Wednesday, January 11, 2017

No Moral Superpower: Arundhati Roy, Edward Snowden, and the Crimes of Empire

We can only heal the shadow - the blind spots, the wounds, that which we deny and turn away from - to the degree that we shift to a place of courage and commitment to truth. Only then will we embrace the brave beings we are and work together to heal ourselves, our communities, our nation, our planet. Another world is possible. It is up to us. ~ Molly

The September 2014 edition of Wired, which featured Snowden embracing the American flag. (Image: Wired magazine cover detail/with overlay)
 Published by Common Dreams
When Arundhati Roy was preparing, in 2014, for a trip to Moscow to meet Edward Snowden, she was troubled by two things.

One of them was the fact that the meeting was arranged to take place at the Ritz-Carlton, a beacon of luxury, celebrity, and unfettered greed — a symbol, in short, of what Roy has spent much of her life opposing.

"My last political outing had been some weeks spent walking with Maoist guerrillas and sleeping underneath the stars in the Dandakaranya forest," she wrote. "And this next one was going to be in the Ritz?"

The other issue was the cover of the September 2014 edition of Wired, which featured Snowden embracing the American flag. Mainstream media outlets wondered if it was "his first big PR plunder," but Roy, the great opponent of nationalism, looked deeper.

"All I'm saying is: what does that American flag mean to people outside of America?" she asked the actor and screenwriter John Cusack, who has worked with Snowden, and with the legendary whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, at the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

The flag, Roy argues, is not just vapid iconography; it exudes a narrative, a history, one that, while distorted by the powerful, can never be forgotten by the victims.

"I am happy — awed — that there are people of such intelligence, such compassion, that have defected from the state," she continued. "They are heroic. Absolutely. They've risked their lives, their freedom...but then there's that part of me that thinks...How could you ever have believed in it? What do you feel betrayed by? Is it possible to have a moral state? A moral superpower?"

It is often forgotten that Snowden did once believe in "it," if only for a short time. As he recounts in an interview with the Guardian, "I wanted to fight in the Iraq war because I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression."

But despite her misgivings — about the magazine cover, about the opulent hotel, indeed about Snowden himself — Roy agreed to join John Cusack and Daniel Ellsberg on the trip to Moscow. When they arrived, they confronted a man who knew, or thought he knew, why they wanted to meet him.

"I know why you're here," Snowden said to Roy. "To radicalize me."

Parts of the conversation that followed are transcribed in the newly released book Things That Can and Cannot Be Said, which also includes penetrating discussions between Roy and Cusack on the usual topics — imperialism, nuclear proliferation, the militarization of police, the corporatization of NGOs.

Ellsberg and Snowden, for reasons that should be obvious, bonded quickly, and had much to talk about. Soon, though, Roy found an opportunity to interject a few queries of her own. She asked about the magazine and the flag, and about why Snowden initially supported the invasion of Iraq "when millions of people all over the world were marching against it."

His forthright reply put Roy at ease.

"I fell for the propaganda," he said.

He fell for the propaganda — for the nationalistic imagery, for the soaring promises that always accompany deadly military projects — in the same way then that many of us have fallen for it since. President Obama's promises of greater transparency and a more peaceful future, we must remember, had millions enraptured, inspired, hopeful. Meanwhile, as Snowden told Roy, we were "sleepwalking into a total surveillance state."

"That's the dark future," Snowden said, a situation in which "we have both a super-state that has unlimited capacity to apply force with an unlimited capacity to know [about the people it is targeting] — and that's a very dangerous combination."

While Snowden's focus is relatively narrow, Roy always returns to the big picture — to Daniel Berrigan's point that "Every nation-state tends toward the imperial." She also frequently alludes to what Hannah Arendt called humanity's "active, aggressive" capacity to deny the relevant facts, to be deceived by appealing lies, by colorful stories about the past and by fantastical predictions of what the future will bring. Related is the tendency to ignore the historical backdrop, to view events in a vacuum; Donald Trump's rise has done much to bring this tendency to the surface.

Countless pundits, liberal and conservative, have characterized Trump as a unique evil, a radical departure from the civilized political establishment that existed prior to his dangerous candidacy — a departure, even, from the conservative movement, which has been granted an air of legitimacy by these same commentators.

But, as Roy reminds us, this "civilized political establishment" has never existed. That Trump is an odious character does nothing to change this fact.

"Forget the genocide of American Indians, forget slavery, forget Hiroshima, forget Cambodia, forget Vietnam," Roy said to Cusack, lamenting the historical amnesia — both willful and not — of the powerful and the punditry. "I can't understand those people who believe that the excesses are just aberrations."

Excesses, in Roy's view, are embedded in the very concept of empire.

"Isn't the greatness of great nations directly proportionate to their ability to be ruthless, genocidal?" Roy writes. "Doesn't the height of a country's 'success' usually also mark the depths of its moral failure?"

Responding to Trump's infamous promise to "make America great again," many, including the campaign of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, have peddled the line that America is already great — that while mistakes have been made, America's character and the intentions of its leaders are essentially good.

"The United States is an exceptional nation," Hillary Clinton said on the campaign trail in August. "I believe we are still Lincoln's last, best hope of Earth. We're still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. We're still Robert Kennedy’s great, unselfish, compassionate country."

Yet on the front page of Wednesday's New York Times, one is forced to confront a rather different story: The story of Suleiman Abdullah Salim, who was imprisoned for years without being convicted of a crime. For months, he was tortured by the CIA.

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