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In the Wake of Plunder and Flames Do You Regret Being an American?

Do You Regret Being an American?

by ANNIE C. HIGGINS

Cairo, Egypt

"Do you regret being American?" I was asked. I cannot remember who asked me, or even if it was in Palestine or here in Egypt. It could have been anyone, anywhere, anytime. There has been a continuing stream of reasons for regret, from my country’s support of assassination in Palestine to–come to think of it, to my country’s support of assassination in Iraq, and these are just the obvious ones. But my country doesn’t really support such evil deeds. My constitution, my neighborly culture, my conviction in the rightness of freedom of speech–these things define my country. These are not pushing invasion and occupation of another nation. Those making the decisions and taking the actions that shame us all are not of the American people, nor for us. A local commentator feels that a coup has changed the American government, although it has not been publicly announced or acknowledged. He does not specify whether this has taken place in the White House or the Pentagon.

What this alleged American government, which is the military, is doing to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay is no different than what they are doing to themselves, padding their ears so they do not hear, blindfolding their eyes so they do not see, tying their own arms so they cannot feel, and binding their legs so they cannot take steps toward any kind of progress. Americans may not have seen the images of the Guantanamo prisoners lately but the rest of the world has. Spanish television showed them on the heels of a clip where the Bush administration complains of violations of the Geneva Convention in al-Jazeera’s broadcasts of pictures.

"Do you regret being American?"

Bush is appointing a Minister of Information in Iraq from among the seemingly omniscient JINSA group [Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs] who think they are remote-controlling the world. One more little surprise from Iraq that the coup-makers haven’t taken into consideration is that Iraqis are sophisticated at sorting through the news that is handed out to them. They don’t automatically accept what the little screen tells them. They have developed a healthy habit of questioning authority and media pronouncements. They are also aware of America’s legal violations.

"Do you regret being American?"

A special note to my countrymen and women who have silenced voices that tell of meeting military violence with non-violence: I don’t want to prove you wrong in your silencing effective voices that bring a small measure of justice to the world through constructive engagement. I don’t want you to apologize openly or feel ashamed inside. I just want you to learn to love even one glimmer of caring for your neighbor, so that you will seek that thread of light, pursue it, delight in it, let it reflect off of you as you stand in its path, and see that you can neither stop it from shining nor collect it in a box and shut it away. Who is your neighbor? I hope mine will include Samaritans, though I am not the expert on the issue. But what if you have a dangerous neighbor? What then? That is just what millions of people on the planet are saying now. And they are talking about you.

"Do you regret being American?"

After reading of the sacking of Baghdad’s museums, I dreamed for two nights of pounding steady destruction. I awoke hoping the news was a part of my dream. The unspeakable loss made me so sick that I dreamed of vomiting the warm water of my empty stomach. Is it repellent to read that? The ash and desolation of historical and literary expressions are magnitudes more nauseating.

In the wake of loss to plunder and flame, Donny George at the Iraqi Ministry of Antiquities said, "This is what the Americans wanted. They wanted Iraq to lose its history." [R Fisk, Independent, 16 April 2003] No, we didn’t. I didn’t, and I am one of the Americans.

"Do you regret being American?"

A Syrian friend is not surprised that they targeted cultural places: "A nation’s culture is what holds its people together." What is holding my nation’s people together? The mutual desire to ransack history? No, we are not together in this. At the end of the two-hour "Third View" talk show with A-Sharq al-Awsat’s Cairo bureau chief, the Egyptian Ambassador cites Gore Vidal’s vision of an America which has split into disunited states. Off-camera, he asks me if I felt this were possible. I have no talent for predictions, nonetheless it is clear that there are serious splits in perceptions of the invasion. But that is democracy, after all, a pluralistic approach to visions and analyses!

At the height of the US/UK decapitation mission, I turn into a small but densely-populated side street. A woman recognizes me and engages me in conversation. Another woman says, "American?" When I respond affirmatively, she slides her index finger across her neck, signaling decapitation, and utters a single word, "Bush" as she sits regally on a gold sofa in the alley amidst nodding goats. The first woman distances me from the decapitable American, saying, "But she is a good one! She was at the demonstration with a big sign against the war, and she spoke against it on television." The sofa lady smiles and welcomes me, but the image of her sentence on the Commander in Chief remains in my mind.

"Do you regret being American?"

Another night, a frantic email message from America implores me to be careful in the streets of Cairo rife with anti-American sentiment. So say the alarmist media reports across the ocean. Reality is just the opposite. I am unfazed by my friend’s concern, responding that I feel safe walking home at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, and I have befriended all the nighttime street sweepers. I recall the statistic that when homicides decreased by twenty percent in America, news of them increased by six hundred percent. When I take a late dinner break at my favorite spaghetti establishment, my local hero surprisingly brings up the same topic as he dishes my portion of steaming noodles into a plastic bowl: "You speak Arabic and you are friendly with us, but if another American came through here, people would kill him." I am surprised because I have not encountered such emotions. He assures me that this is the case.

"Do you regret being American?"

Heading to a vigil at the Journalists’ Union, a lavish and imposing palace provided by the Ministry of Defense, a phone text message comes in to the mobile of a reporter for a major Arab newspaper: "Mubarak wants this war. He wants to send your sons to fight. Tell others." At the demonstration, a television announcer takes my statement, and insists on my answering the question, "Do you feel that Bush and Blair are committing war crimes?"

"Do you regret being American?"

Many people have told me that I was brave to carry a large sign declaring my nationality and my position, American Against the War, in the one and almost only demonstration in Cairo [20 March 03]. "It takes courage to speak up like that outside your own country." I receive news that organizers of Chicago’s 63rd Street demonstration have cancelled the action due to "a pervasive atmosphere of fear and anxiety within the Arab community." People are also worried about joining the ranks of the disappeared who were taken in sweeps after 11th September, and have not been charged or heard from since.

"Do you regret being American?"

In a humble but lively neighborhood where a home consists of a room just big enough for a small aisle between two beds, we exchange contact information. Conversation turns to money, and a man in the family indicates the desirability of the dollar over the Egyptian pound and other currencies. "No," says the young mother of my new four-year old sweetheart, Fuad. "The dollar…!" she exclaims, completing her sentence with a downward sweep of the hand. She predicts the effects of war budgets more clearly than many Americans with larger rooms in grander houses.

"Do you regret being American?"

Another family scene I have only read of has a van full of people trying to follow the Army’s orders to "Be safe" printed on leaflets dropped in Baghdad streets. They thought that these soldiers, like the first group they met, would wave them through the checkpoint in their hurried quest to reach safety. Instead, a hail of heavy gunfire left them beholding their two little daughters in their seats, decapitated. "Please be careful when you are shooting," pleads Captain Chris Carter of the US Seventh Regiment, Third Infantry.

"Do you regret being American?"

Saddam’s metal head is dragged in the street and beamed around the world after the US Marines topple his statue. Echoes of Constantine–when told that the people had chopped off his statue’s head, he touched his own, remarking that he didn’t feel a thing. I think of the lady on the gold sofa in the alley, one finger across her throat and one word on her lips, "Bush."

"Do you regret being American?"

ANNIE C. HIGGINS specializes in Arabic and Islamic studies, and is currently doing research in Jenin, Occupied Palestine. She can be reached at: higgins@counterpunch.org.