Episode 17: The Road to Hell
When last we met, the café was beginning a brief timeout so Horace, Tom and Winston (the three somewhat tipsy partisans) could pay their mutual debt to society for an act of civil disobedience. We will return to that subject in our next episode. But first, in light of the awful disclosures of torture in Iraq, I want to share something that happened just last night.
The Last Chance Democracy Café:
Episode 17: The Road to Hell
by Steven C. Day
For the first time in a long time, I said a prayer last night. I said a prayer for America.
* * *
This is a time of bright evenings at The Last Chance Democracy Café, with the summer sun streaming through the café’s ample windows until almost 10 o’clock. This gives the place an uncharacteristically cheery aura, which, it probably won’t surprise you, causes Winston no end of annoyance. “Haven’t you ever heard of window shades?” he muttered last night, before adding: “How the hell are we ever going to get the great left wing conspiracy off the ground in this sort of lighting?”
But if the ambiance at the café was cheerful last night, the tone of the conversation was anything but.
“Seymour Hersh is reporting that children were included in the Abu Ghraib abuse,” said Horace in a quiet voice — the sort of voice you use when you hope that even the angels won’t be able to hear.
Tom frowned painfully. “He just said that in a speech. It hasn’t been published, yet. It may not be true . . . Not everything alleged has been . . .”
“Too much of it has,” countered Horace.
“No doubt about it,” conceded Tom. “Way too much. And, I have to admit, Hersh is one of the best . . .”
Horace added, “And the silence of late from bozos like ‘I’m outraged by the outrage’ James Inhofe has been deafening.”
Winston, who was stroking his forehead in a slow rhythmic fashion, agreed, “It kind of makes you wonder what’s in all those secret photographs and videos members of Congress saw, doesn’t it? You’ve got to think that when the other shoe finally drops . . . and make no mistake it will drop, it’s going to be ugly.”
“The word is uglier, my friend,” said Horace.
* * *
I don’t pray all that often. Being a confirmed skeptic, I treat prayer much like a fire extinguisher: It’s something to store in the cabinet and bring out in case of an emergency. There I’ll be, in all my secular splendor, bouncing around in the sky in bad weather, or waiting to hear the results from some medical test, and the next thing I know I’m praying. Then afterwards, I always feel a little like the John Belushi character in the movie “Continental Divide,” who, fearing for his life, begins a prayer by saying something like, “God, I know this may seem a little hypocritical, given the way I’ve always been, but . . .”
However, I felt no such sense of hypocrisy as I prayed last night. I guess I think that everyone, regardless of religious belief — devout, skeptic or even out-and-out atheist — has the right to pray for their country.
* * *
Tom shook his head angrily. “Can you believe how many of the intellectual Munchkins on the far right still try to maintain that what went on at Abu Ghraib didn’t constitute torture?”
“Curse you,” grumped Winston. “Now I’ll never be able to watch The Wizard of Oz with my grandkids again without visions of Oliver North and Ann Coulter dancing in my head.”
“Well, let’s add things up,” said Horace, choosing to ignore Winston. “Detainees were stripped naked, sexually humiliated, threatened by snarling guard dogs, submerged in icy water to the point of drowning, had their chests forcibly compressed to simulate suffocation, beaten, kicked and forced to stand or squat in stressful positions for hours on end. And a number of them were apparently killed in the process. Nah, move along people, no torture here.”
Zach shook his head, “Those pictures were just horrifying . . . I can’t believe that Americans would do something like that.”
“Really?” said Horace in a skeptical voice. “So the fact that it was Americans shocks you, does it?”
“Well, yeah, of course. I mean . . . doesn’t it shock you?”
“To be honest with you, Zach, no, not all that much, I’m afraid.”
Horace paused for a moment, trying to decide, I suspect, whether he really wanted to spend the evening — an otherwise splendid one, featuring good friends, great food and fine liquor — playing the role of the bad guy, or at least of the one passing on the bad news.
But with Horace, speaking the truth generally wins out in the end.
“Do you think we Americans are angels, Zach?” he asked at last.
The question seemed to take Zach by surprise. “Well . . . no, I guess not.”
“Good, because we’re not and we never have been.”
Zach’s face momentarily took on the expression you might expect from someone who’s accidentally stumbled into a meeting of a secret communist cell, or perhaps a witches coven. But he quickly rebound to say, “But I still think that America is a great country. I mean . . .”
