Friday, February 20, 2009

Guantanamo and Utah: the common link

Recently I was reading the testimony of Brandon Neely, a former guard at the US concentration camp at Guantanamo. I thought of it again tonight when reading an article in the New York Times regarding opposition to the play Rent being shown in a toned-down version at America high schools. I thought I saw a link. To explain that link let me explain each story first.

Much of what Neely said is highly disturbing. It is clear that the United States has lost any moral high ground it once held. Our government is acting in ways that our nation has always opposed. President Bush changed that. Funny how a moralistic bumpkin managed to destroy morality at that level.

Neely spoke of being at Guantanamo the first day the prisoners arrived. He says: “I went back to my tent and laid down to go to sleep. I was thinking ‘those were the worst people the world had to offer? Not what I expected.” I guess I was expecting people who looked like monsters or what-not.”

Neely spoke of the abuse that was heaped on some of these prisoners, including abuse he helped with. But he also spoke of how these individuals often seemed to him merely scared and frightened. Individuals told to drink something feared they were being poisoned and refused – for that they were physically assaulted. One man was forced to his knees. This man had seen members of his family executed this way and started quivering and fell to the ground in terror. Neely responded. Here is what he said:
He was instructed to go to his knees, which he did. My partner then went down and took off his leg shackles. I still had control of his upper body, and I could still feel him tensing up. Once the shackles were off my partner started to take off the handcuffs. The detainee got really tense and started to pull away. We yelled at him a couple times "Stop moving!" Over and over. Then he stopped moving, and when my partner went to put the key in that first handcuff, the detainee jerked hard to the left towards me. Before I knew it, I threw the detainee to the ground and was on top of him holding his face to the cement floor. At this time my partner had left the cage. The block NCOIC (or Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge) was on the radio yelling code red which meant emergency on the block. Before I knew, I was being grabbed from behind and pulled out of the cage by the IRF team. They grabbed this man and hog-tied him. He laid there like that for hours that day before he was released from that position. A couple days later I found out from a detainee who was on that block that the older detainee was just scared and that when we placed him on his knees he thought he was going to be executed. He then went on to tell me that this man had seen some of his friends and family members executed on their knees. I can remember guys coming up to me after it was over that night and said "Man, that was a good job; you got you some". I did not feel good about what I did. It felt wrong. This man was old enough to be my father, and I had just beaten up on him. I still to this day don't know who was more scared before and during this incident me or the detainee.
Neely’s perception of these men, many of who are clearly innocent of any wrong doing, changed in the time he interacted with them. The more he knew the more troubled he was by what he was doing to them; the more troubled he was by what our government was doing to them.

The New York Times story on Rent seems a world away from Guantanamo. The musical Rent “centers on a group of artists, straight and gay, living in the East Village. Some are H.I.V. positive; some are drug addicts, some are in recovery.”

Some of the music was risqué but it was removed for the high school version of the play that was released. In all the play was toned down for the audience.

When Ron Martin wanted to do the play with his pupils at Corona del Mar High School the principle, Fal Asrani, protested. She said that she was unhappy with the “prostitutes” and the “homosexuals” in the story. There are no prostitutes in the story so that leaves, well it just leaves the homosexuals. Asrani tried to blame Martin for cancelling the show, which he says, is absurd. In fact, he’s still trying to get her to allow it to be produced (with all this publicity it would be standing-room only).

In Bridgeport, West Virginia, drama coach Charles Dillon proposed putting on Rent and told principle Susan Collins about it. The Times reports, “when he told Ms. Collins there were two gay couples in the musical, ‘she got flustered and worked up and expressed concerns.’”

The play was proposed for a high school in Rowlett, Texas and the same thing happened. “Even though the play has been edited (by committee, no less) to exclude such things as same-sex kissing, parents and an unnamed local minister still consider the project objectionable and don't want the play to be staged in their local school auditorium.”

One of the parents bitched that the play might teach tolerance. Michael Gallop said: “I don’t think its the school’s place to each my child diversity or tolerance of a lifestyle that I don’t accept.”

Now let me bring these two stories together by the common thread. Familiarity breeds respect. Neely was shocked that when he met the actual inmates at Guantanamo that he didn’t find them to be the monsters he expected. He became friendly with some and was convinced that many were clearly victims of the war and not terrorists at all.

What horrifies the people like Michael Gallop is that even a portrayal of gay people on stage undermines the bigotry they are trying to instill in their kids. It is easy to hate an imaginary monster that you create entirely in your head. When that monster becomes a human being things change. Bigotry rests on the ability of the bigot to convince himself that the object of his hatred is “the other”. Bigotry requires a belief that the hated are somehow so different that perhaps they don’t even qualify as human. The more the bigot can convince himself that “the other” is alien and strange, the easier it is to engage in cruelty and violence toward them.

Every social movement that promoted bigotry and hatred did so by first building an image of the group that was being targeted that made them “different” from everyone else. If you believe, as the Marxists and Nazis taught, that Jews were money-grubbing parasites exploiting the working masses, it become easier to shut down their businesses, force them to wear yellow stars, round them up and imprison them, and send them to their deaths.

Convince the world that some group of people is really “different” than everyone else and you convince them to engage in unspeakable acts.

When Mormons in the Utah legislature were voting against the right of gay people to visit their partners in the hospital a Right-wing group named America Forever was running a full-page ad in the Mormon owned Deseret News which said that gays are guilty of “anti-species behavior” and that they “should be forced not to display” their sexual orientation (this means do anything that might tell someone they are gay).

The ad argues that people have the right to use force to evict gay people “in common living areas”. Note they speak of common living areas not private property but “in our streets, shopping centers and in our lives.” Hysterically this incredibly bigoted ad says another reason to use force against gay is because “they are intolerant and do not emulate any Christian ethics.”

This sort of demonization is what bigotry thrives upon. Lie to people about any group or class of people, get them to believe your lies, and you can convince people to act in the most inhumane way. What messes that agenda up is when people start to see others as being pretty similar to themselves.

The reason the Religious-Right doesn’t want gay characters in movies or television is not that such things convince young people to turn gay. That “vampire theory” is so absurd that I doubt even the fundamentalist loonies believe it themselves. What worries them is that visibility shows gay people to be like other people. They love like other people. They hurt like people. They have the same aspirations and wishes for themselves that is common to all of us. In the end gay men and women are pretty much like straight men and women.

But that is precisely what threatens the bigoted agenda. Brandon Neely got to see the people in Guantanamo as human beings, not monsters. When people get to know gay people, either in person or depicted on the stage, they start to see them as human beings, not monsters. That undermines campaigns that are rooted in fear. Familiarity does not breed contempt, it breeds tolerance. And that is why the fear mongers need to present people as alien to us, as “the other”.