What is Happening to the America I Love?
This Page Added:  December 4, 2001


Published on Sunday, December 2, 2001 in the Boston Globe

What is Happening to the America I Love?
by Rose Moss

A lifetime ago, I emigrated to America, became a citizen and, like millions of others, wept and cheered at our love and courage on Sept. 11.  I have come to love the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the history of Americans who have given their lives that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.  Throughout the world, people know what America stands for, the principles that lie at the heart of our democracy, prosperity, and allure.

Heartsore and fearful, I am grieving for what has happened to America.  I came to this country shortly after the apartheid government authorized the minister of justice or subordinates to detain anyone suspected of guilt or innocent knowledge of something implying someone else's guilt for crimes like terrorism.  The detained could be kept for 90 days, infinitely renewable this side of eternity.  The detained had no right to see a lawyer, doctor, minister or family.

When this law passed, it seemed inevitable that prisoners in secret detention would be tortured and killed.  Sure enough, prisoners started to fall from the 10th floor of the Johannesburg police building.  A prisoner slipped down a flight of stairs, which explained the bruises on his corpse.  Another slipped on a bar of soap, which explained his cracked skull.  A prisoner's poem confessed that he had hanged himself on a bar of soap.

I knew.  Others knew.  An Austrian businessman in Cape Town told me recently, ''We knew but we didn't want to know.'' While he built his business and bought a home overlooking beaches and bays and flew to Austria for skiing vacations, prisoners groaned and died, their torturers protected by deliberate ignorance.

I did not know how to shut my eyes.  When the 90-day law passed, I'd been reading about how the Nazis rose to power by seizing executive power.  They subverted the Legislature and the judiciary.  A frightened population allowed the Nazi rise.  Some supported it for a promised triumph over poverty, humiliation, and communism.  Few cared to be bleeding hearts about the Jews - more aliens in the country than real Germans anyhow - or communists or cranks protesting that freedom depends on the rights of all.

It was lonely to hold my views.  The people I worked with were busy with their families, private lives, businesses and leisure in a beautiful, sunny country.  They did not have nightmares about a tortured people, who, despairing of nonviolence, had started what they called an armed struggle against apartheid.  If anything, people around me were pleased that leaders of the armed struggle had fled into exile and that their political leader could be sent to prison on Robben Island.  Like the CIA, they knew Nelson Mandela was a terrorist.  Like people who painted slogans on walls or organized political rallies.

Soon, more atrocities were necessary.  More blindness.  More repression.  We know what happened.  South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has drawn out enough evidence of atrocities to convince even South Africans who preferred ignorance.  In the end, nothing was enough.  I could not bear it and emigrated to the United States in 1964.

Should I use the past tense?  We were the world's last best hope.  But at a recent party I spoke with a woman who said Americans would never stand for secret detentions.  I told her about the 641 detained, one already dead, the numbers, names, and allegations secret.  It was news to her.

At Thanksgiving dinner, a lawyer argued that secret trials might be necessary.  Too bad about torture.  Another asked what I would do about people who refuse to talk - ''Get legal permission to wiretap.  Put microchips in their shoes.  Watch them breathe with infrared surveillance.''

Our sophisticated technology means we do not need executive end runs around the judiciary and Congress.  If torture and secret trials worked, the Inquisition would still rule Europe; Hitler and Stalin would still be heroes.  I hope that we the people will not accept blindness.  I want to hear, ''You can't do that.  This is America.''

The Thanksgiving lawyer warned that next year I'll be in prison for my views.  He had already said, ''Scratch an Arab and you'll find an anti-Semite.'' That is, a terrorist.  Ouch! I was back in apartheid South Africa, my heart cut by that scratch.  I am heartsore.

Rose Moss teaches creative writing in the Nieman Program at Harvard University.  She is the author of ''The Terrorist'' and ''Shouting at the Crocodile.''

Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company


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