During the early 1970s, my younger brother and I had an extraordinary opportunity: our dad worked at NATO in Brussels, and our whole family lived there. Europe was literally at our doorstep. We took lots of weekend car trips all over Northern Europe as a family, but my brother and I would hop trains throughout the week. We wore our student EurailPasses down to the nub.
Whenever we visited Germany, I recall seeing married couples board the trains, usually well-upholstered burghers and their wives in the first class cars. Or we would see nice families in their middle-class autos in the autobahn lane next to our funny maroon Peugeot sedan. These folks were my father’s age, or older (he was born in 1923 and served in the Pacific theatre in WW2). I would always wonder: what did you do during the war?
My father worked alongside some Germans, too, who had very nice families like ours. Socializing in the long summer evenings was sometimes part of his job, and (sort of) part of ours, too. But if the mom and dad were my dad’s age or older, I used to wonder: were these the ‘good Germans’ I had read about in my history books?
I mean, these people didn’t simply appear in Germany during the Marshall Plan, America’s wonderfully generous reconstruction of free markets and political institutions. They must have lived through the second world war, right? What role did they play? Were they soldiers, civilians, students, citizens?
When Germany was doing barbaric things, I asked myself, what were these people doing? When their state was acting in ways since condemned by the civilized world, what did these folks do? Did they know? Did they pretend not to know? Did the benefits of their situation somehow outweigh the risks of objection?
Did they know and not care? Or did they not know? Or did they not want to know? Or did they know now and simply want to forget? Did we all want to forget?
How, I wondered then, could an entire nation go insane and then, afterward, act as if it hadn’t happened? How did that work, exactly?
I think we are about to find out. Right here in America. By ‘looking forward not backward’ we are now Good Americans. We overlook our own country’s torture, kidnapping, child murder, eavesdropping, indefinite detention, and inutterable destruction of the planet. I mean, babies are being born in Fallujah with horrible disfigurements after our depleted uranium and white phosphorus attacks on that city. In Guantanamo, innocent men are housed in a never-land outlaw world, perhaps never to be released. Here at home, phone calls and other communications are monitored by the state. Nothing is private, really. Abroad, war profiteers and mercenaries looted our own treasury and destroyed lives without censure or account. And people in America, some of them citizens (a few, certainly, but isn’t one too many?) have been snatched up and detained in a gulag of unbearable torture and misery.
Should the world survive America’s global predation, our generation — people alive right now — will always be viewed by history as Good Americans. Just as I wondered about the Good Germans in the twentieth century: people who let a great country slide into soul-corrupting evil and who did nothing.
If we accept the pleasant nostrums on offer by the Obama Administration (that America needs to look forward not backward, that we have too many problems on our plate to dwell on the errors of the past, that Americans are not a vindictive people) we will always be viewed by the rest of the world as Good Americans: moral monsters who looked the other way rather than squarely face the evil done in our name.
I used to wonder, decades ago, how those people lived with themselves, if they really knew what happened in their country and they did nothing. We are about to find out for ourselves just how that feels. And, much later, we may discover how it feels to get baffled looks or even puzzled inquiries. In twenty or thirty years, will a teenager from abroad look at you and wonder: what did you do when your country went insane? Did you try to stop it?
And did you let the political leaders who perpetrated evil go free? Without accountability, there is only complicity.