Everything Has a Name/Torture Memo

May 5, 2009

“Everything has a name!” she repeated, pacing across the stage, “how can I get that through to Helen, that everything has a name!?” — Kate Kenney, a young actor from New York City, playing 20 year old miracle worker Annie Sullivan on the Lost Nation Theater stage in Montpelier’s City Hall.

Everything in the play builds to that miracle, in the final scene, the magical moment when Helen, with one hand held in water pouring out of a pump and her other being repeatedly-finger-spelled-into by Annie — W-A-T-E-R, W-A-T-E-R, W-A-T-E-R, finally grasps the connection between the cool wet stuff and the repeated finger shapes. Name. Symbol. Representation. Word. The idea that things have labels, that a name, a gesture, a set of motions, can stand for a thing, that we can create in our minds, representations of the world around us. This is the key that unlocks language, that opens the human mind to its astonishing potential.

But eons of evolution have given us more than astonishing brains that are capable of creating and manipulating symbols with which to understand and master the world around us. It has also given us deep loyalties, conscious or unconscious, to group, to tribe, to nation, and to groupthink, to the manipulation of language that seeks the dominance of one group over another.

A more complex truth is that things have many names. Remember Reagan’s ‘freedom fighters,’ those hardy Afghan hill people who fought so bravely against the evil Soviet Communists? Now they are ‘terrorists’ who threaten and kill our noble military. “Whose side are you on?” “Are you with us or against us?” These are the important questions to group mentality. And if you are with us you are ‘good’ for it goes without saying that we are good, and if you are against us, it goes without saying that you are bad, you are enemy, literally ‘not-friend.’

To the good fathers of the Spanish Inquisition waterboarding Jews and Muslims and women who were overfamiliar with plants was not a bad thing. Those people were headed for eternal torment (same root as torture, meaning ‘twist’) anyway and if the inquisitors could extort (out-twist) confessions from them on a rack or by pouring water down their throats, then the priests were saving their souls and doing God’s good work.

And so the obedient sons of Japan, the empire of the Rising Sun, who sought to rid the Pacific of the creeping tide of bearded devils (us Americans) and enforce their version of the Monroe Doctrine over ‘their’ region. Torture and abuse of prisoners was for them a way to serve and protect the high-minded and glorious Japanese culture.

And so on, including, of course, our own torture and enslavement of Africans to keep the wheels of commerce humming, and the genocide of millions of the original inhabitants of North America in order to clear the land and give those slaves fields to plant and work.

So why should we get excited about torturing a few foreigners who are probably guilty of bad things anyway? We don’t need to call it torture. We can twist the language, torture the truth, and call it ‘enhanced interrogation,’ but really, what is the harm — if it helps us, our side? We are good. They are bad. Therefore we can do bad things to them and still be good. The lowest common denominator of our shared groupthink legacy. And here come namby-pambies like Pat Leahy wanting to investigate, to name names, to identify the ones who broke the law, our own laws, spirit and letter, and the Geneva Convention.

Or is Leahy and his ilk our own Annie Sullivan, reaching into the darkness of our fears, our shame, grabbing our hands, pushing our hands (not our heads) into the water, finger-spelling into the other, forcing us to face the word, to see and make the connections, and call us back, or forward, to a higher standard of humanity, to call things by their most accurate names and re-identify our highest values, human values which transcend group and tribe and nation, values of which we are also capable?

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