(There Are No Innocent Bystanders)

“Please forgive us, we didn’t know
Could you ever believe that we didn’t know?
Please forgive us, we didn’t know
I wouldn’t blame you if you never could, and you never will”

-Natalie Merchant, “Please Forgive Us”

It’s interesting to witness how much outrage–on all sides of the political spectrum–has been provoked by the prison abuse photos. But where are the calls for investigations and displays of righteous morality as taxpayer-subsidized American bombs blow Iraqi and Afghani babies to bits each and every day?

The standard answer to such a question typically involves some kind of special dispensation being granted to the American populace for “not knowing” what is being done in their name. “Cut them some slack,” I’m told over and over…but the same people who scold me are not cutting any slack in their calls for heads to roll over the prison abuse scandal: If Rumsfeld knew, goes the mantra, he was culpable. If he didn’t know, well, that’s just as bad.

Well, hat equation works for me, but not just for Ronald Dumsfeld…I mean, Donald Rumsfeld. The U.S. government is responsible for unspeakable horrors at home and across the globe and has been since it came into existence. Simple logic: If the U.S. taxpayers are aware of these reprehensible actions, those taxpayers are at fault. If they didn’t know, well, that’s just as bad. There are no innocent bystanders when your money and/or rhetoric support the world’s most powerful military.

“I’m still taken aback at the extent of indoctrination and propaganda in the United States,” declares Arundhati Roy. “It is as if people there are being reared in a sort of altered reality, like broiler chickens or pigs in a pen.”

I recently dug out something I wrote on the topic of indoctrination…shortly after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993: “Quite often, I’ll make a statement that utilizes basic reason that would be familiar and understandable to a 10-year-old and I am treated as if I am speaking some long-forgotten language. Educated, well-read individuals simply cannot comprehend what I am saying. For example, when a Muslim got arrested for the WTC bombing, people around me spouted such predictable bile as ‘Deport all Arabs,’ ‘We should nuke the entire Middle East,’ and ‘Israel would know how to deal with this.’ Well, rather than ignore such frightening oratory, I responded with something like: ‘We have demonized the Muslims as dangerous fanatics, subsidized Israel’s military with billions of taxpayer dollars, blocked all progress towards a Middle East peace settlement, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in an illegal war, banned ‘Arab-looking’ people from air travel during that so-called war, and we’re surprised and stunned if something is done in retaliation? When you cut off all political and diplomatic channels, the only course left is violence. And isn’t it funny that when they do it, it’s called ‘terrorism.’ But when the U.S. or Israel does it, it’s called ‘retaliation.’ Well, the reaction I got wasn’t even anger. It was indifference. I was stating something so out of line with mainstream thought that everyone ignored my words as incomprehensible. It was so far out of their programmed way of thinking and reacting that it didn’t even provoke them to agree or disagree. It just confused them and they chose to ignore it.”

After 9/11, the knee-jerk reaction is no longer indifference or confusion. An article I wrote questioning the Pat-Tillman-as-Hero motif led to an inbox filled with e-mails from people telling me how men like Tillman fight to give me the freedom to write such blasphemy.

Freedom? Many years ago, I was eating lunch in a Virginia Beach diner when I heard a loud roar. “What was that?” I bellowed. The waitress smiled and replied: “That’s an F-14…the sound of freedom.”

I spend an awful lot of time in gyms, dealing with people from all walks of life and this provides plenty of opportunities to gauge public opinionSand freedom.

Recently, at an upscale Manhattan facility, a woman told me that the Iraqi people “act like we owe them something.” She continued, freely: “We freed them from their nazi communist or whatever dictator and now they should take care of themselves.” The waitress in Virginia might have smiled.

At a blue collar gym in my neighborhood of Astoria, some guy talked loudly and comfortably about the war: “You think we can let that football player die in vain? We gotta finish the job.” That’s the kind of freedom that sounds like an F-14.

Another time, in a midtown Manhattan gym (with a mixed crowd), I was wearing a Yankees t-shirt with the name “Justice” emblazoned on the back (for former Yank David Justice). An older woman asked me if I was a Yankee fan. I told her I was but that my reason for wearing the shirt was all about the word “justice.” She smiled and declared that justice was a “noble idea.” I braced myself for the inevitable “we need to show those towel heads some justice,” but instead, this woman told me-albeit in a whisper-she was going to Washington to march against the war. After this confession, she looked genuinely nervous. Had she gone too far? I leaned closer and said: “Don’t worry, I’m with you.” She and I proceeded to talk each time she’d come to the gym, but it was always off to the side…out of listening range. Principles are great, but if we were heard, I might have been fired…and, well, I have yet to find a principle that pays the Con Ed bill.

Hey, I know I’m not living in Myanmar, but what are we talking about here? Is freedom just an issue of bigger cages and longer chains? Is it merely a commodity sold to the highest bidder? Did Pat Tillman die so I’d have to whisper my opinions to avoid getting fired…while others can loudly parrot the corporate/military line without any fear of reprisal? Are U.S. soldiers protecting the rights of so many Americans to send me threatening e-mails instead of protesting the U.S. government using their money to kill whoever gets in the way? What makes the American people so confident there isn’t a long overdue bill to be paid?

As the Indian-born Roy explains: “People from poorer places and poorer countries have to call upon their compassion not to be angry with ordinary people in America.”

Ward Churchill takes it further…warning us that the same people Roy refers to “have no obligation-moral, ethical, legal or otherwise-to sit on their thumbs while the opposition here dithers about doing anything to change the system.”

The excuse of ignorance is not valid when graphic images are available within minutes…with Madeleine Albright declaring on “60 Minutes” that a half-million dead Iraqi children was a price worth paying…with websites overflowing with alternative information. It’s not ignorance; it’s denial…or perhaps acquiescence. Slap that “Support the Troops” bumper sticker on your SUV…and you’re liable. Vote for Berry or Kush (I mean, Kerry or Bush)…and you’re accountable. Remain silent…and you are responsible. Cut them some slack? News flash: There’s not much slack left in the taut rope around all of our necks.

African Proverb: “Not to know is bad. Not to wish to know is worse.”

MICKEY Z. is the author of two new books: “A Gigantic Mistake: Articles and Essays for Your Intellectual Self-Defense” (Library Empyreal) and “The Seven Deadly Spins: Exposing the Lies Behind War Propaganda” (Common Courage Press). He can be reached at mzx2@earthlink.net.

Mickey Z. is the author of 12 books, most recently Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on the Web here. Anyone wishing to support his activist efforts can do so by making a donation here. This piece first appeared at World Trust News.