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Something I wrote about Freedom & Terror & Security in 2005
and how rediscovering my own words from the past helps me face this disastrous present
Back in the aughts, for many years of those aughts, I wrote a blog called The Biscuit Report. It is still technically up on blogspot (I know, right) but it’s pretty busted.
Anyways, it was called the Biscuit Report because in those days, in the War on Terror, under Bush and Cheney and, oh, a bunch of creeps like John Yoo, the U.S. government decided to rebrand torture as the Orwellian “Enhanced Interrogation”, and the doctors who helped them were called Biscuit teams. I thought then and think now that this was a terrible, terrible thing, an abomination. I railed for years against this normalizing of torture in the name of security, and against the Global War on Terror generally speaking.
When a reader responded to my last email, about the water situation in Gaza, to ask me if I was advocating for people who wanted me dead, I was reminded of that long-defunct blog.
I do not think that every one of the more than 2 million people in Gaza, 40% of whom are children, either want me, personally, dead, or even Jews, generally, dead. I know quite well that some people in many places, including many people — mostly white supremacists — right here in the US, do want that, but I do not think every person in the Gaza strip wants it.1
But back then, when I was writing that blog, I did entertain the possibility that some or even many or even possibly most2 of the men held at Guantanamo may in fact have wished for, planned, participated in harming U.S. citizens, that in some sense they might some of them have been ‘bad guys’. And I still held what seemed like an obvious and reasonable opinion but in fact was apparently radical and controversial, that to torture human beings was wrong, whatever the reason.
I went back to that defunct blog and I found this post I made on June 13th, 2005 and it seems related to the issues that face us, particularly those of us in the Jewish community, at this time, so I’m sharing the words below. 3
The Destruction of Our Way of Life Everyone's worried about it. The pro-torture party and its apologists insist that it's either torture, the PATRIOT act, etc., or it's the terrorists destroying our way of life and raping our daughters and forcibly converting us all to Islam. Lots of sane people then respond by asking what the point is of preserving our society if we destroy it in the process. Supposedly our great debate is all about the balance between liberty and safety. This is bullshit. "Our way of life" is not a thing, and it cannot be preserved. "Our way of life" is constantly annihilating itself to become some other way of life. Safety? We are all unsafe, at every moment, despite our illusions. And each of us will die, and what will be left of our so-called "way of life" then? We have allowed fear to shape a debate about our policies. Our fear is natural. But when we admit the need to balance 'security' and 'liberty', we are agreeing to the idea that there is some kind of simple balance: we can be absolutely secure, or we can be absolutely free, and our job is to find the something in between that we can all live with. But there is no absolute security in this world. The distance between certainty and uncertainty is infinite, and it cannot be bridged. I do not argue that there are no reasonable ways to increase the feeling of security. I put my kid in a car seat just like everyone else. This makes him less likely to die in a car accident, but it does not bridge the infinite gap between my desire for his absolute safety and its impossibility. All our safety measures are as nothing compared to the inevitability of death. My point is not that we should not try to keep terrorists from blowing up our national landmarks. Of course we should. But why should we even have to debate if we are willing to lose our souls for the not-at-all-certain possibility of adding another drop of illusory security into the infinite bucket of impermanence and death? All we have is this moment, our way of life right now. Right now, we are torturers. We have traded our liberty and our honor, in this moment, for the wish that someday, some distant time in the future, we will be safe. It's one thing to sell your soul for some immediate benefit -- we've sold our souls for a hypothetical and utopian future, for the day the War On Terror ends, and Democracy and Freedom are everywhere. Now, there are some things I am willing to sell for a hypothetical and utopian future: my station wagon, for example. Some, although not all, of my time. But my soul? I'd like to keep it, thanks. I don't know what the future may bring, but I'm pretty sure I'll need my soul to deal with it. Let us find our way of life, the new one we must create in each new moment, with the help of our souls, and let us stop believing that we can preserve the way of life we've got by giving them up.
