Cry, Our Beloved Countries
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.
— Cry, The Beloved Country, Chapter 12
I borrow the title and the above quotation from Alan Paton’s magnificent novel because it so perfectly describes what affects so many of us writing on our liberal sites.
There is much to dissuade me from joining in with my own reflective piece on what is happening to our nations and to us. I abhor the rants that simply scream out our anger, the bitterness with which we promote our own saviour candidates that, like all the celebrity gods that we so falsely anoint, we believe will lead us single-handedly to a promised future, and the amount of space with which we waste trying to tear down the shock jocks that desecrate our media. Yet, I know that our need to express our anguish comes from the fear that is common to all of us and that comes from what Paton describes as our being too moved when the birds of our land sing. The fear we all feel when we give too much of our heart to our mountains and valleys.
What prompts me to write is another book that I read a long time ago and picked up again to find it even more shocking when read in the context of our present times.
It is Menachem Begin’s searing account called White Nights. It is about his time in prison at the hands of the Russian secret police, the N.K.V.D.
What shocked me was not just what he describes but what he doesn’t, because certain things were not done to him in his early days in prison. Physical torture for example, not least by water-boarding or similar direct techniques. It shocked me because it reminds me of how far we have deteriorated in what some now deem acceptable and that Begin did not suffer, even from the brutal N.K.V.D. It shocked me because these issues have now become the subject of our "normal" public debate, issues that we used to associate during the Cold War only with the tyranical dictatorship of the Eastern Bloc. War makes its soldiers insensitive, but we should not forget the extent it makes our nations insensitive.
Remembering that the Geneva Convention refers to mental as well as physical torture being abhorrent to human behaviour, Menachem Begin explains one form that it takes. In describing his first impression of Lukishki, he notes that the awfulness of such incarceration was very similar to that which he had experienced a few years previously in Warsaw prison. It was not the physical environment that made the N.K.V.D prisons different. He explains:
Nevertheless, there was something new in Lukishki, something intangible, something in the air that kept not the body but the mind of the prisoner preoccupied. In the atmosphere of every prison there is always the unspoken question: “When will I get out? " In the prison under the supervision of the N.K.V.D., the question is: ”Will I get out?”
When will I see my family?” every prisoner asks. The N.K.V.D. prisoner asks: Will I ever see my family again?”
A man who is accused of violating a law will ask, with greater or lesser degree of anxiety: “What will they question me about” But a man accused by the N.K.V.D of some unknown offence, asks “How will they question me?”
What lawyer shall I take? Who will be the judges? What witnesses will my defence lawyer call? When will the trial take place? What is the punishment specified by the law? These are the questions that every accused asks; a prisoner of the N.K.V.D does not.
Of course, the parallel that I am drawing is with the endless internment of our prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. The real parallel being drawn,however, is the almost identical treatment of these to that of the N.K.V.D. There is an difference, though, according to Menachem Begin in the chapter entitled, with a resonance that is a sharp reminder of our post-9/11 reaction, “The Law Of Revenge”. He did not experience the type of physical torture that it seems is experienced by our own prisoners.
We are exercised by the gruesome descriptions of the suffering experienced by those in our detention centres forced to breathe in the water as it poured over the suffocating hood. Mental torture is less easy to feel viscerally – so we object to imprisonment without trial with arguments such as habeas corpus and our constitutional and human rights. Yet, Menachem Begin reminds us that, despite whatever words and laws we select to refute or defend what we are doing, it is a torture. The torture is the same as the physical sensations of drowning but it is the soul that gasps and clutches for the air in horror.
“What we are doing”, I write. With what wrath people react to such a statement. “They are doing it” and “ I oppose it” is their response.
Yet, I must use the word “we”. It is our nations that are engaged in these practices. By rejecting our part in that nation we are denying our right to listen to its bird song and to share the glories of its mountains and its valleys. We do not have the ability to be selective members of our societies. We are either members of it or we are not; what it is becomes a collective responsibility and a product of our collective existence in it.
I was reminded of this by one of those sudden jolts made the sharper because it came unexpectedly from an otherwise bland UK TV programme guide.
BBC Two, 9p.m.
Heroes offers a bizarre insight into American fantasy, post 9/11. A bomb has blown up New York and the US president – a superman in his own right – leads the memorial service against the backdrop of the devastated buildings. At the same time, he is contemplating genocide against anyone suspected of terrorism. “I was elected to make hard decisions,” he says. Sound familiar? This is a series that turns ordinary folk into superheroes and - since that clearly won’t do the trick – it allows for the possibility of going back in time and changing the future.
If popular culture provides clues to the sub-conscious of a nation then the most powerful country on Earth is living in a never-never land. The last time this happened, Rambo returned to Vietnam and defeated the Vietcong single-handed.
Well, Heroes is popular in the UK as well. Not surprisingly we seem to share the same fantasies as the United States and inhabit the same never-never land.
I do not think it is wrong to argue that there is such a thing as the sub-conscious of a nation. Nor that we all share in it. So do we all share in physical torture of Abu Ghraib and the mental torture of Guantanamo Bay? We may not be the guards in those prisons or be the White House decision makers, but those atrocities are in us. The aborted “prisoners and guards” experiment in 1971 at Stanford University showed us this uncomfortable fact.
I do not ask that we recognise this collective responsibility for what exists in the psyche of our countries simply to disturb the comfort of allowing us to believe the events of today are the function and responsibility of Bush and his acolytes. I ask it so that we can recognise just how deeply the problem goes and how much work there is to be done to change our societies. It will not be done by the simple act of electing any particular candidate.
Like our own significance when faced with the distance of the stars, the differences between candidates for the Democratic Primary are infinitesimally small. Their election is no more than a pebble in an ocean when compared with the size of the task of moving the collective minds and the hearts that make up our countries and that create the collective will of our people.
To change what our nations have become does not exist in just changing the president but, given our hope must lie with what we pass on to the next generation, it starts with the quality of the next teacher we appoint to guy the first grade at our local school.
All politics is local and none so more in affecting the attitudes of our neighbours, friends and family. It is in them that their collective conscience that makes our N.K.V.D. emulating prisons and our Stanford like Abu Ghraibs possible. And in us, of course. To quote Alan Paton, again: “There is only one way in which one can endure man's inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one's own life, to exemplify man's humanity to man."
Meanwhile, I cry for our beloved countries.