I know my “beat” is gender & sexuality. But I’m also an American citizen who loves, and is therefore regularly grieved by, my country. And so today I’m going to talk about something that weighs heavily on my heart: the latest in American “national security” policy, announced by Eric Holder under cover of the Super Tuesday media frenzy.
As a young adult, I used to wonder how citizens could stand by why their governments did appalling things in their name—and I assumed that we had learned from those wrongs, and that such things could never happen again. Yes, of course, I wondered about the rise of the Nazis, although for a Jewish child, the Holocaust was almost wallpaper; my mother’s explanation—communicated without explicit words—was that Germans hated Jews, The End. But I wondered more, beginning in eighth grade civics and beyond, about appalling things done by my own country, which I loved. Not just slavery, undertaken by people in peculiar clothes and accents, long ago and far away (at least in my mind), but even things that had happened since. The Dred Scott decision, which nailed in Jim Crow, a regime as vile as apartheid. The treatment of the anarchists in the early twentieth century: Sacco and Vanzetti, Emma Goldman, and so on. The internment of civilian Japanese Americans for no other reason than their ancestry. The McCarthy era, with the blacklists and the McCarthy hearings. Without knowing it, as a naïve middle class child in a prosperous time, I subscribed to what academics call the “progress narrative,” and assumed that such things could not happen again; we knew better now.
Some of that naivete dissolved over the years. But it wasn’t the aftermath of 9/11 that I came to understand that what I should have been learning in all those civics and history classes was to be ready to combat it when it happened again. That fear and rage would once again release the inner totalitarian in so many of us. That we would invade another country for no good reason, just because some men felt they had to do something. (Remember Bill Keller’s appalling non-apology in the New York Times, in which he essentially said, Who could have known? Lots of us.) That my country would willingly strip itself (sometimes literally, as in airport security lines) of privacy rights and of basic constitutional protections in the name of “security.” That an entire ethnic group would be targeted and treated as if the acts of a few fanatics were endorsed by an entire religion. That my own country would sink to torture. That the public mood would be such that the outraged few who objected would be outshouted and treated almost as treasonous. During those years it was embarrassing to go to international human rights conferences and be asked to explain U.S. policy. Only Israeli peaceniks and white South Africans who’d lived under apartheid were sympathetic. All this is old news, of course.
But what is our excuse now, more than a decade later, under a putatively left-of-center administration? Of course I’m talking about the drumbeats for war with Iran, but not just that. Yesterday, Eric Holder announced that, as Charlie Savage reports in the New York Times, “it is constitutional for the government to kill citizens without any judicial review under certain circumstances.” And he did so brilliantly, on Super Tuesday, when the news media was so besotted by the primaries that the announcement didn’t even make the front page of the online New York Times or Washington Post.
If you want a sense of the policy, check out Stephen Colbert’s explanation, here, which I pulled off a Glenn Greenwald tweet.
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I hate being ashamed of my country.