Monday, July 31, 2006

The Impossibility of Unknowing

I did not write this, but I believe it states in the clearest way, my feelings about the times we live in. It comes via

Fallujah. Signing statements. Abu Ghraib.

Waterboarding. Stress positions. Free speech zones.

The theological and historical differences between Sunni and Shi'ite. How levees are constructed. Why levees fail.

These are things I knew nothing about until George W. Bush.

I've always considered gaining knowledge an indisputable good, but these pieces of the world I've come to know in the past six years have the feel of being forced into me under threat. They now carry with them a weight and a darkness.

The Ninth Ward. Haditha. Guantanamo Bay.

How much sweeter to have picked up these nuggets of geography and history as I always have, serendipitously led through a leisurely stepping stone process of one book or conversation suggesting another, and yet another, and now a couple of twists and turns ... you start out here, reading Faulkner and next you're drawn to learning about cotton production and before you know it, you're at civil rights.

Instead, in all cases above, I'd begun my acquaintance because of headlines and horrors and a screaming, driving voice in my head: There's something wrong! There's something very, very wrong! Learn about it! Fast!

The jumble of panicked facts I feel I've had to jam into my brain to qualify as a reasonably informed citizen makes my skull feel swollen, as though I've had to take a crash correspondence course - sometimes several at once - at the same time I'm in a sprint for my mental life.

There's a loss in that, a taint on the previously enjoyable process of innocent inquiry. I've found fascinating, for instance, the original historical split between the Sunni and Shi'ite sects of Islam. Yet if subjects are filed in the brain under a color-coded system, this tale is filed under black and blue (and red for blood). The accompanying score is Adagio for Strings.

The tone is completely different for, say, my recent thirst for jazz, which arose through my son's budding interest and the two of us watching Ken Burns' marvelous series over a course of several days, eating life-threatening amounts of junk food while sprawled on couches in the living room.

Some nights I go to sleep under this administration and wonder: What new horror am I going to have cram into my head tomorrow morning? What new form of torture? What unfamiliar town or province?

My brain's been hijacked and my eagerness to read news killed. I know too much now compared with how much I knew in the innocent 1990's. And there seems no way to un-know it or bleach it clean of the flavor of its original acquisition. (I still see the infamous picture of the hooded prisoner standing on the box, arms outspread at Abu Ghraib, on a background of baby blue because I first encountered the photo and the terse, stunned narrative of horror over at Billmon's Whiskey Bar.)

Certainly of all the atrocities and diminishments since Bush took office, having personal fact-flavor problems seems unworthy of even a footnote. Arguably, I should have removed my head from my sorry American provincial ass a long time ago to learn more about Islam or the precise wording of the Geneva Conventions. Still, the knowledge of foreign cities, dodges of the law, how Abramoff's money came to be laundered ... all of these facts feel IV'ed into me on a timetable set by an administration I despise. That seems a final, intrusive indignity, small as it is.

When I was 20, I was in a serious car accident. I fractured my back, collar bones, four ribs. I'd ruptured my kidney, I'd had a chunk of flesh the size of a Girl Scout cookie ripped out of my knee. I was hospitalized more than a month, and I'd been proud of being reasonably stoic and properly grateful to have survived.

The day I was released from the hospital, I went home and took a shower, the first in nearly six weeks. As I lathered up - a luxury I can still savor in memory after weeks and weeks of bed-bound sponge baths - my fingers found, underneath my arm and along my shoulder blade, embedded pieces of gravel and glass that had not been properly debrided. I realized they were going to be a part of me forever because my flesh had already healed over them. And finally, I lost it, completely. I stood in the shower and wept for twenty minutes; it was some sort of symbolic final straw for me, this discovery of physical objects in me from the accident, minor though they were in the overall injury scheme. I think what grieved me the most was that they were on the hidden underside, the most tender part of my underarm and back, and that although they were harmless, I'd spend a lifetime remembering, every time I bathed, the precise stretch of road they came from and how they got there.

I feel like George W. Bush and his policies are gravel and glass in my brain. Forever.

There's no debridement of the image of the little girl in a dress, crying in horror and crouching over a pool of her parents' blood after they were killed at a checkpoint. There's no erasure of Gonzales' calling the Geneva Conventions "quaint." There's no rewinding of the tape in my head that juxtaposes the president playing guitar at a birthday party while people floated face down in the streets of New Orleans.

I find myself longing for ignorance, and that's a weakness and betrayal of everything I'd believed until George W. Bush came onto the scene. Again, this is a minor personal complaint and I'm sure I'll recover, eventually. My real concern is that this is less than you can say with certainty about the effects of this administration on this country and the rest of the world.


Anonymous said...

I could not have expressed any of my feelings about the current administration's scare tactics more clearly than the author did in his commentary. That was amazingly well written.

Anonymous said...

Dead on! Excellent parrallels. It gave me goosebumps!

Anonymous said...

"(I still see the infamous picture of the hooded prisoner standing on the box, arms outspread at Abu Ghraib, on a background of baby blue because I first encountered the photo and the terse, stunned narrative of horror over at Billmon's Whiskey Bar.)"

My heart bleeds. Here is a website of other pictures that should upset you all and stay with you forever. They are from 9-11, in case any of you have also forgotten the event, as has our essay writer:

In regards to another image, the writer states that "There's no debridement of the image . . . ". I understand. I feel the same way about the video of terrorists cutting off the head of American Nick Berg:

Steve, I adore you, but this ‘essay’ is just another babbling of a liberal crybaby who has forgotten WHY things are the way they are. America was the one wronged, and for some sad reason, too many pampered hippie wannabes in this country have misplaced this truth.

And please, quit blaming everything on Bush. It is old and trite. Get a new chant. At least the Vietnam hippies were more creative.

Steve said...

America was indeed attacked savagly and 3000+ innocent people died as a result of a few extremists willing to kill and die for their warped world view.

So killing a few hundred thousand inncocent people in the name of defeating something as nebulous as 'terror' is a well thought out and correct response.

Invading a country that was not involved in 9/11 and creating a terrorist training ground all while sitting in the middle of a violent thousand year old religious division at a cost of 3 trillion dollars and 2500 lives is a great way to help our country recover and heal.

We attacked Afghanistan and targetted Al Qaida. I don't think that was a bad call. Afghanistan was a broken country and that IS where training took place. Of course, almost all the terrorists came from Saudi Arabia. None from Iraq. But we attacked Iraq anyway in some kind of desperate gamble to find WMD's. Who authorized this with support from almost no one in the international community? Bush.

We then began to use some of the same methods that these extremists use. We began to ignore the Geneva convention and anti-torture treaties. Who authorized this? Bush.

We passed the patriot act and had the NSA illegally begin sifting through domestic phone and email records. Who ordered this? Bush.

We were struck with a terrible natural disaster in the Gulf Coast. Under who's watch was levee funding cut for the first time ever? Bush.

Who decided to fold disaster responce into FEMA? Bush.

Who hired Joe Allbaugh (a college buddy) to head FEMA, who eventually hired Michael Brown? Bush.

Who stayed on vacation while a city drowned?

Who outright LIED to every American saying "No one could have predicted the levees would fail?"

And who completely ignored the security brief that stated "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S."?

The President certainly does not work in a vacume. But he is the one who is ultimetly responsible for MANY of these fuck ups. And he personally has actively worked to promote this agenda, this fear, this War and these laws.

I know very well why things are the way they are. And I think many Americans are realizing this too.