Last Christmas, I found myself marooned in the former Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. I sought passage across what is known as the Friendship Bridge into neighboring Uzbekistan, but the bridge’s altogether unfriendly commander would not have it. I would have been more upset were it not for the United States Marines stranded at the bridge with me. They were not trying to get out of Afghanistan but hoping to get various materiel in, only to find themselves athwart the same logistical gorgons. These Marines, wearing goatees, side arms, and pakuls (the Afghan national hat), did not much bother to conceal their dislike of journalists, though as the day passed some thumb-twiddling, reflexive sense of brotherhood united us. “Where are you coming from?” a tobacco-chewing young Marine asked me. “Mazar-i-Sharif,” I answered. Lieutenant Copenhagen nodded and said something I would ponder for the next seven months: “Some awful shit went down there. You have no idea.”
I recently got some idea after reading of the Irish filmmaker Jamie Doran’s documentary Massacre in Mazar, which in June was shown to the European Parliament. One international human rights lawyer, present at Doran’s screening, claimed that the film provides “prima facie evidence of serious war crimes” that followed the November collapse of the Taliban’s stronghold in northern Afghanistan. That something monstrous happened around Mazar there appears little doubt. Mass graves have been uncovered, filled with bones no older than a few months. Doran alleges they are remnants of roughly 3,000 Taliban prisoners of war. The film contains numerous interviews with Afghan irregulars who claim that what happened was no simple score-settling orchestrated by the Northern Alliance. “I was a witness,” one Afghan says, “when an American soldier broke one prisoner’s neck and poured acid on others. The Americans did whatever they wanted. We had no power to stop them.” Other POWs, the film charges, were shot in the head while Special Forces watched idly.
Doran’s film has received virtually no notice in the American press, though European journalists have covered it ferociously. Many allege a conspiracy or blackout on the part of the American media. I am not so sure, as I had an unexpected reaction after reading of Doran’s core accusations, most of which I do not doubt (though the acid seems dredged up from specifically Afghan trauma — the Taliban used to throw it in women’s face). My reaction to Doran’s charges was this: I did not care. Even though I am decidedly anti-torture, I did not care. Even though I think executing POWs is inexcusable under any circumstances, I did not care. Perhaps I did not care because I live in New York. Perhaps I did not care because, during my visit to Mazar, I spoke to several people who told me of the Taliban’s predilection for lighting genitalia on fire. Taliban, you say? Shot and left to rot in the desert? The gears of outrage do not turn. Nor, I am fairly certain, do they turn for most Americans. Torture is humankind’s blackest mass, a detestable evil. It is an emotional issue. I still do not care.
I learned of Massacre in Mazar on the World Socialist Web site. I happened upon this site because, on a particularly woebegone day, I Googled the title of an article I had written about Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea, possibly the world’s largest man-made ecological catastrophe, which was drained over four decades by the Soviet Union to meet impossible agricultural demands. As my article had appeared to silence, I clicked the link eagerly. I found myself referred to by WSWS correspondent Joseph Kay as a member of the “bourgeois press” and slighted as “incredibly dishonest.”
The dialectic here was something Trotsky wrote about humanity’s relationship to nature, which I quoted as one explanation for the plunder of the Soviet environment: “The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests and seashores, cannot be considered final.” Kay explains that Trotsky was merely envisioning “a world in which man’s relationship to nature is no longer irrational, driven by necessities of profit, but which is rather planned according to man’s needs and taste.” A world, in other words, in which mountains are moved not due to malevolent capitalism but because where they now stand is aesthetically unhappy.
Kay goes on to quote the rest of Trotsky’s passage, elided out of sheer mercy by me and my bourgeois editor: “Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain.” Provided that Kay is not insane, he is aware that every nation to have even toyed with communism has seen its rivers and lakes and forests pay a dreadful price. In addition, Trotsky — “a murdering bastard and a fucking liar,” in the recent words of Martin Amis — is known by Sovietologists to have equaled his fellow Bolsheviks in bloodthirst. Kay surely knows this, too. No doubt it is an emotional issue for him. But who cares? Kay certainly doesn’t.
As we prepare to wage war on yet another rogue nation, it seems clear that one has been better rewarded by public apathy and widespread not caring than George W. Bush. An unwillingness to care does not equal ideological blindness, exactly, for ideology requires some basic, if skewed, recognition of the opposition. A recent poll found that sixty percent of Americans feel that Bush is too comfy with the oligarchy and less than half approve of his handling of the economy. Six out of ten Americans believe that the Iraq Gambit is pushing the country “down the wrong track.” And yet Bush’s personal approval rating loiters in the seventy percent range. We do not care about the other stuff. We like him. Even I sort of like him, and I hate him.
Bill Clinton consistently faced the opposite problem. Americans liked the way he did his job but disliked him personally. Clinton, shock-troop Republicans often complained, dodged the draft, lied compulsively, and was morally wayward. But the same charges can be made against our current president. Not only did Bush dodge the draft, he dodged the National Guard duty he was given to dodge the draft. Newspapers and magazines across the country have published a small pandect of Bush lies (such as those pesky non-existent briefs he keeps citing which confirm Iraq’s nuclear readiness), and the man’s breathtaking evasions when confronted with rumors of past drug use make Clinton’s professed inability to inhale seem glastnostian in its candor. Why Clinton was thought of as The Omen while Bush is popularly regarded as a repository of American elbow grease and horse sense is, clearly, an emotional issue.
Trauma, of course, is the herald of emotion. By pushing out of the mind everything but itself, emotion overrules evidence, good sense, and, finally, morality. But trauma fades, as naturally as light. Lopsided emotions fade only when we allow them to. Perhaps when we start caring about executed POWs, historical veracity, and where a president not noted for his concern with the truth really intends to take us on his latest jog toward Destiny, more than thirty percent of us will look upon the man with something other than star-spangled sentiment. Not that I care.