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The Quiet America: Waiting on Judgement PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 19 March 2005 02:47

The Quiet America: Waiting on Judgement

"Oh, I know your motives are good, they always are . . . I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives; you might understand a little about human beings. And that goes for your country, too, Pyle." Graham Greene, The Quite American

Coming home: The American who came in from the warmth
By Luciana Bohne
Online Journal Contributing Writer

03/17/05?Signora Ida (I disguise her name), my Italian neighbor in Trieste, Italy, where I just spent a week, is 82 years old. She has made me barley soup, and now I sit in the very modest little kitchen of her two-room apartment where she winters every year. She is not an intellectual. Single and retired, she worked as a hospital aide. While I thank her, she cradles her head between her hands and asks, "So many dead! Why is Bush killing so many people?"

It feels very new to be staring at political grief in anyone's face. I live in a country where what I read on people's faces, at best, is a puzzling, impenetrable blandness or a studied, bored, blas? detachment. They don't seem to be hounded by such raw and unpleasant thoughts that torment Signora Ida. The energy they might expend on a passionate engagement with the issues of the world they use to escape or deny it. It is like living among the damned?or the condemned. Finally I say, lying in part, "I know. But you must know that there are many Americans who feel as you do." She is thinking of the Iraqi dead, but, obviously, she has been reading and viewing reports of the improbable versions given by Washington of the shooting at the airport at Baghdad, following the rescue of Italian journalist, Giuliana Sgrena?the fifth version, and most absurd, is about protecting the car of ambassador John Negroponte, just released on Thursday this week. No one believes these versions?not even the government, from right to left.

I come home and read a string of hate emails from enraged readers, calling for my arrest, informing me they are sending my name to the FBI, State Department, Fox News, asking me in clumsy sardonic tones to make my way out of this country tout suite. These patriots have obviously googled for information on Giuliana Sgrena and have come across my articles, written before my departure. These are the "quiet Americans" of Graham-Greene fame, well-meaning idiots, to whom I want to say?as the European cynic, Fowler, said to the bomb-throwing "idealist" in the American crew cut, Pyle?I want to say as they cheer a war that continues to be fought long after the reasons for it have grown obscure: "Oh, I know your motives are good, they always are . . . I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives; you might understand a little about human beings. And that goes for your country, too, Pyle."

I'm practically no one?a college professor. I'm surprised that so much irrational venom should be wasted on so insignificant a person?that it should be so crucial to scream at nobody in particular: "what CAN'T be true ISN'T true." After all, I get my news from Italian, French, Spanish, English and other papers across the world?mostly in their original language?not from some arcane or professional source. I think in my kitchen, too?like Signora Ida does. I find that if I read the American press, I'm shocked by its hypocritical servility and by the verification of the feverishly sick and putridly immoral miasma which most people breathe by reading this media's unconscionable rot. Television is beyond redemption. Out of self defense, I read the world press, so it is ironic that when emailers accuse me of spreading lies it is world opinion they accuse. Does the fear emanate from knowing at a subterranean level that they are alone?

And I wonder, what makes Signora Ida so different from them. Who drove the fatal stake of ignorance through their hearts or contaminated them with the cult of death, turning them into insatiable vampires chanting, "Cogito ergo boom!" ("I think, therefore I shoot"), as they ghoulishly roam the earth in search of people's blood? Why do they find so much pleasure in banishing compassion from their hearts? Why must so many people die in order for them to proclaim their right to be alive? What nightmares of a loveless life haunt their endless nights? Why do they blindly love the thing that hates them, abuses them, lies to them, and will see them in rags?their own government? How have they come to mistake the love of country for the love of a mere bureaucrat, say, a mere president? Who is driving them mad, perverting their natural love of country into a celebration of its opposite?the worship of a "leader"?

I think, wryly, that the Germans, too, were thus driven mad by Hitler's propaganda lies. At Nuremberg, not the least of the Nazi crimes under indictment were the crimes perpetrated against the German people's conscience by driving them insane with lies?crimes that in the view of the American prosecutors were perhaps the most serious of all. Hans Fritzsche, a senior official in Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda and Folk Enlightenment, answered thus when interrogated at Nuremberg on whether his office had manufactured hatred against the people of the USSR in order to make the Soviet Union a German colony: "Yes. I organized German propaganda in such a way as to inflame hatred of the German people . . . for the people of the USSR."

And how could it be different here, where the government produces 50 percent of the weapons that are being exported around the world, where the military budget is approaching half a trillion dollars, where the US government spends on the military more money than the 15 largest countries combined? Who but a people driven mad with fear would stand for this waste of wealth on war? The media are a handful of corporations. Five corporations control it all?down from 50 in 1983.

