Today, June 1, is the international day of solidarity with Bradley Manning, the US Army whistleblower charged with leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. Among other things, the leaked documents exposed Bush-era war crimes, including running torture centers and death squads in Afghanistan and Iraq. The response of the Obama administration has been ruthless, charging Manning with “aiding and abetting” Al Qaeda and imprisoning him for over 1,000 days without trial. He has been held in solitary confinement for much of that time, prompting the UN special rapporteur on torture to denounce his treatment as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”.
The most notorious of the leaks was this video footage of a 2007 US airstrike in Baghdad, dubbed “Collateral Murder” by WikiLeaks, which shows helicopters massacring a group of unarmed men (including two Reuters war correspondents) with the chilling glee of someone playing a video game. At a pretrial hearing in February, Manning said that, “I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within the CIDNE-I and CIDNE-A tables, this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general, as well as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan.” That debate has yet to occur, and the culture of bloodlust and impunity surrounding every act of state violence, past and present, remains intact.
As I struggled to come to terms with our silence, I wrote this poem for Bradley. At the time, I was deeply immersed in the work of Theodor W. Adorno. The title refers to Adorno’s dictum that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”: After the horrors of fascism and the Holocaust, it’s clear that achieving the height of culture hasn’t civilized us. On the contrary, it has distracted from, and rationalized, our other achievement – the apex of our disregard for individual human life. The poem’s epigraph is a quote from a passage in Dialectic of Enlightenment about Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s impressions of Americans (Since the English in the quote is also in English in the original, I’ve left the German words [sagt der Amerikaner, “the American says”] untranslated). Americans, they write, judge their self-worth based on their market value; they aren’t ignorant of their powerlessness in the capitalist economy, nor do they celebrate it – rather, they accept it.
We’ve met with willful indifference the actions of a young man whose courage and plight should’ve been a wake-up call to a nation that claims to value human rights and freedom. We – not only the government, not only the media, but we, the people of the United States – have let him down.
“No poems after Auschwitz”
It’s a free country
But freedom has rules:
You can say what you want about the Market
but if you don’t play ball
you’re not one of us.
We don’t leak the wrong footage
of the wrong Apache helicopters
swarming over Baghdad
picking off civilians like flies.
And on a rainy Tuesday in November
every four years
we pick Dear Leader
like free people do.
You’ll never change the world.
But to those who will try –
The risk you bear is
I am a failure, sagt der Amerikaner. – And that is that.