Horace broke in. I think he wanted to be sure Zach knew exactly where he stood. “No question,” he said with emphasis. “In fact, it isn’t just a great country. It’s the greatest country the world has ever known. But the truth is . . . and I don’t like saying this any more than you like hearing it, but the truth is that there have been times in our history when America, the great country that it is, hasn’t behaved all that much better than what’s shown in those awful photographs. And that’s something we have to confront at a time like this.”
“Perhaps a little historical perspective will be helpful,” said Tom eagerly.
Molly, who’d been listening to the conversation, groaned and walked away. I guess she’d heard one too many of Tom’s lectures.
* * *
So, does God hear our prayers?
How the hell would I know? I’m a skeptic, remember? I mean, really, no offense, but this whole thing will go a lot smoother if you try to pay attention. Skeptics like me don’t claim to have the answers. Maybe prayers are heard by a greater intelligence. Maybe they’re just whispers into a void. We don’t know. And all of you, who, based upon your faith, believe that you do know, well, I respect that, and assuming you’re talking about a compassionate and loving God, I hope you’re right. But I’m still skeptical.
All of which is, of course, nothing more than a long-winded way of saying that I don’t claim to know one way or the other whether God exists — although I hope he does. (You should draw no gender inference, by the way, from my use of the male pronoun for God, as I have not intended to speculate on the nature of the All Mighty’s genitalia).
* * *
Tom began, “Zach, what would you say has been America’s single greatest accomplishment?”
Zach grimaced, realizing, I’m sure, that he was about to become Tom’s designated “straight man” again. But as always, he played along gamely. “I don’t know . . . winning World War II, maybe?”
“Good answer . . . But for my money, America’s single greatest achievement, bar none, has been the extent to which we’ve succeeded in actually conducting ourselves as a democratic nation governed by principles like freedom, liberty, equality and respect for human rights.”
“Amen,” said Horace.
“Hear, hear,” said Winston.
Did you notice how in responding to the subject of American liberty, Horace’s first thought involved a religious devotion, whereas Winston’s involved a barroom toast? I think that pretty well sums up the most sacred thing in each of their lives.
“Lots of other nations over the centuries have talked the talk of freedom,” continued Tom. “But the United States was the first one, at least on a large scale, to really walk the walk. And for the most part . . . with plenty of stumbles along the way, mind you, but for the most part, we’ve kept on walking that walk for well over two hundred years. And that’s something to be proud of.”
“Definitely,” Zach rushed to say.
“The irony,” Horace almost whispered, “is that on those, happily rare, occasions when America has ended up bringing shame upon itself, it has almost always been because we failed to live up to these very same principles.”
* * *
Isaac Asimov once said, “I don’t believe in an afterlife, so I don’t have to spend my whole life fearing hell, or fearing heaven even more. For whatever the tortures of hell, I think the boredom of heaven would be even worse.”
Like Asimov, I tend to doubt there’s an afterlife. But since I once doubted that the American people would elect a second-rate-washed-up-half-senile cowboy actor as President of the United States (let alone later spend an entire week deifying him after his death), plainly, I’m not infallible. So hopefully I’m wrong on this one, too. I’d love for there to be a heaven, if for no other reason than it would be great fun to be able to walk up to guys like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and say, “See, asshole, people like me made it up here, too, and, oh, by the way, they let me keep my ACLU card.”
* * *
“Another thing about America,” continued Horace, “is that the angels and the devils of our nature often march together.”
“Huh?” said Winston loudly. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Horace laughed. “Just hang with me, Winston, I’m trying to make a point.”
“Well, try to be done making it by November, all right, because I’ll need to get out to vote.”
Horace laughed again, before saying, “Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: I firmly believe that assuming people are still here, that a thousand years from now . . . even two thousand or five thousand years from now, that The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States will still be celebrated by humankind as two of the most important landmarks in the history of human liberty. . . . But history will also remember something else.”
Zach thought for a minute, then said, ” . . . Slavery?”
“Slavery,” confirmed Horace.
“It’s extraordinary, really,” said Tom, “such great words — We hold these truths to be self-evident — Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness — We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor — written by a man . . .”
“By a great man,” said Horace.
“A very great man,” agreed Tom. “But a very great man who was himself a slave holder.”
