Grannie, look what we’re doing to the land of freedom
The ideals that welcomed my exiled family to the US have been violated
My grandmother came to America from eastern Europe in 1911, when she was not quite 13. Her father had been murdered in a pogrom in front of his family. Her mother was afraid the mob would turn on her next, so she sent her eldest child, alone, to the new world.
My grandmother often talked about sailing into New York harbour and seeing the Statue of Liberty, like a second mother, welcoming her under its outstretched arm. She never saw her mother or most of her family again: they perished in the Holocaust.
Her education ended when she left Europe. She worked as a finisher in the garment industry for 50 cents a day, became active in the Garment Workers Union, became pregnant and married at 15. But she knew when she sailed in under the statue that her life would not be in danger again because of who she was or what she thought or said. She had come home to freedom.
I recently completed a speaking tour in Europe in connection with my novel Blacklist, which is set partly in the McCarthy era and partly in the world of the Patriot Act. The book has generated hate mail from people who accuse me of hating America and loving terrorists. When I walked into the US consulate in Hamburg and saw a sketch of the statue on the wall, I thought of my grandmother and wept.
Grannie, this is what we’re doing now:
* We imprisoned an artist in upstate New York for an installation piece he was creating around genetically modified food. When his wife died suddenly one morning and he called 911, he was arrested for having micro-organisms in the apartment. He was held without charge until a postmortem was completed and showed that the benign, legally obtained organisms in his home had not caused his wife’s death. He faces trial in January for having benign, legal organisms in his house, his travel is restricted, and he is subject to frequent drug tests.
* We arrested a library patron in New Brunswick for looking at foreign-language pages on the web. We held him for three days without charging him, without letting him call a lawyer, or notify his wife.
* We arrested a man at St John’s College in Santa Fe for making a negative comment about George Bush in a chatroom from the college library. We put a gag order on all the students and faculty, forbidding them from revealing that this arrest had taken place: the staff member who told me about it could be imprisoned for doing so.
* We pressured a North Carolina public radio station to drop a long-time sponsorship from a reproductive rights group, claiming that it is political and therefore not permissible as a donor.
* We’ve seized circulation and internet-use records from a tenth of the nation’s libraries without showing probable cause. We’re imprisoning journalists for their coverage of a White House vendetta on a CIA agent. We coerced newspapers in Texas and Oregon to fire reporters who criticised the president’s behaviour in the days immediately after 9/11. We have held citizens and non-citizens alike for more than three years in prison, without charging them, without giving them any idea on how long their incarceration might be, and we have “out-sourced” their torture to Pakistan and Egypt.
* When George Bush spoke at the Ohio State University commencement in 2002, we threatened protesters with expulsion from the university.
* We imprisoned an 81-year-old Haitian Baptist minister when he landed at Miami airport with a valid passport and visa. We took away his blood-pressure medicine and ridiculed him for not speaking clearly through his voice-box. He collapsed and died in our custody five days later.
In Germany, there is a feeling of terrible loss and betrayal in the wake of the presidential election. People in their 60s told me that growing up in postwar Germany, they idealised America. Even when our faults were obvious, as with lynch mobs and segregation, these Germans saw America as struggling to become true to its ideals of justice and equality. Now, as Germans see the many ways in which we are turning our backs on those ideals in the name of protecting ourselves from terror, they feel a betrayal deeper than the loss of a lover. They fear, too, that as America moves the definition of radicalism to new points on a rightwing compass, other nations will follow suit. They fear that in a world without a beacon of liberty, there will be no curbs on totalitarian behaviour anywhere.
I never met any anti-American sentiment in Germany, despite the bewilderment that people feel. People were supportive and helpful, even if no one is very hopeful right now.
In Dresden, a man in his 70s said that anyone who thought the worsening war in Iraq, and a worsening US economy, would turn Americans against this administration should look to Germany. He said he remembered the second world war vividly, when people were willing to shed the last drop of their blood for a regime which had destroyed their economy while plunging them into senseless wars.
In Munich, the consul told the audience that the fact I was allowed to say things at odds with our government was proof that free speech was alive and well. He walked out when I was explaining that the State Department had removed all of Dashiell Hammett’s books from consular and embassy libraries, after Hammett refused to name names during the McCarthy witch-hunts.
The consul in Frankfurt said that between 75 and 120 casualties from Iraq were flown in every day to the military hospital there, but we aren’t allowed to see these wounded on television, nor are we allowed to see the coffins of our dead.
My taxi driver in Frankfurt was a devout Muslim who fled Iran to protect himself and his wife from state- imposed religious and moral standards. He had served in the Iranian army during the Iran-Iraq war, and had lost his mother and both grandmothers. “Why does America want to rule by religion?” he asked. “Religion makes a cruel government.”
On the plane coming home, I sat next to an Englishman, urbane, fluent in four languages, travelling every month to South America or the Pacific rim, who told me “you Yanks” had done the right thing in giving Bush four more years. “He’s protecting you from terror,” the man explained.
I told him about the arrests and interrogations of writers, artists, ordinary citizens. He paused, then said: “You Yanks put a lot of your people in prison, anyway.” I was bewildered. He said: “It’s a necessary price to pay for protection against terrorism. You’ll be glad 10 years from now that you did it.”
Grannie, you know that’s what a lot of people said in Germany in the 30s – that the torture of Jews, communists, homosexuals and the mentally retarded was a necessary price to pay for moving Germany in a better direction.
When I think of you sailing into New York harbour alone, terrified, and seeing “the Mother of Exiles” lift her lamp beside the golden door, I feel my heart breaking.