November 6, 2007

The Meaning of America

By Mary Lyon

I think maybe it's time to start asking the following question: What have we come to? Who do we think we are as Americans, here and now, in early November, 2007? We've got a year before we collectively express ourselves via the ballot box. So who are we, anymore? As this column is written, the Senate Judiciary Committee has allowed the nomination of Michael Mukasey to go forward presumably to an inevitable confirmation as successor to the vile, sadistic torture czar Alberto Gonzales. Some shoes those are, into which Mukasey may well get to step. Hopefully he'll have sprayed them for fungus beforehand.

At issue here is whether we, as a nation, are okay with torture. Whether we're okay with splitting hairs and parsing words about it, so maybe it just doesn't sound so bad. Just a fraternity-type prank, right? Who cares, anyway, 'eh? It's not like we'll ever be dragged into some blindingly bright (and probably really cold) room, forced down on the floor, and held there by goons while some other tormentor who's covered our eyes to protect his identity forces water into our mouths and noses, keeping us from breathing air, freaking us out because we think we're drowning. Sound like that might be torture to you? Maybe not, as long as it's done to somebody else? Do we even care? Do we care that torture doesn't reliably work - that the victim is liable to say anything he or she thinks the torturers want to hear just to make the suffering stop? Do we even care if, say, that victim might even be innocent, might have nothing whatsoever to do with the suspicions and suspects we have in mind? Do we care what that says about us as a nation, as a people?

Waterboarding sounds an awful lot like torture to me. I'm already somewhat unnerved by the mere idea of drowning - perhaps it's how one of my past lives ended. The descriptions of waterboarding that have come from CIA operatives who went through it in training are horrific. Guys whose strength and endurance were forged by the most unforgiving Navy Seal-type training didn't even last 20 seconds under this treatment. I think I'd probably fold before I was even strapped into position. The onetime Acting Assistant Attorney General, Daniel Levin, didn't last all that long, either, when he submitted to waterboarding to see for himself what it deserved to be called. His verdict? Torture, definitely.

A new Opinion Research poll finds that almost seven out of ten Americans agree, unlike Attorney General designate Mukasey and other crawfishers in the Bush White House, that waterboarding qualifies as torture, while 29 percent somehow don't. Asked whether it should be used, 58 percent said no but an astounding 40 percent said yes. Forty percent of us think it's okay for us to do stuff like this? Two out of every five Americans, if these numbers are to be believed? Is this where we should be, as Americans in the 21st Century? Is that how we are? Seems unnecessarily and uncharacteristically mean to me. But, hey, maybe we ARE meaner people now.

There are those who say we have all the justification you can eat, and if you don't agree, tough! You're merely stupid, ill-informed, naive, unpatriotic, even traitorous. To quote Rudy Giuliani, George Bush, and Dick Cheney, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11. Yes, we were attacked. Yes, Limbaugh, I saw it myself on TV that morning. Yes, Hannity, I saw the grave wounding of America, the anguish of that whole week, how the country came to a standstill after such a body blow. Yes, Beck. Yes, Coulter. Yes, Malkin. I sat there glued to the TV and cried, too. But it felt strange and alien and very wrong to swallow that shock, horror, and agony whole and allow it to reinvent me as a festering boil of anger, resentment, vindictiveness - and mean-spiritedness. How we recovered from that assault as a nation bothers me deeply. It's how we chose to react - and to keep reacting - as a people. It's as though 9/11 DID change us as a country, as human beings. Truly we are NOT who we used to be. We're far more horribly scarred than lower Manhattan ever was. Too many of us then read through the lyrics of the "Star Spangled Banner" and ripped up the part about "the land of the brave." Brave? Us? Doesn't feel like it anymore. Now, it's all fear all the time, with the hunger to lash out as a chaser. And if that many of us are okay with torture now, this sad fact indicates that enough of us have become as twisted in our thinking as the wreckage of the Twin Towers.