* * *
The following religious thought seems particularly relevant right now:
“When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.” — Abraham Lincoln
It’s remarkable, really, how hard human beings find it to grasp the divinity of this simple truth.
* * *
Winston finished off the last sip of his bourbon and set down the glass. “It’s the same story with the nation’s Western frontier,” he said. “No other event in U.S. history did more to further social progress, economic equality and the freedom of opportunity . . . among white men, that is, than the expansion of the nation Westward . . .”
Zach, who clearly knew where Winston was going, interrupted, “But in doing so, we robbed the Indians blind, right . . . ?”
“Exactly. Though the word robbed doesn’t quite say it, does it? Ethnic cleansing and genocide are words better fitting the bill. It’s hard to say, in fact, which constitutes the greater stain on our national conscience, African slavery or the near eradication of our indigenous population.”
“Original sin squared,” said Tom.
“And to make my point clearly,” added Horace, “both of these travesties were things fundamentally inconsistent with our declared values.”
It suddenly occurred to be that I hadn’t taken the time once this evening to take notice of who else was in the lounge, let alone give them my normal welcome. I was being a terrible host — a terrible businessman for that matter.
But, I didn’t move.
“And we should probably talk about the Greatest Generation,” added Tom in a respectful voice. “And make no mistake: They were a great generation . . .”
Horace jumped in,”They saved the world from Hitler. We owe them a lot.”
“Damn straight,” continued Tom. “But they were also the generation responsible for the wrongful internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans, taken from their homes and confined for no reason other than their place of ancestry.”
Horace agreed, “You’re right. That was another shameful moment in American history, no question . . . And once again, one that would never have happened, if only we’d had the courage to follow our own fundamental values.”
“And we could go on and on,” said Tom. “This is a nation, for example, that has expanded the protection of civil liberties to an unprecedented degree, but also one that has repeatedly ignored those protections in times of fear. We’re the world’s greatest liberal democracy and yet we have a larger percentage of our population in prison than the worst dictatorships.”
“I just had a thought,” said Horace. ” Wouldn’t it make you feel a lot better if you thought Bush had actually read about some of this history we’ve been discussing.”
Winston huffed, “Hell, I’d be happy if he just read a newspaper once in a while.”
* * *
I never worry about hell.
Even as a skeptic, one thing I’m confident of is that if there is a God, then he (see above) is a loving and forgiving God, not the vengeful Old Testament type envisioned by the Christian Right: I refuse to accept the idea that we live in the sort of universe where someone like Tom Delay will be welcomed into heaven with open arms, while someone like Mahatma Gandhi will be turned away simply because he happened to pray to the wrong version of God.
And if I’m wrong? Well, then I’ll look forward to meeting Mahatma.
It was Mark Twain, after all, who said, “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.”
Besides, could there ever be better proof than Abu Ghraib that hell is something men and women create for themselves here on Earth?
* * *
Horace settled comfortably back into his chair — generally a dependable sign that he’s about to pull the strings of a conversation together.
He turned to Zach and asked, “So, to get back to the original point, why do you suppose the abuse at Abu Ghraib . . . as shown in those awful pictures, didn’t come as that big a surprise to me?”
“Because we’re not angels . . . ?”
“Actually, it was a trick question.”
“Okay . . .”
“Because, no, if I’d seen those pictures with no prior warning there was a problem, I would have been shocked. Angels or no angels, I expect better than that of Americans.”
Zach looked confused.
“The reason I wasn’t shocked, Zach, is because of everything that I already knew at the time the Abu Ghraib photos were first published: I knew, for example, that way back in 2002, the Bush Administration had adopted the position that detainees from Afghanistan weren’t protected by the Geneva Convention . . .”
“The public announcement was made by Donald Rumsfeld on February 8, 2002,” said Tom, reaching, once more, into the bottomless trivia landfill that is his brain.
“Thanks . . . I mean what were people thinking? Did they think that the reason the administration made such a big deal about members of al Qaeda and the Taliban being, quote, unlawful combatants, close quote, instead of prisoners of war, was because they planned to treat them better than what’s required by the Geneva Convention?”
Zach answered, “It was so soon after Sept. 11. I guess we didn’t really care what happened to those murderers.”
“You’re right,” Horace nodded. “And why would we care? The bastards had just killed almost 3000 of our countrymen. But isn’t that what laws are supposed to be for?”
“True enough, that’s how it’s suppose to work,” agreed Winston. “I guess that . . .”
