Friday, May 18, 2007

What to write about—a day filled with scandals, or a "very special ER"

Thursday was a day so full of real news, it made my head spin. More fallout from James Comey’s testimony (and more fallout still), Paul Wolfowitz’s resignation, Cheney’s lawyers claiming total immunity in the Plame civil suit, Bush not answering one question, and smirking at another—I wanted to write a piece that pulled it all together, culminating in one or two undeniable conclusions. But, I’ll leave that to your imagination for now, that post is growing very long, and there is something else that I just can’t get off of my mind.

It’s kind of a small thing, really, but in another way, kind of not. It involves, of all things, last night’s episode of the long-running NBC hospital drama ER. The show, the season finale, itself wasn’t great (I’m not sure there has been a “great” episode of ER in a very, very long time), but some of the things in it really struck me. Struck me not so much because they were rendered that artfully, but rather, it struck me because they were rendered at all.

Over the years (and I am not a regular, each and every week viewer, but I see my share), ER has been good about bringing the outside world into the TV one—adding a line or a short subplot about the state of healthcare in America, or about other social issues—but last night, well. . . .

Most notable was a storyline about a guy in the emergency room for treatment of a lacerated arm. He’s a little touchy, and through some awkward dialog, it is revealed that he is an Iraq vet, but not one that saw any combat duty. Instead, he was a translator. After he exhibits drug-seeking behavior, however, and then attempts to swallow a room full of pills (it’s too much for me to explain how that happened), one of the regular characters suggests the vet has PTSD.

But, how can that be, another wonders—he didn’t see any combat. No, he didn’t, but it turns out he was an interpreter for interrogations.

As the drugged-up vet babbles in Arabic what we learn is something like “please don’t hurt me! I don’t know anything!” it is revealed that he has witnessed US interrogators beating, burning, cutting, and maiming Iraqi detainees. Many serious and strained looks are exchanged among all the doctors and nurses in the room.

And that’s it. There is no counter argument. There is no doubting his story. There is, indeed, no need for what the establishment media calls “balance” (but what is really just the airing of a contrary viewpoint, whether or not it is a serious one). This soldier saw Americans torture Iraqis. Americans torture Iraqis—it is simply understood.

There are other subplots that also intensify the sense that America is touched by this war and occupation more than it or its government let on (veterans working in the ER, reminders of a character that was killed “in country,” a peace march, and a portrayal of a double amputee that, although not a war injury, visually cannot help but refer to the large numbers of limbless veterans now back among us), but the story concerning PTSD caused by witnessing American-engineered torture made me reflect on how far we have come in the last four years.

And yes, while we have come a long way in recognizing the horrors of this occupation and the collateral damage of this conflict—and even in the understanding of post-traumatic stress—the long way I am thinking about is a less hopeful road. In fact, it is a sad one.

What I can’t help but realize from this dramatized portrayal is that we not only are a country that tortures people (for this I already knew), but that we are a country that knows it tortures people. And there is no national outrage, as best I can see—not really. In fact, as the audience at Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate demonstrated, there is at least an excitable minority that is quite proud and energized by the knowledge that we torture.

That behavior, and the behavior of the candidates that pandered to that group, horrifies me, but it does not surprise me. In any large group—in this case, an entire country—there are going to be some very scary subgroups. The episode of ER, however, saddened me. Primetime big three TV, after all, is designed to speak to a much larger and broader audience than an early Republican debate on FOX. If there were something obscure in an ER script, something too inside the beltway, it would likely be cut, or at least would be explained and argued.

Thursday’s torture story was not cut, however, and the narrative was not interrupted by longwinded explanations. It was understood that we would all understand.

And perhaps that says as much about the last six years as any of the other scandals and horrors I could have written about today.

How sad is that?

(cross-posted to Daily Kos)

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