What Did You Do In The War?

One of the things I've always wondered about was what it was like to live in the United States during World War II. It was one of the things I'd have most wanted to ask my parents about if they were still alive -- my own particular "What did you do in the war, Daddy?" question.

I don't literally want to know what my parents did during the war. I know. My father had flat feet, so he was 4F. But what I truly wondered was what they knew and when they knew it -- about the Holocaust, for example, and the Japanese internment camps. It was a complete mystery to me. I read a half-dozen books on the subject of the United States and the Holocaust and I could never imagine how so many people could have known what they knew and done nothing. Did my parents know? Probably they did. Did they do anything? Probably they didn't. And why not?

In any case, I don't much wonder about this any more, because I know the answer. I know because Guantanamo Prison is now more than five years old, five years of our holding and torturing prisoners without bail and without the rights of habeus corpus. Of the 385 men detained at Guantanamo, only ten have been charged. How is this possible? In the United States of America? You can blame Bush/Cheney if you want; you can blame our justice system, which moves sluggishly through the Guantanamo cases, deferring to the legislative branch, which then does nothing. But what about us? What are we doing about Guantanamo? Nothing, just as my parents did nothing about the injustices they knew about. And why not? It's simple. We're too busy.

The news in this morning's paper that thirteen Guantanamo prisoners have started a hunger strike and are being forcefed is heartbreaking, because these prisoners are assuming that somewhere out here is a way of reaching the American people, triggering a sense of injustice, and eventually causing a wave of international opprobrium to smack into the White House and somehow affect the war criminals who are running the country. This, of course, will never come to pass: the only good thing that's happened to George Bush since the glory days of 9/11 is that the terrorists haven't attacked us again here in America, and the reason they haven't (in the Bush/Cheney scenario) is that we've managed to lock them all up on an island no one can get to. This was a brilliant move, by the way, and you have to hand it to the guys who thought it up: the prisoners can't be seen (by us or by the press) and most of them are faceless and stateless.

On Friday night we went downtown to see the writer Lawrence Wright, the author of The Looming Tower, perform his one-man show called My Trip to Al Queda. It's a completely riveting evening, and it begins with Wright's story about The Siege, a Denzel Washington movie about terrorism that Wright wrote and which some blamed for inciting a terrorist act that resulted in the death of one person and the crippling of another. It was a stupid, mindless act on the part of the terrorists, obviously, but Wright understands that if he hadn't written the movie, it might never have happened. It led him to write his brilliant book, and then, to write and perform his play about terrorism and torture and his own response to what he's learned. The evening is full of chilling observations about the enemy. "Perhaps Al Queda can best be understood as an engine that runs on the despair of the Muslim world, especially its young men, whose lives are so futile and unexpressed," Wright says. "Al Queda offers them a chance to make history. All they have to do is die." But it's equally chilling about us -- the evening ends with an image of Abu Graib projected on a screen on stage, of American soldiers threatening a naked, blindfolded prisoner with a wild dog.

We will never be able to tell our children that we didn't know it was happening. And what will we say when they ask what we did about it? Will we tell them the truth -- that we were too busy?