Saturday, May 12, 2018

Gina Haspel nomination - revisiting The Politics of Mockingjay

Watching the politics around Gina Haspel's confirmation as CIA Director, and the reprehensible attacks from the White House directed at Senator John McCain, I've been reminded of a piece I wrote eight years ago for The Girl Who Was on Fire, an anthology of essays about Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series. I thought about it as I was listening to different news channels while stuck in traffic on I-95 this afternoon driving back from an author talk. Two themes of the essay - what it means to be patriotic and the use of torture, seem to be as much if not more of an issue today as they were back in 2010 when I wrote this:

"In the summer of 2008, two letters from readers arrived at my paper. One, addressed to me, asked, “Can you name me an instance where you are on the United State's side on an issue?” The other, addressed to my editor at the paper, complained: “ If you're going to continue to publish the far left ramblings of Sarah Darer Littman on your editorial page, you can at least try to balance things out by having somebody else on who actually wants to see our country win the war on terrorism.”

I found myself bemused by both, because as far as I’m concerned, I’m on the United States’ side on EVERY issue. It’s because I love my country so much, because I believe so passionately in the ideals upon which it was founded, that I’m so vocal when I feel that our government and our elected officials are taking us down paths that diverge from those principles.

So what does it mean to be patriotic? What does “being on America’s side” constitute? Does it mean “My country”—or in Katniss’ case, the rebellion—“right or wrong”? Personally, I don’t believe that is the case. One of the greatest minds of all time, Albert Einstein, said, “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

To me, it is about asking questions, fighting for what you believe in and holding our leaders accountable. It’s about making sure that making sure that they don’t take us down a path that is antithetical to what we stand for. It’s about saying “The United States does not torture. It's against our laws, and it's against our values” as President Bush declared in a speech on September 6th, 2006, but really meaning it, not coming up with rationalizations for how and why we are allowed do so.

It’s about facing the real challenges ahead of us without losing who we are as a nation, without compromising the core values and beliefs that made America the shining beacon of democracy in the world.

I have a letter to the editor from a World War II veteran, Richard P. Petrizzi, that I keep pinned above my desk. It reads ; “I have many friends who are veterans who have never worn a flag on their lapels or flown flags in front of their homes. Yet these same people went to war to fight the dictators who were trying to conquer the world. We fought at that time to preserve our freedoms, including freedom of speech. I urge Sarah Darer Littman to keep writing her column and standing up for what democracy is all about.”

Almost two thousand years ago, the poet Juvenal wrote the Satires, a series of poems highly critical of the mores and actions of his Roman contemporaries. In Satire X, he writes of the downfall of the head of the Praetorian Guard, Sejanus, and the reaction of the citizens of Rome as he is dragged through the streets to his execution. One citizen asks ”But on what charge was he condemned? Who informed against him? What was the evidence, who the witnesses, who made good the case?"

Another replies: "Nothing of the sort; a great and wordy letter came from Capri, " in other words, Sejanus had been condemned to death on the basis of a letter from the Emperor Tiberius, because he’d fallen out of favor with his former friend. “Good; I ask no more," replies the first citizen – abandoning law and order to the winds.

Juvenal rails that “the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things----Bread and Games!”

Or, in the original Latin: Panem et Circenses. The phrase originated with Juvenal and two thousand years later, it describes how much of the American public preferred to lose themselves in “reality TV” than pay attention the erosion of civil liberties during the War on Terror; “asking no more” in the way of evidence from their government when confronted by policies that so clearly contradict our laws and our national values. From warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, to the politicized hiring and firing of Department of Justice officials, from the abrogation of international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture, to leaking the name of a covert CIA agent for political purposes - the list of Bush Administration transgressions goes on. Although the Obama Administration has corrected some of the worst abuses such as the use of torture, it still hasn’t rejected the use of extraordinary rendition or closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay, despite the fact that the harsh treatment received there has motivated several released prisoners to become members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Yet much of the American public remains too busy watching Reality TV, preferring to discuss Dancing with the Stars and Jersey Shore, and continue to accept the harsh treatment of prisoners under the guise of “national security”, without understanding the global strategic implications, let alone the immorality.

My upcoming novel ANYTHING BUT OKAY, (Scholastic, October 2018) is a further exploration of the questions I had in 2010 about what it means to be a patriot and who gets to define it. Rereading the essay from eight years ago reminds me that the seeds of our current political chaos weren't planted by Trump. Trump's election is the ugly weed that sprouted from the seeds planted years earlier. We have to recognize that in order to move forward with any vestige of a civilized society intact.

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