America: The Concept Outshines the Reality

Published in the Middletown Times-Herald-Record Sept. 27, 1997

The little girl’s eyes were tired, cloudy. An Army nurse squatted beside the narrow mountain road, cradling the child’s drooping head while dust blew all around them. Ahead of them, a procession of the dispossessed marched wearily to nowhere.

The nurse said that within a day, perhaps within hours, the girl, who suffered from malnutrition and whose body was riddled with parasites, would be dead. Many of her fellow villagers, chased from their homes by a timber company, had already perished.

“Do you know how easy it would be to save this girl back in the states?” the nurse asked me. “Here we can do nothing.”

The girl’s death in the jungles of Honduras in the summer of 1988 was not unusual. In poor Latin American countries people die from malnutrition, preventable diseases or state violence every day. But the States – that is another story.

Anything is possible in the States; I heard it again and again as I traveled on assignment through Central America. That is why so many come here – because here you do not have to watch your child being eaten alive from the inside by the parasites that infest polluted drinking water and tainted food.

Nor, in the States, need you fear torture from the police if you talk too loud or walk too proud. Pat Buchanan wants to build an iron fence between the U.S. and the countries to the south, and many states are passing laws to deny both legal and illegal immigrants medical care and other aid. But only one thing could stop the desperate from coming: to make ourselves so odious that we seem no better than what they already know at home.

The New York City Police Department has apparently taken a major step in that direction. So far, four NYPD cops have been charged in connection with the torture of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was violated with a toilet plunger handle; afterward, the handle was shoved in his mouth. The cop who did it left no doubt why: Abner Louima, in the cop’s words, is a n—–r. 

If what happened to Abner Louima had happened in Haiti, or Honduras, or El Salvador, or Mexico, it would not have been news. Torture and execution are so commonplace in many Central American and Caribbean countries, and the ability of the press to report so weak, that only a day without state-sponsored brutality would truly qualify as newsworthy.

In my travels, I learned what America means to those who see it not as a place but as a dream. Their stories – and the mournful eyes of that dying girl – returned to me as I read of Abner Louima’s ordeal:

  • A college student beaten and jailed for reading – quietly, to himself, without moving his lips – the words of Karl Marx.
  • A 14-year-old soldier proudly struggling under the weight of a U.S. made assault rifle, pointing the gun at traffic on the highway in Tegucigalpa, Honduras‘ capital, and laughing as cars swerved wildly.
  • A taxi driver making $50 per week and living without electricity planning his next trip north, where he could make $150 in one night as a waiter; he had already been caught and expelled three times from the U.S.
  • A drunken U.S. Army Lieutenant at a blackjack table in a resort town cursing the dealers and loudly calling them “spic,” “Julio,” and “wetback.” Earlier he had told me, “What these people down here need is some discipline.”
  • Wives and mothers everywhere who wept for vanished husbands and sons. I met few people who did not have a friend or relative simply disappear off the streets – the work of the military or the secret police, some of whose most skilled tormentors learned their trade right here, at the Army College of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., a training facility for so-called foreign “security forces.“ The CIA-run program was censured earlier this year for teaching torture techniques.

Dreams of the States sustain so many of the poor and tormented I met in Central America, including those who blamed our government for the repression in their own countries. Even those without the will or means to make the journey north seem to be nourished simply by the thought that there is such a place as this. They are nourished by the belief that in America a sick child can be saved and a man is free to live without fear of his own government.

Abner Louima and many in his family made the journey – legally. His cousin, The Rev. Samuel Nicolas, said the family came to America to escape brutality and torment in Haiti and now feels betrayed and shocked to find them here. “To us, this incident is like déjà vu,” he said.

It should be déjà vu to the rest of us as well because when you strip off the legal labels – police brutality, assault, sodomy – Abner Louima appears to have been lynched for offending a white man with a badge.

New York City politicians and police officials have struggled to convince the public that what happened in the stationhouse of the 70th Precinct in Brooklyn was an aberration involving only Louima and a few rogue cops. Meanwhile, the Rev. Phileas Nicolas, Louima’s uncle and the pastor of his church, extracted the real lesson of this cruelty: “This is not a problem of the Nicolas family, nor a Haitian problem. This is a problem of humanity and we must act.“

President Clinton recently suggested the U.S. apologize for slavery; we might better expend our energy fighting the hatred and bigotry that shame us now.

Because if the light that is America is turned off for the rest of the world, we will live in darkness too.

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