THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
How many people are held in detention by the United States for reasons of national security? Quite apart from the hundreds of thousands who are held each year for trying to enter the country without legal immigration status, and the handful of well-known presumed terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, how many others languish in legal purgatory, picked up at airports or at border crossings, simply because they belong to a nationality which they have the misfortune to share with others who would do us harm? How many of them have legitimate and documented reasons for being here, but come from a country which is known for spawning terrorists, or happen to have a name that is similar to someone our government is looking for? Hundreds? Thousands?
No one knows. And the reasons no one knows is because hardly anyone asks. It was reported in the news media after 9/11 that quite a few people have been detained at great length and at a cost of great and unnecessary human suffering. We dutifully shake our heads in disgust whenever we read about the excesses of the American authorities in prosecuting the war against our extremist enemies. But we allow ourselves to be assured that it's all being done to keep the country safe, after all, and these people are only in "administrative detention", and if they really have legitimate reasons for being here their cases will be cleared up before long, and however sorry we are that this has to happen to anyone there's nothing we can do about it anyway.
Of course, if we really wanted to do something about it, we could. In a democratic country, the one sure way to wake up the powers that be is to make them realize that vast numbers of citizens (i.e., voters) hold an opinion that is directly at odds with one expressed by the government. In this instance, however, it ought to be clear by now that the vast majority of the people hold the same view as the government. These individuals who are being held are, to put it simply, not us. We don't know them, and don't think about them. And because they are not us, few get aroused by their circumstances, however dire and unjust they may be. When it comes to security, we are all nationalists to a greater or lesser degree.
When we pass judgment on another country's bad nationalist behavior — let's say Russia, to use a convenient example — we are mostly oblivious to the large blind spot behind which our own questionable practices are hidden. It is tempting right here to warn against the slippery slope of moral equivalency. America has not annexed the territory of any of its neighbors as Russia has just swallowed Crimea. Well, not lately, anyway. Under the Monroe Doctrine, which is presumably still taught in school as a fundamental pillar of American foreign policy, America has embarked on military adventures into nearly every country in Central America and the Caribbean at some point in the last 200 years, and even kept some real estate for itself (see Puerto Rico). There may have been very good national security reasons, each time, for making war in Cuba, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama and elsewhere. (Let us leave the conquest of the North American continent, empty but for savages, for another day.) But they were our reasons, for which we deem ourselves not answerable to others, least of all to authoritarians who unleash themselves upon their neighbors without the justification of America's good intentions.
For most Russian citizens, living hundreds or thousands of miles from the border with Ukraine, the current distress of the non-Russians in Crimea appears to induce no more sympathy than Americans' concern for the innocent lives we disrupt and destroy for the sake of our national interests. We have no business being surprised at Russia's triumphalist reaction to the reacquisition of Crimea, as these are the very same Russians who rewarded Vladimir Putin's near-annihilation of Chechnya in the 1990s by electing him to several more presidential terms and by turning a blind eye to his political machinations, which have made an utter mockery of their own constitution. Why should the Russians care about the Chechens, Georgians, Tatars or dozens of other nationalities that have caused nothing but trouble since they were ingested into the Russian empire hundreds of years ago? As Tolstoy writes of Nicholas I's view of the Poles, "[He] hated them…in proportion to the evil he had done to them." Who could argue that the czar, including the present one, isn't entrusted with the safety only of his own nation? They are Russians, and if they are secure, what else matters?
One Nation, Indivisible
If the nationalist stirrings in Russia seem to echo the most horrific outburst of nationalism in modern times, namely Nazism, it is not least because Putin's strategy for dealing with Ukraine looks uncannily as if it comes straight from the Hitler playbook. The defense of ethnic Russians across borders, the historical connection with a disconnected piece of land, the angry exposition of grievances, the outright dishonesty of public statements of intent, the total denial of past aggression, and the casting of the nation as a victim of other nations' vindictiveness — all have proven very effective, at least in the short run, at rallying one's own nation against history and the truth. And it doesn't hurt to host the Olympic Games and use them as a fig leaf behind which to hide your country's political backwardness and barely concealed hostility to outsiders.
