Tuesday, June 07, 2005


"What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?"

--Herman Melville, Moby Dick, p. 534-5
A Great Leviathan has appeared periodically in American History.

Herman Melville wrote about this "vast, shadowed bulk still half blending with the blue of the sea",..."floating up from the undiscoverable bottom"..."crooked rows of white, glistening teeth". This was his Moby Dick, the largest of American metaphors. Tangled in the troubled soul of Ahab, the captain of the Pequod, we have the dilemma and the tragedy of men, signed on together as shipmates, who follow a leader whose transgression and vengeful obsession can have but one end.

Civilized customs have been cast aside nowadays, and Melville wouldn't recognize this America. But the White Whale, the Leviathan would be easy to spot. Much of its bulk edges toward the shore of the so-called "central front in the war on terror". In the quagmire of Iraq, there is a much larger transgression and obsession at work. And those fundamentalists in Afghanistan and elsewhere, who had a hand in collapsing the Twin Towers in New York, have less to fear than ordinary Iraqis, killed in the crossfire, blown up by insurgent bombs, or shot at checkpoints by their liberators.

President Bush is waging a real war; but it is a war with dissent. His war is a war against contradiction, against world opinion, against any disruption of authority or frustration of his ambition.

George Bush is not suspected of having a great or troubled soul; he is no Captain Ahab, in that respect. But while the boats are being lowered for the final assault on Moby Dick, an illegal weapon has been discovered in his arsenal. Torture.
"With finger pointed and eye leveled at the Pequod, the beggar-like stranger stood a moment, as if in a troubled reverie; then starting a little, turned and said:--

"Ye've shipped, have ye? Names down on the papers? Well, well, what's signed, is signed; and what's to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it won't be, after all. Any how, it's all fixed and arranged a'ready; and some sailors or other must go with him, I suppose; as well these as any other men, God pity 'em! Morning to ye, shipmates, morning; the ineffable heavens bless ye; I'm sorry I stopped ye."..."Oh! when ye get there, tell 'em I've concluded not to make one of 'em."

"Ah, my dear fellow; you can't fool us that way--you can't fool us. It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to look as if he had a great secret in him."

"Morning to ye, shipmates, morning."

""Morning it is," said I. "Come along, Queequeg; let's leave this crazy man. But stop, tell me your name, will you?"

""Elijah."" (Ibid, pp. 93-4)
The President, George W. Bush, was still standing before the cameras and reporters; he stood as the natural leader for those who pretend not to know about the torture. The President had, as he often has, that strange, comic sense of timing, a trickster's instinct, and his cunning way of presenting himself as an uncomplicated man. He was not there to accept the charges Amnesty International had laid; he was not inclined to express remorse on behalf of his country, or accept accountability for himself or his administration. G.H.W. Bush, the former president, his father, had had a much steadier harpoon hand; but the younger Bush did what he could with the tools of his trade. His best toss was thrown against ex-inmates of the military prison at Guantanamo, Cuba--an entity outside US Territory and beyond the procedural protections of US Law.

The President belittled the men, the victims, he called them enemies of the United States. The former prisoners had never been allowed to appear in a court of law; they were never charged or proven guilty; they were never afforded a presumption of innocence, according to US law. Only mounting international pressure had secured their release.

The President was actually smiling when he said, "[They] disassemble,...that means not tell the truth." Readers should note his comic misuse of the word, disassemble, (to take apart), instead of the correct word, dissemble, (to lie). Some have commented on the perfect, comic beat, or interval, between the word, disassemble, and the President's cockeyed definition. But Amnesty International was not in a joking mood; and for their money some disassembly was required. Their expectation was for the United States to dismantle something alright, to "close Guantanamo and disclose the rest."

How many Americans will ship with a Captain like this? What part of this crowd will sign on to commit torture? Which of those onboard will say, "Torture them--but excuse me while I turn my head?"

Amnesty International's spokesperson, Irene Khan, also spoke to reporters, but not in the same venue as President Bush. The Bangladeshi woman read off the following charges:

  • "In 2004,"..."we saw a new and dangerous agenda in the making, rewriting the rules of human rights, discrediting the institutions of international cooperation and usurping the language of justice and freedom to promote policies that create fear and insecurity."
  • "The refusal of the US Administration or US Congress to conduct a full and independent investigation of the use of torture and ill treatment by US officials, despite the public outrage over Abu Ghraib and"..."similar practices in Bagram, Guantanamo and other detention centres under US control."
  • "The US, UK and some European countries [have attempted] to set aside the absolute prohibition of torture and ill treatment by re-definition and "rendering"--or the transfer of prisoners to regimes that are known to use torture."
  • "Under this dangerous agenda, justice is not only denied, it is distorted."
  • "The incommunicado detention of unregistered detainees [ghost detainees] --bring back the practice of "disappearances" so popular with Latin American dictators in the past."
""SHIPMATES, have ye shipped in that ship?"..."Have ye shipped in her?" he repeated.

"You mean the ship Pequod, I suppose," said I, trying to gain a little more time for an uninterrupted look at him.

"Aye, the Pequod--that ship there," he said, drawing back his whole arm and then rapidly shoving it straight out from him, with the fixed bayonet of his pointed finger darted full at the object.

"Yes," said I, "we have just signed the articles."

"Anything down there about your souls?" (Ibid, p. 91)
The boats are cutting their way through the water now. And what thoughts are in the minds of this crew? Their backs are straining as they row; but in the privacy of each heart, there is an Ishmael, the lone survivor of Herman Melville's epic.

The ship and the scattered boats have been encircled by the majestic and enraged Moby Dick, the Leviathan; here it emerges again in American History, throwing the transgression and obsession back on its tormenters. And no one else has survived. One is adrift now with no company, except for conscience,--bobbing up and down beside the debris,--riding the blue and green swell of salt water. Any human being is tiny against the tapestry of the sea.

Commands no longer resonate from presidents or captains, neither those issued from great and troubled souls, or superficial and twisted ones.

Was it Elijah's voice?--was it him, "the beggar-like stranger" who sounded a warning?--or was it another voice, an injunction from the Book of Job? Was that voice mingled among shipmates? Did it rise up the gangplank in the beginning?--when they made their mark or signed their names?


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