A while ago, my uncle loaned me the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. It took me a while to sit down and read it, but seeing ads for the movie reminded me that it was on my list. In the past few weeks, I’ve read it with increasing interest. (Some spoilers to come.) A significant portion of the book details the brutal treatment and torture POWs received while imprisoned by the Japanese. As I read about the abuse, neglect, and psychological torment suffered by people who needed compassion and care, I felt myself getting angry. The most reactive part of me wanted to direct my anger simplistically, against the Japanese soldiers who tortured, to make them into bad people.
The irony, of course, is that I was reading this only a day after the release of the CIA torture report. Having only heard about in the news, I realized I now needed to sit down and begin to read through it, slowly. And I discovered what I already suspected: the horror inflicted upon these people I’d grown to care about in a book, my country had inflicted upon others in our names. It seems cliché but nevertheless necessary to note that the way the US’s enemies in WWI were able to dehumanize and degrade their POWs is the same way that the US’s people were able to dehumanize and degrade their prisoners, both sides justifying it as somehow for the greater good of their cause. One of the key differences is that Japan lost, and history was written by the victors, while the US continues to lumber forward with a defiant belief in its own unspoiled goodness.
When I was a kid, I thought American ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality were meaningful values that held our country together. As a white male Midwesterner, I was not exposed to the ugly realities of inequality and oppression that other kids had to experience early. I was lucky. Eventually, I started to hear weird stories, like how the CIA had supported coups and revolutions in different countries and set up puppet dictators who ruled tyrannically, but it didn’t matter to the USA because the rulers deferred to us. At first I thought these were lies or taboo secrets that no one else knew. I encountered them often enough to be convinced that they were true, but still I could not fathom how my country would allow these things to happen. If people only knew!
As I became older, I learned that not only were these stories not lies, they weren’t even really secrets. A number of citizens of the USA felt these were completely legitimate uses of force to promote our interests. This is the same thread of culture that today justifies our torture because “Americans need to be protected,” who say that the police should not be criticized for killing unarmed civilians over petty crimes because they have hard jobs and need to “protect us.” This is the thread of culture that says that the values of equality, democracy, and freedom are less important than personal safety, secure property, and maintenance of our “way of life.” And then it’s the same thread of culture that denies privilege—and of course it has to deny privilege, because these systems of brutality exist to create that privilege.
As a therapist, I believe it is healing and liberating to really see and know one’s own shadow. Not only believe, I have experienced this, I have witnessed this. It takes time and sometimes major crises to awaken to our own shadow. We need the courage and willingness to look at our shadows, our cultural shadows, our national shadow. We need to look at how our personal freedom has come at the cost of the liberty of others, not as a historical accident or passing moment but throughout the history of our country to today. We need to look at how we treat those we consider our enemies or those considered the worst among us.
There’s a Batman graphic novel called The Killing Joke, in which the Joker kidnaps and brutally tortures Commissioner Jim Gordon. The Joker’s agenda, it seems, is to demonstrate how easy it is to drive a person insane and cause them to betray their own values. Once Commissioner Gordon is rescued, he demands that Batman bring the Joker in “by the book.” “We need to show him that our way works!” This character could be the part of us with unflinching integrity, who knows our deep values and urges us to rise to our integrity no matter what.
This is the part we’re missing when one of our leaders justifies torture by saying, “He’s in our possession, we know he’s the architect [of the attacks], what are we supposed to do? Kiss him on both cheeks? … How nice do you want to be to the murderers of 3,000 people on 9/11?” As though there is absolutely no middle ground between kissing someone on both cheeks and waterboarding/force feeding/sleep depriving/humiliating/beating anyone we suspect of having intelligence we want.
This is the part we’re missing when we say, “He shouldn’t have talked back to the cops!” to justify an unarmed person being shot or choked to death over a petty crime, or often no crime at all.
This is the part we’re missing when we say, “This is what they have to do to protect our freedom and way of life,” without reflecting deeply on whether our way of life is worth this stain on our souls.
I know in my own heart is the same capacity for fear, anger, and evil. I know there is a desire for safety and security and a fear of confronting the roots of that security. Because I know this, and accept this, I can bring this into confrontation with that within me that aspires to integrity, to a moral investment in personal liberty, autonomy, and compassion. There are no simple answers, and our desire for a simple answer brings us back into the same danger of dehumanization for the sake of our own comfort.
Let’s breathe together, and remember our humanity.