The German analogy is even more ominous in the context of Joachim Fest's Not I, an unsparing memoir about an anti-Nazi family's experience of living under fascism, which was published only recently in English. Fest, who died in 2006, was a prominent journalist and political commentator in post-war Germany. Not I is a rare look at life in Hitler's Berlin from the point of view of an intellectually sophisticated, devoutly Catholic family who despised Hitler and in every way possible refused to cooperate with the Nazi regime. The book is devoid of sentimentality and doesn't remotely attempt to paint the author or his parents as victims, thought they certainly were. Fest's father was dismissed from his job as a teacher soon after the Nazis came to power, and was unable to work again until after the war. His father's refusal to acquiesce defined every aspect of their lives, such as not allowing his sons to join the compulsory Hitler Youth, even though such acts of resistance could have landed him in prison, or worse. They watched as their Jewish friends, whom they never abandoned despite great risk to themselves, gradually disappeared.
And yet, while reading Not I, one cannot help but think of all those who suffered a great deal more. As an Aryan, the author was able to enjoy a childhood that was more or less normal, despite considerable difficulties and deprivations. While his father's defiance could have resulted in grave consequences, no one prevented Joachim or his siblings from walking the streets of the city, going on holiday, attending concerts, and so on. They were still German citizens, with whatever rights the regime permitted them, which of course the Jews and other undesirables were not. This is not a criticism of Fest or his family. His father was far braver than most and, as someone who was politically active during the Weimar Republic, felt a deep, personal responsibility for allowing a group of thugs to take over the country, pervert Germany's history and culture, plunge Europe into a war of unprecedented destruction, and commit mass murder.
But the unavoidable reality that one sees in Fest's memoir is that the number of other Germans who shared his father's views, or expressed any concern for the fate of others, was vanishingly small. There was hardly anyone else the family could even talk to. His father resorted to having secret daily discussions about the political situation with his older children, once they were old enough to be trusted to keep silent outside the household. There is a recurring theme and implicit accusation in Fest's other writings about the Nazi period, that average Germans knew much more about the atrocities that were carried out than they ever admitted and could have done much more to oppose the Third Reich than they did. The citizenry was not lacking in courage as much as conviction. The terrible things that were happening were mostly happening to others. Didn't Hitler revive the German nation? Didn't he pull it out of the starvation, poverty and humiliation of the years after World War I? Didn't they host the Olympics and regain the respect of other nations? Wasn't it better that Germany was strong again so it could not fall victim to other armies more powerful than its own? Why should they have cared about Jews and Gypsies and Slavs and others who had caused so much trouble for Germany?
Et tu, Mr. Putin?
Fest's title, Not I, is of course meant to convey his father's resistance to blind nationalism. But, like all noble thoughts, it can easily be twisted into its opposite. "Not I" also accompanies the shrug of the shoulders of the "average citizen" as someone else is rounded up, as a legal resident is held in detention for months or years without charge or trial, as undesirable "others" are deported without explanation, as weaker neighbors are invaded by stronger ones without regard to international law or treaty. These actions describe the kind of world order we fought to overturn, at enormous cost, in both world wars and the Cold War. This is the maelstrom of violence from which we have been trying to escape for centuries. If, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the descent into the first world war, we find ourselves slipping back into a system in which the balance of power among nations matters more than their willing cooperation, and in which even those nations to whom we look to enforce the international order resort increasingly to the force of arms, then at least we can comfort ourselves with the fact that we live in one of the strong countries. Why should we take on the problems of a world that has always been a mess and always will be? We're Americans. At least we won't be detained, or deported, or invaded. Not I, indeed.
March 30, 2014
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