I am now 18 years into the future from that young mother crying out against inhumanity, and of course despite (or in part because of?) those wars and that torture, we do not live in a world free from mass murder, from hate, from brutality, or from war. That hypothetical and utopian future the Global War on Terror promised has not, of course, arrived, Democracy and Freedom have not Won, we are not Secure.
I am glad I did not sell my soul for that empty promise, made by powerful men serving their own agendas, which had nothing at all to do, really, with my freedom, my safety, my ability to live my life. I am glad that I spoke up then and said not in my name, not for my so-called security does my government do these terrible things.
I expect that two decades from now ( f I chance to live that long) I will need my soul just as much as I needed it then and require it today, and it is clear to me what my soul requires of me in this moment, along with my enormous grief and my enormous anger and my fear — it is clear to me however much I wish it were not, however much I would prefer to say nothing now, do nothing — I must stand up and say no, not vengeance, not destruction, not children dying of THIRST, not in my name, not for my so-called security.
In the U.S., a number of groups, including the Jewish group If Not Now, have banded together to sign a letter demanding an immediate ceasefire. If Not Now is also organizing nonviolent protests, including this one in DC yesterday and several local and online events in the coming days, find one here . And, if the spirit moves you, join in. Whatever way you can, even if it’s just making a call, even if it’s just sending an email, even if just speaking up to one other person.
There is a lot being written and said right now about Israel and Palestine. If you care what I’m reading about this, here are some things:
I’m getting most of my raw news from The Guardian. There’s no paywall.
Here are 3 opinions I’ve found valuable. I do not want to imply that I 100% endorse every word you might find in these opinions, or that they represent the totality of my reading/thoughts on this subject (or for that matter, the people whose opinions they are, because we all get to be complex and have nuance.4 That said, these were some things that I found valuable to read and that resonated with me in some way.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg had a great piece last week on her blog, Life is a Sacred Text. The world has moved painfully, terrifying quickly in the last several days, of course, but it’s still valuable: “[Rava said], What did you see to make you think that your blood is redder and more important than someone else’s? Perhaps the blood of that [other person] is redder. (Talmud Yoma 82b)”
As a Jewish progressive I’ve been resonating a lot with what Joshua Hill has been writing on his blog, New Means: “In some ways I know my horror is so minor, I know that I am so okay next to the pain and death many thousands of miles away. But there is also the fact that people tell me this killing is being done in my name as a Jew, while as an American my government allows and assists it. Then the horror returns.”
Using one of my free share links, hope this works, to this op-ed by Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times : “It is not fair that events are moving too quickly to give people time to grieve the victimization of their own community before being asked to try to prevent the victimization of others. Nevertheless, as atrocities are piled on atrocities, I hope Jews will attend to what is being threatened in our name. And all Americans should pay attention, given how much our country underwrites Israel’s military.”
This is a hard time. I am trying to honor the grief and rage and terror of this moment at the same time that I try to act out of my values, knowing I am not in control of the outcome of my actions, but believing with all my heart that what each of us does in this world matters.
I appreciate every single person who reads this newsletter SO VERY MUCH. Thank you for caring what I have to say. I care what you have to say to, so please hit that reply button if you’d like to share a response. please note: I do not offer any particular SLO for email reply time.
Yes, some people in Gaza do want that, it is clear.
clearly now a bit of an overestimate
If I could go back in time to 2005 as me now, I would probably say this somewhat differently; and in reprinting these words here I don’t mean to imply that they apply perfectly to our current situation and my current audience, because they do not. My point is that the through-line is clear, what my soul demanded of me then is not dissimilar to what it demands of me now, and I found these words of mine from the past to be helpful in clarifying what I must do in the present.
this by the way is why i’m not posting heavily about this on social right now — for me, social media is not conducive to the work I am trying to do, which is talk directly with people who care what I think and who I care what they think too. Put another way I do not want to deal with bad faith arguments and I judge my readers, overall, to be unlikely to engage in them, which certainly cannot be said to be true for FB, Twitter, etc.