Horace’s voice was growing louder, as he said, “But it didn’t work, did it? And it didn’t work because, contrary to this countries most cherished beliefs . . . beliefs that people have repeatedly fought and died to defend, Bush decided that the law just didn’t apply to him anymore. That he was a free agent. That he could do whatever he damn well pleased. And you know what? We, the American people, just stood there and let him do it.”
Winston said, “Thank God, the Supreme Court finally told him that it isn’t so.”
* * *
I try very hard to be respectful of all religious viewpoints. But, I have to admit I find it hard to take very seriously the spiritual teachings of those who profess that every word in the Bible is the literal truth, written by God. Because if they’re right, then presumably we have to accept that both of the following scriptural references constitute precise quotes from the same God.
As to the first, Moses, speaking on God’s behalf, spoke out in great anger when his commanders spared the lives of too many of the Midianites. He ordered:
“Now therefore kill every male among the little ones (all boys of any age), and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”
Here’s a second example of the literal word of God. This time as translated by Jesus Christ:
- - “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
- - “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
- - “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Same God, correctly quoted both times? Sorry, don’t buy it.
* * *
“Think back,” Horace continued, shaking his head and looking increasingly agitated. “Do you remember how, even during the earliest days of the war on terrorism, there were already whispers about interrogators using what would later be called “stress techniques” on suspects, supposedly something less than true torture . . . torture lite, some have called it. We had rumblings such things were happening almost from the beginning. And we also found out long ago that in December of 2002 two Afghan detainees in U.S. custody died from, quote, blunt-force injuries, close quote, that occurred during interrogation. U.S. military doctors ruled the deaths homicides . . . but nothing ever happened in response. In fact, I think that even today both incidents are still officially listed as under investigation.”
“The wheels of justice move slowly,” sneered Winston. “Unless, of course, you show up at a Bush rally with a protest sign. Then those wheels can move remarkably fast.”
“So there’s no doubt, none at all, that the Bush Administration knew almost from the start that there was potential for abuse of prisoners,” said Horace with a mixture of anger and sadness. “And they didn’t do a damn thing about it. But then . . . neither did any of the rest of us.
Zach took a long sip of beer, then said, “I think I understand now what you’ve been trying to say.”
Winston tried to interject a little humor. “I’m impressed,” he said. “We lost me an hour ago.”
Zach smiled in a sort of sad way, then plowed on, “I think that what you’re trying to tell me is that the reason you weren’t shocked by what happened at Abu Ghraib is because . . . well, because once America started down the path of violating our principles by abusing prisoners in Afghanistan, it was inevitable that the abuse would become worse and would eventually spread to our people elsewhere in the world, including Iraq.”
“You’ve got it,” said Horace. “And that inevitability is especially true with torture. There’s no such thing as limited or controlled torture . . . no torture lite. It’s like the old adage about being half pregnant. You’re either a torturer or you’re not.”
“Torture is the road to hell,” Winston sighed.
“We look at those pictures,” Tom jumped in, “and we ask ourselves how could one human being have treated another human being that way. And the answer, of course, is that to the people doing the torturing, the victims had ceased to be human beings. They’d become . . .”
“That’s how torture works,” Winston broke in. “It dehumanizes everyone involved in the process, torturer and victim alike. For example, it’s long been proven that torture is a crappy way of collecting intelligence, because the incentive to lie . . . to say anything to make it stop, is so great. But once the process starts that doesn’t matter anymore, because pretty soon it isn’t about extracting information anyway. Torture quickly becomes both a means and an end of its own.”
Horace paused for a sip of beer. I think he was forcing himself to take a break — to make certain he remained in control.
“And you know what really amazes me?” he said finally, his voice now hovering as close to overt anger as one ever sees with him. “It’s that we never seem to learn. I mean, it’s been the same story, again and again, for over 200 years. Every time we walk away from our basic national principles, from the things that make us America . . . things like the defense of freedom, liberty, equality under law and human rights . . .”
Winston interjected, “You know, all that mushy, touchy-feely stuff that only girly-men are supposed to care about anymore.”
” . . . every time, every God damned time, we ignore them, it ends up leading us straight into the mouth of hell. And the really scary part is that right now, at this very moment in time, almost every policy our Fearless Leader is following . . . almost every one of them, from preemptive wars to attacks on civil liberties, are taking us down that same road.
