Billmon Haunted by the Ghost of Thoreau

One of the blogs I’ve long enjoyed visiting is billmon’s Whiskey Bar. There’ve been many highlights over the years, including the fine collection of “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction” quotes, the thought-provoking analysis of the economic limits of empire, some insightful introspection, and the frequent teasing of nuggets of unexpected insight and curious juxtapositions from obscure places.

Billmon also has some useful things to say about the recent Lancet study of mortality in Iraq, which I’ll link to as my apology for not being on-the-ball enough to offer my own take on it.

A couple of days back, Billmon took a step back from his number-crunching of that study and tried to hazard a qualitative look at the suffering that has been unleashed in Iraq, to a great extent by U.S. policy there. Turns out I’m not the only one haunted by Thoreau’s ghost:

The point deserves frequent repetition: We did this. We caused it. We’re not just callous bystanders to genocide, as in Rwanda, but the active ingredient that made it possible. We turned Iraq into a happy hunting ground for Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army. If Iraq is now a failed state, it’s because of our failures.…

For someone in my shoes, though, hopelessness can become an excuse for not thinking about unpleasant truths. But there was something about Riverbend’s quiet despair that forced me to think hard about my own moral responsibility as an American for a genocide caused by America — because of a war started in my name, paid for with my taxes.

I’ve opposed this war since it was just a malignant smirk on George Bush’s face. I’ve spoken against it, written against it, marched against it, supported and contributed to politicians I generally despise because I thought (wrongly) that they might do something to stop it. It’s why I took up blogging, why I started this blog.

But the question Riverbend has forced me to ask myself is: Did I do enough? And the only honest answer is no.

I opposed the invasion — and the regime that launched it — but I didn’t do everything I could have done. Very few did. We may have put our words and our wallets on the line, but not our bodies. Not when it might have made a difference. In the end, we were all good little Germans.

My question to myself, in other words, is like Thoreau’s famous question to Ralph Waldo Emerson when Emerson came to visit him in jail after he was arrested for not paying his poll tax as a protest against slavery:

Emerson: What are you doing in there, Henry?

Thoreau: No, Waldo, the question is: What are you doing out there?

It’s easy to think up excuses now — we were in the minority, the media was against us, the country was against us. We didn’t know how bad it would be.

But we knew, or should have known, that what Bush was planning was an illegal act of aggression, based on a warmongering campaign of deception and ginned-up hysteria. And we knew, or should have known, what our moral and legal obligations were:

We were all complicit. I was complicit. Because I was afraid — afraid to sacrifice my comfortable middle class lifestyle, afraid to lose my job and my house, afraid of the IRS, afraid to go to jail.

But not nearly as afraid, of course, as the thousands of Iraqis who have been tortured or murdered, or who, like Riverbend, are forced to live in bloody chaos, day after day. Which is why, reading her post today, I couldn’t help but feel deeply, bitterly ashamed — not just of my country, but of myself.

I just hope that in the next life I don’t run into Henry David Thoreau.