Through the days of shame that are coming
Through the nights of wild distress
Though your promise count for nothing
You must keep it nonetheless - Leonard Cohen
I've been recovering this week from a nasty stomach virus. A bit like an ayahuasca ceremony without the ayahuasca, and piss-all enlightenment, too. But it's reminded me that illness is more than a metaphor, and sometimes not entirely natural.
Smallpox, for one bloody precedent. In a postscript to his letter of July 16, 1763 Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the commander of British forces in North America during the French and Indian War, instructed Colonel Henry Bouquet to "do well to try to innoculate the Indians by means of blanketts, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race." (I don't see inoculate used like that these days, except by those whom the mass culture deems to be in need of medication themselves.) Infected blankets wasn't a one-off for Amherst. In other letters he calls the natives "Vermine [who] have forfeited all claim to the rights of humanity," and expresses his desire to "put a most Effectual Stop to their very Being."
Of course that was then, before genocide was even a word, much less a crime. Though at Massachusetts' Amherst College, china plates depicting sword-wielding, mounted Englishmen in hot pursuit of Indians were still in use as late as the 1970s. Dictionaries and law books and generations of bad examples haven't crimped the style of the pro-active eugenicist.
"The forms of warfare are changing," said Russian Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov in a Tuesday press conference. "It's strange that not a single duck has yet died in America - they are all dying in Russia and European countries. This makes one seriously wonder why." Asked whether he was suggesting Avian Flu was a US biological weapon, he replied "I not only suggest this, I know very well how this can be arranged. There is nothing strange here."
I think Zyuganov is wrong on at least a couple of points. For one thing, Lord Amherst could tell him that nothing has changed. And for another, if Avian Flu is a weapon of either design or opportunity, its intended victims are also American. Because at the top of the food chain, where it's whole nations that are consumed, the fattest and most tender of all is naturally also on the menu.
As a third US beef cow tests positive for BSE, Newspapers move US mad cow story off front pages. One infected cow is the End of the World; two is worrisome. Three, and it's yesterday's news. The horror is in the novelty. Make something bad, bad enough for long enough that it becomes part of our landscape, and we just don't care anymore. It seems whatever doesn't kill us outright we can make peace with until it kills us eventually. It's another way in which we are inoculated. And so, the alarmingly predictable development that, "Despite the confirmation of a third case of mad cow disease, the government intends to scale back testing for the brain-wasting disorder blamed for the deaths of more than 150 people in Europe."
The Democratic dithering over Feingold's modest resolution is engendering considerable counter-dithering by those who still hope to see a political solution they can recognize to a parapolitical crisis they can't imagine. "The majority of the American people agree with what the president’s doing," said a Democratic aide. "A lot of people outside the beltway see [illegal surveillance] as a tool that’s keeping Americans safe."
Illness is also a metaphor, and the sickness of American politics is not indeliberate. Democrats and Republicans have both been taking strange medicine for a long while, and those who've refused their inoculations have been prone to other kinds of magic bullets: fatal accidents and character assassinations, and the receipt of envelopes filled with white powder bearing the return address of Fort Detrick. Bush in 2006 should be the most vulnerable president since Nixon in 1974, yet he isn't. To ask why he's not may take the courage of a microbiologist.
I've been thinking of the family in Tikrit who were murdered yesterday morning in an American raid. Eleven shot to death, including five children, one as young as seven months, before their house was blown up.
Another policeman, Colonel Farouq Hussein, said autopsies had been carried out at Tikrit hospital and found "all the victims had gunshot wounds to the head". The bodies, their hands bound, had been dumped in one room before the house was destroyed, Hussein said. Police had found spent American-issue cartridges in the rubble.
Despite the eyewitness accounts and the photos of dead babies, the US Army admits to only the deaths of two women and a child, and most American reports of the incident preface the news with the advisory "Iraqis Say -". It needs reminding that, unlike three years ago, the Iraqi police and US forces are now supposedly on the same side. Though just the day before, also in Tikrit, an American "security contractor" was arrested travelling alone with explosives in his car.
Charitably, though inaccurately, the US mission in Iraq could be described as a clinical test gone horribly wrong, while the "men in smart suits," like Francis Fukuyama, make themselves scarce. But the US isn't dispensing that kind of inoculation. It isn't the neocon fable of intravenous democracy, even if it kills the patient. It's Lord Amherst's blankets.
Many German and Austrian neighbours of the camps knew well enough what happened after the box cars rolled through the gates. Still, they didn't see until the liberators forced them to walk the grounds and bury the innocent dead. The victims were foreign and faceless, and it was easy to continue believing one was a good neighbour for minding one's business.
Things are different now. The dead babies are on Yahoo, and Salon hosts hundreds of Abu Ghraib photos and videos. No people in history have had greater access to the atrocities of their own force of arms even as they are being committed. Americans are growing accustomed to the spectacle of broken and beheaded bodies, and I think that's the idea. Because it's getting old. Meanwhile, the only truly forbidden images are those of flag-drapped coffins. The Pentagon certainly wants Americans kept in the dark, but darkness can mean more than mere ignorance.
One dead baby is the End of the World. Too many dead babies and we have a new world altogether.