The Morality Play

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I look back on where I’m from,
And the strangest things seem suddenly routine.
~ from Hedwig and the Angry Inch

In the public school system where I was molded, teachers loved to perform the Big Morality Play, one that every American high school student, at least in my area and time, was eventually put through. During lectures on the Holocaust the teacher would inevitably, with suitably furrowed brow, throw out the question. Would you have been a guard in the Nazi camps and stand with loaded rifle over a helpless gaggle of starving prisoners, all innocent of any crime, all marked for murder, faithfully cashing in your government paycheck every two weeks?

The answer seems to be that no one truly knows until you’re in a situation where God asks you to rise above the rabble, which is not an easy thing to do even for the best of men.

The teachers could have asked the same question in a different manner to make it more pertinent, at least to my case. What would you do, how would you react, to a friend who came home on leave from the military and told you he was a camp guard, and while away from home he stood with loaded rifle over a helpless gaggle of starving prisoners, all innocent of any crime, all marked for murder, faithfully cashing in his government paycheck every two weeks?

My friend left for Iraq not as some poor sap soldier about to get far more than he’d bargained for, but as a happy volunteer, one employed by another federal agency. Not the military itself, but another tentacle of DC, "civilian" yet militarized nonetheless. And Iraq was where he went to hunt for People of Interest, to then be turned over to torturers, I mean enhanced persuaders, I mean patriots…I sometimes wonder what circle of hell it all must have been like.

He’s been back home with us for some time now. The fact that for a time he was in Iraq is never mentioned to outsiders. Even when he’s not around our group, we don’t speak about what he did. Among us, in the unlikely, rare moments when the subject of torture is bought up (only in the abstract, naturally) you will get a deeply felt argument from some one for not only the necessity but also the morality of using torture during Dangerous Times, spoken with a passion turned screechy by lack of deep-seated conviction.

The whole matter was always quickly dropped, over time to fade out among us completely, like a bad memory you refuse to think about until it seems, at times, to have disappeared. It would be cruelty to push the subject anyway, disrespectful to his mother who is like one to me as well. So bottom line, eventually, you simply don’t talk about it at all.

Silence seems to be the answer to this Morality Play, at least to everyone in my circle. That’s how we handle it. You ignore it. My friend never talks about it — at all — and we never ask. To this day I cannot understand why on earth he told anyone what he was tasked to do over there before he left. Maybe everyone needs a moral sounding board, not to stop them from doing what they’re about to do, we do what we do regardless, but merely to see if they can rustle up a few confederates.

Now, despite my life-long, usually successful determination to ignore the stench of America’s rotting corpse, this morality play has come into my life, courtesy of the War of Terror and one sadly mind-screwed, misguided friend who dragged this stinking abomination of a question back home with him.

Knowing myself, I have a firm conviction that I’ve answered it all wrong. But if I, too, am dragged down for fellowship, for Unity in times of trouble, then at least this bill comes due sometime in the future so, like all Americans, I’ll pay for it tomorrow.

Yet my feelings for him are not all black and white, there’s a lifetime of shared memories. My friend is a good family man, treats his children like the definition of gentleman and loving father, served honorably in the military, and is an officer of a federal agency. He is a patriotic pillar of any American community he should ever choose to live in.

And if we ever spoke about what he did over there, which we never will, this is what I’d say.

Barbarians In The Gates

An honest man can be tortured into telling a lie.
William Faulkner, Light of August

Thomas Jefferson must be weeping in heaven, America having decayed into a people exhibiting such disregard for their politicians’ actions. Consequently, America today is Alice in Wonderland gone rabid mad, Congress a mindless spinning roulette wheel of endless edicts, the president joins in the fun signing statements, and we are buried under laws in a lawless land where anything can happen at any time, everything’s in play — even torture.

We throw the Holocaust in the German’s face, yet make barroom jokes about how Our Boys are torturing Their Boys. And my friend willingly — with the hearty cheers of kith, kin, and countrymen — went off to join in the fun. And he’s got plenty of fellows who joined him, all employed by our politicians, all faithfully cashing in their government paychecks every two weeks.

There is no National Interest that justifies the torture of helpless prisoners. There is, however, a National Interest that justifies never allowing those in power, for whatever reason, to perform torture. Not only do they put our troops in the field under heightened danger because, if captured, they will be far more likely to be tortured, but all Americans are now at risk of the same treatment.

To think that what we allow our politicians to perform on foreigners will never be eventually used on us, too, displays both a childish level of irrational trust in the species Politician and a loathsome, callous disregard for our fellow man.

Neither our former president George W. Bush nor our former Vice President Dick Cheney denied that America’s political class ordered certain men in their employ to torture prisoners. And the American people, me included, are the model of apathy, which Thomas Jefferson defined as liberty’s Grim Reaper.

Whether future generations of our children will suffer from or rectify this moral laxity regarding torture remains to be seen, but we’ve foolishly put our children and those to come in a very dangerous situation. They will be born into an America that believes the politicians should be allowed to torture those they feel are something they shouldn’t be, and need a little enhanced persuasion to see the light.

The stupidity of torture as a means of extracting any type of useful information has long been noted. Stalin’s chief executioner Lavrenti Beria once joked that you could give him a man for one night of torture, and next morning he’d produce a signed confession from the man swearing he’s the Queen of England. A lifelong professional torturer, he would’ve known.

If we are not careful, one day we will know, too.

F Minus

The glittering prizes and endless compromises,
Shatter the illusion of integrity.
~ Rush: Spirit of the Radio

I remember sitting on the hood of my car, smoking and watching until I saw his plane rise above the bay, doubtless leaving behind, slowly descending, an un-seen greasy film. My friend’s body went to Iraq; his soul sank to a barbaric level, positively Dark Ages. On the latter journey we all go with him; we have no choice. Each and every American is part of this morality play; we’ve all been asked the same question.

I’m certain there were men back in the Dark Ages that had friends who ran the racks or lopped off heads for the king; had a friend much like mine. I’m sure some felt the same way I do; and who did the same thing I do. You meet him on the street, always with the unspoken agreement not to talk about what he did. You laugh, give him a hug, but like a nun’s hand brushing you back from your high school beau at the dance, that unspoken agreement is there once it’s there and will never leave, always now it keeps you apart.

You no longer truly connect; it hangs like a cold front full of unspoken questions you don’t want to hear the answer to anyhow, it fills up every moment of silence with awkwardness. To meet now is like glimpsing a dead relative through their gravestone. With time I’ve slowly grown used to it; I’ve come to think of him as a friendly ghost, a shadow of what he used to be — like part of him is faded. I feel dimmer myself.

It was the fall of 2005 when my friend left for Iraq to do unspeakable things. My wife, who had refused to come along to say goodbye, hugged me when I returned home from the airport. Later that night she lay on me and whispered a hope that my friend would come home alive. I never answered her — I had already stopped talking about it — but silently, in my head, I whispered a hope that he would come back with his soul.

After the first notice on America’s nightly news in 2004, torture quickly became a non-issue, floated down our memory hole until the most recent flare up — some more bodies have floated to the surface. God, in His infinite mercy, is giving us a second chance. So far in this Morality Play, the response to the question What Would You Do has been apathy, silence, and backslapping hugs for the guilty.

So far that has been my answer, and if you are an American, it’s been yours, too.

C.J. Maloney [send him mail] lives and works in New York City. He will be giving a talk for the Manhattan Libertarian Party and New York City Campaign for Liberty June 8th. For information, please click here.

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