To me, it seems rather un-American to find torture acceptable. It just doesn't seem like us, or feel like us. It's not something we'd do in our (pardon the pun) "right" minds. And I hate to break it to the conservatives and hawks and chickenhawks alike who can live so easily with the idea and sleep so soundly at night after promoting it all day. If that's where we are, then the terrorists won. They wanted to change us, even pervert us and the way we lived and the way we were, and they did. We're a whole lot different, meaner, more suspicious, more willing to cause damage and chaos on others just because - without any concern for consequences or longterm ramifications, more determined to pick fights with other nations, more anxious to stir things up. If that many of us don't have a problem with torture, it means we're now afflicted with tortured souls. In an earlier Iraq War, when coalition forces led by the U.S. drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, retreating Iraqi army troops laid down their arms, threw their hands skyward, and willingly - even eagerly - surrendered to advancing American troops. Why? Because they knew they could expect to be treated decently. They knew the Geneva Conventions ruled our conduct regarding prisoners-of-war, and they knew they'd be handled humanely. That's exactly what happened to them. With such subhuman affronts as Abu Ghraib, the policy of rendition, the suspension of habeas corpus, and other nightmares on our record by now, is there anyone with any sanity even willing to consider submitting himself or herself to American custody? God forbid what might happen, especially if some administration bigwig didn't like something about that prisoner.

I've watched it happen over the years since hate radio and its multimillionaire mavens first gave voice and increasing political clout to resentment, intolerance, bitterness, anger, frustration over broken dreams, and unfulfilled entitlement. We've turned mean. We've been encouraged to go onto knee-jerk, scorched-earth attack mode by politicians, activists, and media brokers who gained influence and financial reaffirmation. The loudest and most dominant voices don't urge us to find root causes of problems and their solutions, or to reach for true understanding. All we are told, and all we know anymore, is hitting, and hitting harder, and hurting deeper, killing, demonizing, punishing, mocking, name-calling, eviscerating, marginalizing, threatening, intimidating, bullying, bombing, and war-making. At one time, the boogeyman to be hated or put down or smashed was of another race - encroaching on "our" jobs and "our" neighborhoods and "our" comfort zones. Soon enough, the interloper boogeyman was female. Eventually some of us began seeing boogeymen everywhere - among immigrants, gays, sick kids, peaceniks, liberals, anyone who dared to dissent or ask questions, anyone who didn't subscribe to a certain brand of religion, and/or anyone from whatever part of the world was in turmoil or rich in certain natural resources we coveted. The negativity built from there to the point where it's now oozing out like pus out of an infected sore. Patience, tolerance, forgiveness, collegiality, unity, trust - all are in shorter and shorter supply in this nation. While international crises accelerate around us, we are boiling in our own global warming of meanness.

That's why I think too many of us have found it okay to stoop this low - to the point where we're now okay with leaving room for torture. We're angry, bitter, resentful, aggrieved, and it's made us turn mean. It's allowed such Democrats as Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer to twist their own logic into a gordion knot that clogs the flow of courage and reason within them. Now they've found a way to avoid taking a stand against torture and our deteriorating sense of national morality, when we could have taken the first steps toward climbing out of a deep and dreadful pit. Now, they somberly rationalize Judge Mukasey's refusal to declare, flat-out, that waterboarding is the despicable, lawless act that it is, and to find him somehow acceptable as the new chief lawman in town. I am deeply saddened to see this, because of what it says about us as a nation and the conduct we now find justifiable and acceptable. We've grown unapologetically hardened, soured, and mean. And if we don't start rejecting this mindset, and soon, we will embody a whole new, very cold, and very bleak, meaning of America.


Mary Lyon is a veteran broadcaster and five-time Golden Mike Award winner who has anchored, reported, and written for the Associated Press Radio Network, NBC Radio "The Source," and many Los Angeles-area stations including KRTH-FM/AM, KLOS-FM, KFWB-AM, and KTLA-TV, and occasional media analyst for ABC Radio News.  Mary began her career as a liberal activist with the Student Coalition for Humphrey / Muskie in 1968 and helped spearhead a regional campaign, The Power 18, to win the right to vote for 18-year-olds. She remains an advocate for liberal causes, responsibility and accountability in media, environmental education and support of the arts for children, and green living. Mary writes for,, World News Trust, and's We! Magazine. Mary is also a parenting expert, having written and illustrated the book "The Frazzled Working Woman's Practical Guide to Motherhood."

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