, a law professor at Columbia and columnist for The Nation. In the second half of her review, Williams touches briefly on the blatant racism of such all-American icons as Woodrow Wilson and John C. Calhoun. Then she remarks that The Black Calhouns “makes for particularly interesting reading against the backdrop of today’s culture wars, from Donald Trump’s disingenuous claim not to know anything about white supremacy to efforts in Texas [Ted Cruz’s home state, be it noted] to cut all mention of Jim Crow and the Klan from social studies textbooks.” She ends her review by complementing Buckley for how well the “meticulously detailed recollections” of her book call out insistently to the reader, on behalf of black slaves and their descendants: “We were here! We were there! Do not forget!”
However, as Williams goes on to remark, that’s just what we have done. We have “forgotten, over and over.” Williams compliments Buckley for giving us in her book “a comprehensive reminder of how, even when not immediately visible, the burden of racial trauma is carried deep within the body politic.” Then Williams concludes her review with this line: “With so much of our collective national experience consigned to oblivion, we tread unknowingly on the graves of those whose lack of accorded dignity echoes with us yet.”
How can we possibly mourn what we refuse even to remember?
* * * * * *
We can let the Germans concern themselves with the question of whether they have even yet proven themselves capable of doing their own mourning for their own dark past. We need to focus on the question of our own national ability—or lack of it—to mourn our own such past, whether that be so recent a past as our war in Iraq, or a more distant past, such as that of the centuries during which some of us built the power of the United States as a nation on the backs of others of us, the backs, that is, of African American slaves.
The two pieces—one to each of those two: the relatively recent American invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the long American history of the enslavement of African Americans—that especially drew my attention in the Times for that recent Sunday of March 20 suggest that we, as a nation, lack that ability.
In my next post, I will introduce more disheartening recent evidence of our own continuing, shameful national incapacity to mourn.