In Edward Herman's words the media "manufacture consent for imperialist wars of aggression." He cites an example: "The New York Times, this great liberal newspaper, had 70 editorials between September 11, 2001, and the attack on Iraq in 2003. In not one of these editorials was the UN Charter, the Nuremberg Tribunal, or any aspect of international law ever mentioned. Now, these guys know these things exist, and that's a perfect example of censorship by omission." There is direct propaganda, too. "There are instances, we know of," says Herman, "where the Pentagon generated video news reports and then gave them to various TV stations. This is spoon-fed propaganda, coming straight from the Pentagon and being broadcast as news."

Signora Ida says, "But it won't work, you know. Their lies. They won't work here. We have many political parties. If one party lies, the other sets it straight."

Italians complain of the shrinking political pluralism since the '90s, but they have no idea what a seriously reduced political spectrum really feels like. Compared to the average American citizen, and in spite of Berlusconi's grip on the media, the Italian citizen is well informed.

I ask, "In the war, your family was anti-fascist, no?" She nods with pride. "My father spent 37 months in a Mussolini prison in 1937."

That must be it, in part. The Italian republic (of which the present is the second) is anti-fascist, born of the resistance. It was forged by just such forces as are now ravaging Iraq?occupation, struggle, resistance. Although the present Italian government is an alliance of right-wing parties, which are busy defaming the resistance and supporting the Bush agenda, it cannot prevail over the historical memory of the people. They remember what it was like?every family has a story. And these stories ring bells.

Before Giuliana Sgrena's release, 500,000 Italians marched in Rome, demanding her release and the withdrawal of the troops from Iraq. It hardly mattered to Italians that Sgrena was "on the left." Being "on the left" anywhere other than in the United States is not a disease or a satanic possession: freedom of thought and conscience is a citizen's serious right. What they saw in the Sgrena ordeal was a gallant reporter imperiled by a war their constitution forbade.

As they had marched for Sgrena a short while ago, they filed past slain secret agent Nicola Calipari's casket this week?100,00 mourners during the night before his funeral. His brother, a priest, pronounced the last words at the service: "Nicola died for the highest calling to which a human being can aspire: he gave his life for someone else." Mrs. Calipari is calling for peace in Iraq. Sgrena vows to support her in her quest for truth.

Everywhere in Italy, people on the left or the right are acting as though they are still motivated by the universal principles of conscience, truth, justice. They seem capable of critical thought.

Signora Ida betrays so touching a streak of honest expectations in her trust that truth will win out that it is clear she lives in a parallel (but saner) universe to the one I occupy. She cannot imagine what it is like to live with our conscience groaning in mute and helpless despair, crushed by the mounting load of assembly-line produced, grotesque lies, daily seeking to pollute and cloud our minds on this side of the Atlantic. She thinks the investigation into the Sgrena-rescue killing requested by the Italian government will shake the foundations of justice. She doesn't know and would not believe it if I told her it will lead nowhere beyond a confusing whitewash.

But it feels good to hear such faith. It is very hard to live among people who have learned to do without it?who talk about sports and the weather; about shopping and celebrities; about God and family values?nattering on and on trying to fill the gaping hole of their enormous alienation from reality, trying to ignore the fear that what is being done in their name is murder, trying to assuage the gnawing pain at the center of their consciousness that they are not loved, admired, or esteemed?learning, at last, that money or power cannot buy them humanity. Loudly may they sing the chorus to Bush's Nuclear Posture Review (2001) and National Security Strategy (2002)?the policy of "proactive counter proliferation" which in Hitler's time was known as aggressive war. Long may they dwell on dreams of striking against powers striving to attain nuclear-weapon capability. A day will come when this crazed war music will stop, and the American people will hear the judgment that the Germans heard at Nuremberg?that, in Justice Robert Jackson's words, they had supported a regime which had committed "acts which have been regarded as criminal since the time of Cain." They will also be astonished to hear that, although they thought they were free, they had in fact been terrorized and enslaved by their own government in order to follow in Cain's footsteps?as the German people heard.


This rage to march in lockstep to the war music is a fundamentalism of thought that enslaves America, and it differs in essence from "Christian" fundamentalism, which is a mere tool of the oligarchy and will disappear when it is no longer useful. This fundamentalism is of a tautological kind. It believes that there must be belief, that this belief is more necessary than peace, more vital and imperative than people, more immortal than ideas, more significant than truth.
Let us call it by the name with which it has been condemned in the past?the name that was interchangeable with the murderous patriotism of citizens of shamed and defeated dictatorships.

The name is fanaticism.

I left Signora Ida a melon, a primrose, two potatoes, and an onion. I set them down at her doorstep, so she would find them when she went out into her still human, still warm and friendly world, where courtesy and respect abide in spite of the often mean and lying government that rules?where, in spite of its government, people know the difference between truth and belief, between loyalty and mental slavery, between love and fear; where people are still free to hear each other's opinions without shouting them down; where a bedrock of social harmony endures from a pluralistic political symphony in which dissent is its recurring, its sweet and tolerance-inducing leit-motif.

Luciana Bohne teaches film and literature at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

First published by Online Journal - http://www.onlinejournal.com/

Last Updated on Saturday, 19 March 2005 02:47

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