Posted on January 10, 2005 in Washington Watch

Two radically different Americas were on display this week. Both are real, and both must be recognized as real to understand my country.

On the one hand, there was the appearance of Alberto Gonzales, President Bush’s nominee for Attorney General, before the US Senate Judiciary Committee, answering questions about his role in the sordid chain of events that led to the horrors of Guantanamo and the torture at Abu Ghraib.

At the same time, there was, across America, an outpouring of extraordinary generosity, raising hundreds of millions of dollars for the victims of the tsunami that devastated South Asia.

Generosity of spirit, empathetic to the extreme: that’s who we are. Arrogant in the use of power, insensitive to the plight of our victims–that, too often, is also how we operate.

First, Gonzales. In an especially powerful opinion piece published this week, a Washington Post writer asked the Senate to recall, before they vote to confirm Gonzales, the revulsion they felt when they first saw the obscene photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. And in an equally compelling New York Times article, a writer warned that if knowing what we now know, Gonzales is confirmed as Attorney General, not only will justice have been aborted, but America itself will be compromised. “Torture,” he wrote, “will belong to us all.”

As we have learned from documents that have been released in the past year (despite some still being withheld by the White House), the torture wasn’t accidental, nor can it be dismissed as rogue behavior. The use of torture was more widespread and involved a wide range of despicable and outlawed practices. And its use was known at the highest levels of the Administration.

What is, therefore, so disturbing in all of this, is that despite the horror experienced by Americans when they first learned of the torture at Abu Ghraib, despite the enormous damage this entire affair has done to the international image of America, and despite pledges that those responsible would be brought to justice, the individual responsible for the official White House memorandum that, in effect, absolved the US military from adhering to international conventions prohibiting torture, is now on the way to becoming the nation’s top law enforcement official.

Why this arrogance and lack of accountability? Because, tragically, that is, sometimes the way we operate.

While this sordid tale unfolds in Washington, millions of Americans, gripped by tragedy in South Asia have mobilized a largely spontaneous national effort to provide assistance to those in need.

The world knows of President Bush’s commitment of $350 million in relief aid, with more, if needed. They’ve seen scenes of a veritable US armada of military aircraft and personnel assigned to deliver this aid and provide critical logistical assistance to other nations’ efforts. And they’ve heard Bush’s wise decision to bring two former Presidents to help in mobilizing the private sector in response to this humanitarian crisis.

The President was right when he said, “We’re showing the compassion of our nation in the swift response. But the greatest source of America’s generosity is not our government. It’s the good heart of the American people.”

It’s this last point that most of the world may not know about. Scanning press reports from across the country reveals a startling outpouring of giving–what one report called “a tidal wave of generosity.”

At one end, there were million dollar checks given by some Hollywood celebrities and tens of millions donated by a number of major US corporations, and the millions being raised each day over the internet from small donors nationwide.

More telling, however, was the mobilization of fundraising by institutions large and small. Catholic Relief Services, one of the US’s major charities, noted that while they usually raise $40,000 a month through their website, now they are raising $100,000 per hour. Churches and mosques report major efforts and even individual grade schools have been moved to respond. One grade school class donated their lunch money to relief efforts; another held a car wash. Overall, it has been estimated that by the week’s end, private American donations will exceed one-half billion dollars.

People have been riveted by the continuing television coverage of the tragedy, a recent survey showed that almost one-half of American households had made a contribution to tsunami relief, and across the nation, Americans were flying their flags, spontaneously, at half-mast in collective mourning.

Why this empathy and generosity? Because that’s who we are.
Of course, in all of this, we are not unique. Most nations manifest similar bi-polar behavior. We are no different.

There is a lesson here that must be noted. These two sides of our national character must be recognized and never forgotten–they have always been with us.

From the beginning, our great and inspiring democracy was born in sin with slavery and the ethnic cleansing of indigenous persons. We have as one of our national symbols the welcoming Statue of Liberty, and we also have, as part of our history, the “Palmer raids” and the Japanese internment during World War II. And we are the nation that gave birth to both “Bull” Conner and the Ku Klux Klan, to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Because both Americas are always with us, we must acknowledge this and deal with them. If we pretend, for even a moment, that only the “bright” side is who we really are, the other America is given free reign. But if, as some critics are prone to do, we only focus on the intolerant or arrogant side of America, we do a great injustice to the goodness of millions of Americans and to their power to assert themselves and make change.

For comments or information, contact James Zogby

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