Yesterday, as I was driving the quiet, winding roads of my neighborhood, not quite rural, not quite suburban, I turned on the car radio, turned to NPR, and found myself in the middle of a program in which a reporter was visiting a center for new immigrants. In New York? I’m not sure. These recent immigrants were learning, the reporter said, what it meant to be an American. First, a group of four year olds singing a song I knew I was supposed to recognize, but didn’t. Then, adults, a woman, reciting, carefully, in her Asian accent, some of our core American values. “… freedom from torture and degrading treatment,” she said.
“Ooooh, very good,” her instructor said.
In my mind’s eye, images from Abu Ghraib, a hooded prisoner, toes grazing the top of a rectangular box, arms outstretched as if crucified, a naked prisoner dragged by a leash, a pyramid of naked prisoners, American troops, holding rifles, taking pictures. A few bad apples, they told us. Believe that, and I’ll sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. There is evidence. There is history. There is Nick Flynn’s The Ticking is the Bomb, his research on the technique that became known as “The Vietnam,” that hooded man, arms outstretched, a stress technique developed with the aid of the CIA.
Overhead the arching branches of maple and oak. In a backyard a paddock where two horses graze. Another glorious summer day. I'm on my way to teach at a conference, and I’m angry, angry with my government, angry with my neighbors, angry with myself, our apathy, our loss of our sense of decency, our detachment from our core values. “We do not torture,” our Presidents (note the plural) tell us. Clearly, we do.