Torquemada on the Potomac

Mr. Bush would like you to know that America does not torture.

You might hear a different story, though, if you ask the journalist Sami al-Hajj, also known as Internee #345. Al-Hajj is a Sudanese national currently being held in Guantanamo, which has been his home since being arrested by the US in December 2001. Mr. Al-Hajj is a journalist with the Al Jazeera network.

While being held in Guantanamo, Mr. Al-Hajj has been beaten, starved, and sexually tortured. Because of the physical abuse he has received at the hands of United States interrogators, he can no longer flex his knees. A doctor prescribed a special toilet seat for this condition, but officials have now removed it in order to humiliate him. According to Reporters Without Borders, Mr. Al-Hajj’s throat cancer, in remission since 1998, has returned, but he is being denied medical treatment.

It may surprise you to learn that no one thinks Mr. Al-Hajj is a terrorist. He has never been charged with terrorism. The Bush administration does not believe him to be in any way involved with terrorism or pose a risk. We know this because the administration has already promised him immediate release on one condition—if he were to spy on Al Jazeera. It is unclear how, even in a misreading of the Constitution worthy of Scalia, the United States can assert the right to detain and torture a foreign national for not being a spy.

According to Clive Stafford’s book on Guantanamo, Mr. Al-Hajj was not picked up by mistake, but rather for the express purpose of turning him into an informant against a television network Mr. Bush deemed hostile. Mr. Al-Hajj actually asked to be interrogated about what he was accused of having done.

To protest, and perhaps to end, his 6-year incarceration in this Kafkaesque nightmare, Mr. Al-Hajj is engaging in a hunger strike. The US now roughly and forcibly inserts a feeding into his nose daily and force-feeds Mr. Al-Hajj in order to avoid the embarrassment of having a Guantanamo prisoner starve to death. According to Mr. Al-Hajj’s lawyer, this tube sometimes is smeared with the blood of other Guantanamo inmates also being force fed.

This is what the United States has become.

The roots of torture in America are a deep part of our culture. Even before we were a nation, the Salem Witch Trials provided an outlet for American sexual sadists to strip, hurt, and torture women while pretending to protect the security of their neighbors. The DSM-IV defines sexual sadism as a replacement of normal sexual gratification with pleasure derived only by the infliction of pain; put simply, sexual sadists can only become aroused by cries of pain rather than passion, by hitting rather than fucking. Make no mistake about it--what happened in Abu Ghraib has deep psychological roots in our culture.

What is happening this very day in Guantanamo is part of this American sickness. Everyone else in the world see us for what we truly are; most Americans, as repressed and incurious as ever, have little idea what is being done in their name. Ask yourself this question, and answer honestly: Had you ever heard of Sami Al-Hajj before reading this?

It is all well and good to say that when those who authorized and operated Guantanamo become prisoners themselves, in US prisons facing charges with lawyers at their sides, then justice will be done. It is all well and good to say that when the cowardly judges who have abdicated their duties and their souls by deferring in every way to the evils of the Bush administration are removed from their positions and disbarred, then justice will be done.

But in reality, it is already too late. The new face of Uncle Sam is the hood of the torturer.

The Great Crash

Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor, sees the recent American economic downturn as a long-delayed symptom of underlying economic disease afflicting this country.

Reich brilliantly explains how the upcoming tax “rebates” will do nothing to slow America’s spiraling descent into, possibly, Argentine-style economic chaos. The problem, as Reich sees it, is that we Americans have finally run out of ways to spend more than we earn.

The first problem is the decline in real wages—that is, wages adjusted for inflation. Wages have been flat over the last 35 years; although actual dollar amounts have increased, because of inflation the purchasing power of these dollars is the same as if was 35 years ago.

Compounded on this problem is the fact that average wages are falling; the "middle mark" is sliding toward the poverty end of the income scale. Thirty years ago, the median male worker in his 30’s earned 12% more than he does today. This is largely the result of the migration of high-paying manufacturing jobs, and their replacement by no-skill, no-benefit retail work.

To maintain “middle class” lifestyles amid this decay, American families have increasingly relied on women to work outside the home. This trend began in earnest in the 1970s, and resulted in a terrible personal time deficit for many women. Arlene Hochschild has written eloquently about the deleterious effects of this in her book “The Second Shift.”

Having both parents work soon became not enough in the face of declining wages, Reich writes. The next stage involved increasing working hours, both within one job and by the addition of other jobs. Americans now work 350 more hours/year than Europeans.

This trend, too, had a limit; one cannot work more hours than there are in the day. So how to maintain lifestyles in the face of declining wages? In the 1990s a trend began for large numbers of workers to take out home equity loans, using their still-mortgaged houses as collateral. This is a like taking out a new credit card to pay minimum payments on another maxed credit card. And now, of course, with the collapse of the housing market, this last aspect has hit Americans like a freight train.

Even those of us who rent are being affected; increasing numbers of apartment dwellers across the country are arriving home to find 72-hour eviction notices because their landlord cannot make minimum mortgage payments. One thing woefully lacking from proposed congressional legislation protecting home owners from foreclosure is some manner of protection to renters—who have paid on-time and in good faith, and yet through no fault of their own find themselves homeless at a few day’s notice.

This crisis is long in coming.

Since the 1960s, manufacturing in America has been in precipitous decline. There have been several plateaus—the 1990s Internet Boom, the 2000s housing boom—but the long-term trend is dismal. We are going broke.

To understanding just how bankrupt America actually is, consider our $9 trillion national debt. With a population of 300 million Americans, this $9 trillion debt saddles every man, woman, and child in America with a $30,000 payment. However, this number does not consider that we pay interest on this $9 trillion debt; this interest effectively doubles the national debt burden.

Congress can pass a balanced budget, and this would reap lower interest rates, as we saw during the Clinton years. However, even a balanced budget does not begin to pay down this vast national debt, a burden which makes balanced budgets difficult because of the interest which must be paid right now. As our interest payments balloon, the funds available for everything else the government does must inevitably suffer. Soon our federal budget will fund unnecessary wars, Social Security payments, and little else.

How did it come to this?


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