“It’s a disgrace,” said Tom.
“No,” said Horace, his voice softer now. “It’s a betrayal.”
* * *
It was at about this time that I first realized the sun had finally set. I can’t tell you how long it had been down, long enough, however, that the café was already settling into its customary evening dim, where, as I’ve mentioned before, you can hardly recognize the face of someone sitting just two tables away.
And as I sat there in the darkness, I started thinking about how angry I’ve been at George W. Bush and for so long: Angry over the election, angry over the lies, angry over the sweetheart deals and giveaways to his corporate sponsors, angry over the shameful slanders against great Americans like Max Cleland, angry over the assaults against our civil rights and civil liberties, angry over excessive governmental secrecy and angry over the abuse of our environment.
It’s funny, though, because as I thought about it, I realized that at least for this one evening, it wasn’t anger anymore that I was feeling.
I just felt sad. So awfully sad.
And somehow, at that moment, my religious skepticism didn’t seem to matter. I needed to pray. So I did. I said a prayer for America.
I think everyone should.
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001
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March 17th, 2006 at 12:43 pm
I, too, when overwhelmed by the feelings of betrayal and helplessness, fall on my knees and simply pray. God, please help my country.
Perhaps we can come up with a simple prayer that all faiths or humanists can use to send out energy to each other and the universe. Like maybe at 7pm on April 2nd, we could all pray ” Great Spirit, the fool has had his day, lead us now into the light of reason and the unifying force of love.”
I am not a skeptic, I love to read about different belief systems, so my own is somewhat eclectic. I believe that God is consistent and it would be nice if the Bible was too.
The message is what is important. All religions begin with a loving God, a Father, a Creator. They go wrong when they claim to know God’s thoughts. So, we end up back at Lincoln: ” Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side, my great concern is to be on God’s side.”
We know the difference between right and wrong, that IS religion. I believe that conscience installed in us is our connection to our Maker. We are repulsed by torture for good reason, it exists only in the absence of God.
This world, this universe of ours should teach us of the duality of life and the rebirth and renewal of spirit. Day and night, summer and winter, joy and sorrow are all reminders of our very nature. Ours is to resist hate but understand that it exists so that we can experience love. We are works in progress and the more we follow our better natures, the less work God must do. We can opt for love instead of hate, for peace instead of war. We can defeat our evil side but we need to understand that it exists so that we can know what is good. All the more reason to refuse to stay on this path to hell begun with deceit and greed. You are so right, it’s time to reclaim our national principles and return to the path of honor and morality.
I have to laugh as I type this, because …well, I’m Irish and I will leave in a bit to head for the local watering hole and toast who-knows-what til the keg runs dry.
And lucky for me, my sister is a Buddhist and doesn’t drink so I have a ride home with a nonjudgmental, happy driver.
Ah, life is good on March 17th for an Irishwoman with a love of the good red ale.
Top’o the day to you all,
May your glass ever be full, may your roof always be strong, and may you be in Heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re gone.
March 17th, 2006 at 7:26 pm
This is one of the lovliest blogs on the Internet. I thank you for it. It always makes me cry, and I need to do that, more and more often, it seems.
March 17th, 2006 at 9:09 pm
Another well writtem & thought-out comment. If I may interject my own emotions here, to spotty too, (good to have you aboard,) I too cry more often than I should have to because of what what my country has become, but to put things in a little perspective (kinda,) check out Riverbend’s currrent take on the 3d anniversary of of our invasion.
March 18th, 2006 at 4:19 am
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btw: i don’t like marketing, but do you know that her (early) articles were published? “Bagdhad Burning Riverbend” - just some cents for a girl losing her job and future because of a war just for fun
March 18th, 2006 at 6:40 am
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March 19th, 2006 at 2:39 pm
Yes, Chuck and Again,
I’ve been going to her blog for a while now. “Where hearts can heal, and souls can mend.”
Her writing is so powerful. A few weeks ago she wrote about The Raid….Two Iraqi soldiers enter their home and shine lights at them, point weapons at them…you can feel the tension…. and as she descibes the room where they sit in fear, she “vaguely notices” that her cousin’s sweater is on backwards. It really touched me. You could imagine yourself sitting there not knowing what might provoke them, afraid they would abduct a family member. Your mind would be spinning, your ears straining, your eyes searching for anything out of place, and you notice the sweater. I cried when I read it.