Friday, July 26, 2013

Reflecting on America's Split Personality (Moscow Airport Summer Reads)

Sometime in the '70s, my friend Sandy was working as a lawyer in a commercial trial. Long, tedious documents needed to be read into evidence. Sandy, a wonderful raconteur and great wit, made the most of the task by reading them into the record with as much emphasis as possible.

"Your honor!" the defense objected, "What does he think this is? A dramatic reading of Crime and Punishment?"

To which Sandy responded, "Is that a veiled reference to your guilt?"

Edward J. Snowden's lawyer made a similar veiled reference to guilt in Moscow on Wednesday, and he wasn't pointing at his client.

In a much reported development, Snowden's Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, provided him a change of clothes, and some reading matter, including Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. "I thought it would be pleasant for him to read about just who is Raskolnikov," he said. "I don’t want to say that their internal conflicts are similar, but all the same, I think it’s a world classic and it will be interesting for him."

Well, if he isn't making an analogy to Snowden's internal conflicts, whose conflicts is he alluding to?

People familiar with the novel will remember that, in Crime and Punishment, the protagonist, Raskolnikov, kills an old woman, a pawnbroker. The entire action of the novel takes place over a few days, and the portrayal of Raskolnikov's mental anguish as he finally confesses to and seeks redemption for his crime is dizzying.

But what the novel is really about is ideology vs. moral instinct. As the notes at the back of my edition of the novel helpfully point out, "Raskol" means 'schism' in Russian." Raskolnikov is torn between the consequences of his ideology and the clear moral instinct he expresses in his dealings with so many of the characters in the novel.

To be sure, Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker -- and her sister, Lizaveta, in what we today might call an incident of "collateral damage" -- because he needs money. Of course, "needs money" is always a relative statement. And Raskolnikov's "needs" are all balled up and confused with a notion of the rights of a "great" man and the importance of the expression of pure will.

In other words, one half of the fractured Raskolnikov personality -- and the murder that it commits -- is about playing God, deciding who gets injured, and acting without regard for the complexity of humankind's moral condition.

The other half of Raskolnikov's personality is characterized by love. He feels a deep love for his sister, and his mother, and his outrage at the difficulties they are in complicate his thinking. Perhaps more impressive, he feels a spontaneous empathy for the family of a poor old bureaucrat who is killed in an accident.

The novel, in other words, is not a crime thriller in the conventional sense. The real question is not whether the crime will be "solved." The novel is about the question, "How can someone -- or some people -- be both monster and messiah at time same time?

* * *

Edward J. Snowden's lawyer didn't give Snowden a copy of Crime and Punishment to help him better understand himself. He gave it to him so he could try to understand where he came from.

He will, if he's anything like me, instantly recognize the instinctively kind and giving Raskolnikov in the world out of which he came.

But he will also recognize a United States that has convinced itself, using the shakiest of reasoning, that it matters more than others, and that it is justified in injuring others to serve its own ends.

For me, this dark side of America was epitomized by the story that came out about a year ago about the Obama administration's drone killing decisions. I was shattered to realize not only that Obama and his associates feel justified in making decision after unilateral decision to kill people, but that they are confident that the American people are reassured by this behavior:
“He is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go."

"He's a president who is quite comfortable with the use of force on behalf of the United States."

[T]he control he exercises also appears to reflect Mr. Obama's striking self-confidence: he believes, according to several people who have worked closely with him, that his own judgment should be brought to bear on strikes.

"After that, as president, it seemed like he felt in his gut the threat to the United States."

Who are we? The United States, personified by its "great man" President Obama, is a kind nation that is riven by a belief that it should have the ultimate power over life and death, that every being on earth is somehow of lesser importance.

Like Bradley Manning, Snowden is another American truth-teller who has been left twisting in the wind. He fears he may end up dead, and he is probably right. His lawyer is aware that he needs strength, and he seems to have brilliantly grasped that the most important thing for him to do right now is to reflect deeply on what he's up against. (He would probably encourage Snowden's supporters to do the same.)

So Edward J. Snowden is spending his summer in Moscow with a "good read," trying to get a handle on why the United States is the way it is. We might all do well to ponder the same question.

Related posts

As Sankari explained, when people everywhere unite to fight back against the illegitimate prosecution and persecution of Muslims, they are making an important contribution to the leading edge of resistance against the racist and political repression that affects the African-American community as well as all people of color, with harsh treatment dealt out to undocumented people, LGBT people, women, Muslims, and people involved in the labor, peace, and solidarity movements; and when Muslims join in the broad movement against racist and political repression that affects all these groups, they are contributing to the resistance against prosecution and persecution of Muslims.

(See GUANTANAMO: "Is that who we are?" )

The Gospels are full of provocations to confront this paradox: people are forever saving up and guarding against a future that is never going to come, while throwing away the present that they do have. ("You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?" Luke 12:20)

(See Edward J. Snowden: The 365-Day Man )

Today, ALL Americans have been made part of the "kill chain" by high-tech, hyper-modern killing with drones. It's time for us to see that this new type of killing has put ALL of us behind the trigger. The bad news is drones have made all of us more implicated and culpable than ever. But the good news is that the drones also offer up clear pathway to putting a stop to the immoral, dishonorable, unlawful killing.

(See THIS Memorial Day, Honor the Fallen: STOP Drone Killing! )