Monday, April 12, 2010

Iconography is the Only Conscience We Have Left

Icons are a visual barometer of a national or even a global consciousness. By some arcane form of consensus, our subconscious perceptions, our very conscience, bubbles up through a photograph taken of a war. Sometimes, they're even supportive and flattering. In World War II, for instance, the crowning iconic photograph is of our men taking Iwo Jima and raising the American flag. That was a just and noble war, as glorious as a war can aspire to be. We and our allies took on one of the most awesome war machines ever built and stopped the spread of fascism.

But then in the next decade we took on Communism and, without many of us aware it was happening, our enemies one by one shed their uniforms and began looking like civilians as they left the safe killing fields of isolated battlegrounds and bled into the towns and cities we were supposed to liberate, as the rules of engagement changed and made us go house to house, door to door, window to window and a Cold War era template was no longer a feasible one to use in the new battlefields of the world as guerilla fighters replaced the professional soldiers, the iconography of war began getting a little less flattering with every engagement.

Vietnam is now frozen in time and robbed of some of its moral relevance in the images of General Loan holding a gun to the head of a suspected North Vietnamese spy or a screaming, naked little girl burned over much of her body by napalm. For the first time ever, we began to notice that civilians also comprise a war's death toll. In fact, civilian deaths rise, ironically, at the same rate as the sophistication of our weapons. We weren't really aware on an iconic level of the collateral damage of the preceding world wars or Korea or see the burned, blown up and twisted bodies in the wake of Dresden.

Operation Desert Storm nearly 20 years ago was over in six weeks and wasn't around long enough for an iconography that it perhaps deserved. But Bush's first war was soon succeeded by his son's even longer and deadlier war and the iconography of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the always nebular war against terror is getting less and less flattering. One has to squint very, very hard to find any nobility or humanity in the current conflicts.

The lead picture above is one of those iconic images, that of a kneeling Muslim prisoner in the war on terror, his hands swaddled, blacked out goggles put over his eyes, headphones over his ears in some ridiculously cruel simulacrum of portable sensory deprivation. He could be anybody: A terrorist, Jose Padilla or just some poor innocent bastard picked up randomly by the Northern Alliance.

The iconic image of the kneeling Muslim man in orange is not one that gloats or jeers or condemns. It impassively is just there for each of us to judge according to whatever poor context we have the wits and education to give it. He could either be a prisoner or an innocent man, supplicating to Allah or for our mercy or beaten to his knees. We don't know what to make of him.

Most of them, we now know, were just poor innocent bastards picked up randomly by the Northern Alliance for a bounty of up to $5000 a head. Former Colin Powell Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson says it and a good deal more and I believe him.

Because in a nine page statement (.pdf file), Col. Wilkerson swears that Bush and Cheney both knew most of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay were innocent yet didn't care enough to set them free. We slandered and libeled these people and called them "the worst of the worst" and Cheney said they'd have to be immediately killed before being set free. Senator Jeff Sessions in 2005 told Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, who represented some of these detainees, that they all ought to "be executed immediately."

The spin was so incessant, so all-pervasive that rational-sounding arguments reverberate to this day as to what will happen with these fiends from Hell if we ever close Gitmo and what may happen if we try them in civilian courts as if a Jerry Bruckheimer movie will actually break out and the terrorist escapes to 9/11 us another day. After all, we're barely acquainted with real life just enough to know that there's really no John Rambo or Jack Bauer to save us.

Yes, Bush and Cheney knew we'd paid taxpayer dollars to have captured for us people as young as 12 and men as old as 92, that the age difference between the prisoners was 80 years. They knew these innocent men and boys were innocent yet were being tortured and, in some cases, even murdered.

And we, a passively and sometimes actively evil nation, allowed them to. We invested in them the power to take freedom and family and in some cases even life away from the most innocent in spite of a miserable rate of return and for making our nation more vulnerable than ever from the real terrorists. The "intelligence" gathered through torture, sensory deprivation and harassment led us on one wild goose chase after another, innocent detainees were fingered by others who were believed by an increasingly brutal and paranoid military that was never in any danger of getting shot at or driving over an IED.

The very fact that the Republican Party and its neocon wing lost the battles they intended to lose while winning the war they intended to win and that they're still winning the war with sheer, empty bluster and faux outrage is in itself an indictment of the stupidity and passivity of the American people.

These torturers are our children, parents, brothers and sisters. They are the products of our upbringing and subsidized and paid when the eagle shits every other week by our tax dollars. Yet, despite these razor-thin degrees of separation, we still do not appreciate our disturbingly close proximity to this horror and travesty of human justice.

And the Republican Party won every battle it intended to win because we simply let them while we literally sat on our asses and were cowed into not protesting and confronting these men and women who compromised the safety of our nation as if our very citizenship was at stake.

Yet the incumbent President, a moderate, pro-corporate, centrist Democrat has to fight uphill every step of the way for even the tepid, middling victories he's achieved since January 2009 as if he single-handedly has to take Iwo Jima or Pork Chop Hill.

We all ought to be ashamed of ourselves, especially those of us who still believe in our heart of hearts that America is a white, Christian nation and when darker heathens get visited by tragedy they either had it coming to them or it is none of our affair. That little burned Vietnamese girl has long since ossified into history and we keep telling ourselves it can't happen again and then, when it does, we always find the means to rationalize or wave it away.

And our collective conscience itself has long since stopped tickling and jabbing us because it's ossified into photographs and graffiti as static as our outrage.


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