Thanks to a book I am reading, Full Spectrum Disorder by Stan Goff, I decided to look up a quote online by Aimé Césaire, the poet and anticolonial thinker, and found to my dismay just how keenly his cry of protest against mid-20th century French colonialism fits the moment we are living now. Change a few place names, and you will find that he is describing American behavior in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Israeli behavior in Palestine and Lebanon, and its corrosive effect on our own souls.
- First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism; and we must show that each time a head is cut off or an eye put out in Vietnam and in France they accept the fact, each time a little girl is raped and in France they accept the fact, each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact, civilization acquires another dead weight, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and “interrogated,” all these patriots who have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been instilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery.
- And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific reverse shock: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers around the racks invent, refine, discuss.
Speaking of torturers, let’s revisit what Mitt Romney said last May at a Republican presidential debate in South Carolina. He was responding to an imaginary scenario in which terrorists have exploded bombs in three American cities, and are taken to Guantanamo before they can carry out a fourth attack.
- First of all, let’s make sure… that scenario doesn’t ever happen. And the key to that is prevention. We’ve all spent a lot of time talking about what happens after the bomb goes off. The real question is how do you prevent the bomb from going off…. Now you said the person is going to be at Guantanamo. I’m glad they’re at Guantanamo. I don’t want them on our soil. I want them on Guantanamo where they don’t get the access to lawyers they get when they’re on our soil. […] Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo… and there’s no question but that in a setting like that, where you have the ticking bomb, that the President of the United States… has to make the call, and enhanced interrogation techniques have to be used. Not torture, but enhanced interrogation techniques.
Back to Aimé Césaire and his Discourse on Colonialism, which has been called a “third world manifesto.” He is talking about what happens once people in “civilized” nations discover that the techniques they have used on others are being turned on them.
- People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: “How strange! But never mind—it’s Nazism, it will pass!” And they wait, they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, but the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples….
- Yes, it would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century that without his being aware of it, he has a Hitler inside him, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he rails against him, he is being inconsistent and that, at bottom, what he cannot forgive in Hitler is not crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.
Today the U.S. is falling into the same trap. When U.S. soldiers come under fire in Baghdad, they call in air strikes that inevitably cause the deaths of civilians—women and children and even whole families—because they are fighting in a residential neighborhood. We may see a headline that says 49 people were killed in such a confrontation, but we don’t even read the article because we don’t want to think about it. Girls are raped as Aimé Césaire says, prisoners are tortured, and boastfulness is displayed by our leaders. Yet we in the West are not outraged, because these crimes are not being done to us, they are being done to “the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.” Instead, journalists wring their hands about how to restore U.S. prestige in the world, or what should be done in Pakistan as if it were our job to write the script.
What has changed in the 50 years since Aimé Césaire wrote his words, besides a few names and dates? We still have the same smug conviction that we can do no wrong, because by accident of birth we live in a privileged nation. We still think we are exempt from our own standards of decency when dealing with the rabble outside our gates. And we are still just as blind to it, and the way it corrodes us.