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Western Civilization: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

ColumnJanuary 30, 2008All Column ⟶
Column default

    By Amy Goodman

    Attorney General Michael Mukasey sipped his water nervously. It was the first time he was testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee since his controversial confirmation. At issue then and now: torture. Does he consider waterboarding torture? Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., made it personal: “Would waterboarding be torture if it was done to you?” “I would feel that it was,” Mukasey responded. Though he deflected questions, before and after Kennedy’s, his personal answer rang true.

    Our attorney general should not have to be waterboarded to know that it is torture. Likewise, Americans should not have to suffer under a brutal dictatorship in order to know that it is wrong to support dictators abroad.

    Take, for example, the long-reigning dictator of Indonesia, Suharto. He died this week at the age of 86, an age that most of his more than 1 million victims never reached. Suharto ruled Indonesia for more than 30 years, shored up by the most powerful country on Earth, the United States. Suharto rose to power in 1965 in a coup backed by the CIA, which provided him with lists of dissidents whom the Indonesian military then killed, one by one. He was forced from power in 1998, in a pro-democracy uprising.

    Throughout Suharto’s reign, U.S. administrations—Democratic and Republican—armed, trained and financed the Indonesian military. In addition to the million Indonesians killed, hundreds of thousands were also killed during Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, a small country 300 miles above Australia. It is a country I know well, having covered it for years. On Nov. 12, 1991, when I was covering a peaceful Timorese procession in Timor’s capital, Dili, Suharto’s occupying army opened fired on the crowd, killing 270 Timorese. I got off easy: The soldiers beat me with their boots and the butts of their U.S. M-16s. They fractured the skull of my colleague Allan Nairn, who was writing for The New Yorker magazine at the time. And that massacre was one of the smaller ones in Timor. Nevertheless, President George H.W. Bush, followed by Bill Clinton, continued to try to supply Indonesia with weapons. Only a grass-roots movement in the United States stopped the U.S. military sales.

    Aside from being unimaginably brutal, Suharto was also corrupt. Transparency International estimated Suharto’s fortune to be between $15 billion and $35 billion. The current U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Cameron Hume, praised Suharto’s memory this week, saying, “President Suharto led Indonesia for over 30 years, a period during which Indonesia achieved remarkable economic and social development. ... Though there may be some controversy over his legacy, President Suharto was a historic figure who left a lasting imprint on Indonesia and the region of Southeast Asia.” Imprint? Yes, if he means pulling out people’s fingernails, disappearing Indonesian dissidents, or wiping out a third of the population of East Timor, one of the great genocides of the 20th century. But clearly, that is not what Hume meant.

    Whether it’s waterboarding, waging an illegal war or holding hundreds of prisoners without charge for years at Guantanamo Bay or at CIA black sites around the world, I am reminded of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the world’s greatest nonviolent leaders. “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless,” he asked, “whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?”

    The Mukasey hearing happened to take place on the 60th anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination. Also on this day, Rudolph Giuliani and John Edwards dropped out of the presidential race. In his exit speech, Edwards said, “America’s hour of transformation is upon us.” As the race narrows, it is a key moment to reflect: One leading candidate, John McCain, was actually tortured (unlike Mukasey, although McCain supported his confirmation). McCain predicted we may be in Iraq for 100 years. He is up against Mitt Romney, who said he would double the size of Guantanamo. Neither of the remaining leading Democratic candidates calls for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Yes, it is a key moment to reflect on the teachings of Gandhi. When asked what he thought of Western civilization, Gandhi responded, “I think it would be a good idea.”

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