The New Emperor's New Clothes
Editor's Note: One painful part of what's happened over the past several years is to watch so many people who admired the United States as a beacon for human rights come to see America as the opposite. Even as George W. Bush continues to strut about boasting of his splendid garments of "freedom" and "liberty," more and more people are daring to point out that this emperor has no clothes.
In this guest essay, Professor Inez Hollander tells her personal story of disillusionment:
In 2000 I lost my Dutch citizenship to become a God-fearing and patriotic American. This was never much of a moral dilemma as Lady Liberty had been a shining beacon throughout my life in The Netherlands.
Americans had liberated Holland when my parents were still teenagers: conversations around the dinner table sometimes went back to that moment of liberation when my parents had been dancing in the streets, decked out in red, white and blue, smoking American cigarettes and eating chocolate handed out by good-looking GIs.
After their landings on French beaches, they went on to liberate the concentration camps where 80 per cent of Dutch Jews had perished.
America could do no wrong.
Stories of the Allied Liberation and U.S. Marshall Aid to Holland were repeated so often that they became a little stale in the context of postwar boredom and indifference. It was not until I saw Saving Private Ryan’s gruesome opening sequence of American soldiers being shot to pieces on Normandy’s beaches that I began to realize the power of my parents’ stories and the sacrifices of America’s WWII generation.
America could do no wrong.
Whether my parents’ pro-American stance pushed me in the direction of finding an American husband, I cannot tell but when I brought Jonathan home for the first time, my mother played Glenn Miller and embraced my Yankee fiancé as if he were the same GI who entered her street on top of a tank, decades earlier.
In case I had not noticed yet, in my family America could do no wrong.
Seven years after my naturalization I still have my U.S. passport but my love for this country has diminished a bit. This is not so much because of Bush, the war in Iraq or the fabrication of false intelligence, however disturbing. It is what takes place in the cells at Guantanamo Bay and God knows wherever else America’s dirty war keeps its terrorist suspects.
But let me explain: as the first pictures of Abu Ghraib hit the U.S. media, I was busy writing a book about my family history in Java. One of the main plot lines was the mystery as to what had happened to my great-uncle Peddy Francken after he was arrested by the Japanese in 1943.
All we knew was that he had died in a prison in Bandung (West Java) on March 15, 1945, a few months before the Allied liberation.
The fact that he died in a prison and not in an internment camp, where most of the Dutch population was held, was cause for suspicion and put me on a journey through archives and records, which up to this day, have still not been declassified by the Dutch government.
In short the story is this: after his arrest, Peddy was accused of being part of a planters’ spy ring. Because Peddy lived in East Java (a location where the Japanese thought the Allies might invade) and because he was one of many planters who formed the enemy (Dutch)
establishment, this group was immediately a suspect group.
In reality, this group had done nothing subversive, let alone initiated or carried out fifth column activities. It was very much a case of having been in the wrong place, at the wrong time and having the “wrong” nationality.
After Peddy and his fellow planters were arrested, their clothes were removed and they were hit with sticks, while being forced to kneel down outside, during the hottest part of the day.
At Guantanamo prisoners are at the receiving end of similar treatment with the only difference that these prisoners are almost never “aired”: “
“Shaker Aamer, a UK resident, has been held in Camp Echo continuously since September 2005 and, at the time of a visit with his attorney in August 2006, had not been outside for 64 consecutive days. He has reportedly suffered beatings and harassment by guards
and has had his clothes and mattress removed.” (Amnesty International
Report: “Cruel and Inhuman: Conditions of Isolation for Detainees at
An Amnesty Report of April 5, 2007, further tells us that “detainees are confined for 22 hours a day to individual, enclosed, steel cells where they are almost completely cut off from human
“The cells have no windows to the outside or access to natural light or fresh air. No activities are provided, and detainees are subjected to 24 hour lighting and constant observation by guards through the narrow windows in the cell doors. They exercise alone in a high-walled yard where little sunlight filters through; detainees are often only offered exercise at night and may not see daylight for days at a time.”
Back in Java in 1943, the Japanese realized that kicking and hitting with sticks was only marginally successful. They would soon switch to electric shocks while hanging victims by their arms for hours.
The few American “bad apples” at Abu Ghraib liked to use electricity, too, and the hooded black scarecrow figure with arms outstretched as if he were hanging off an invisible cross has haunted the American public ever since the picture was released.
Naturally, in my great-uncle’s case there were no publications to disclose this. For years this information was hanging, unread, in folders at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Only after repeated attempts to get the dossiers, the ugly truth of months of torture was revealed to my
family, more than 63 years after the fact.
The reason why Peddy and his fellow inmates were tortured for more than a year had to do with the fact that an earlier group of planters had “confessed” to a made-up story in order to make the torture stop.
Their confession was used as a ground for conviction and execution. Peddy’s group decided to hold out as long as possible which meant that some of them were submitted to water boarding: while tied to a shelf and with a hose attached to the mouth, a victim would be pumped full of water to the point where he or she lost consciousness or might drown.
Stopping at death’s door, Japanese officers would then kick and jump on victims’ stomachs to make them throw up the water and bring them back to consciousness. The more senior people in Peddy’s group were water boarded several times.
One did not survive the ordeal and the others became extremely suicidal afterwards. One
failed in his suicide attempt which meant a temporary reprieve from torture and water boarding.
In a newspaper article of Oct. 25, 2006, Vice President Dick Cheney confirmed that U.S. interrogators did and do use water boarding on senior al-Qaida suspects. Cheney also indicated that the Bush administration did not consider water boarding to fall under torture and thus “allowed the CIA to use it.”
Whether one calls it torture or not, the use of water boarding places US interrogators on a par with the war criminals of WWII, the German Gestapo and the Japanese Kempeitai. To Cheney, however, the legitimacy of this torture method was a “no-brainer.” (Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy Newspapers, Oct. 25, 2006).
What is America doing wrong?
After months of beatings, water boarding, lack of medication, and a constant shortage of food, Peddy and his planter friends were transported to Batavia, now known as Jakarta. Their heads were shaved and their feet were shackled.
The flimsy shorts and thin Malay jackets they got to wear could not mask their undernourished bodies, or the sores that would not heal. Awaiting the Japanese tribunal, there was more torture. People, who lived near the (former) French Consulate, could hear the terrifying screams, emanating from the building late at night.
One of the more cruel Japanese guards tortured Peddy extensively by hitting him on the head with a sword. One of the survivors claimed after the war that the time at the French Consulate
in Batavia was “hell: we were beaten without cause or reason. The Japanese acted like animals and they were constantly looking for reasons and excuses to hit us.”
If the captives at Guantanamo Bay were held at a central location in Washington DC, would their treatment and cries manage to penetrate the complacency of the American people?
As I am writing this a New York Times article reports that “the Justice Department asked the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to dismiss the detainee cases and dissolve an order that authorizes lawyers to visit the prisoners. If the Supreme Court doesn't act, ‘the government no
longer will be constrained ... from transferring petitioners from Guantanamo to countries or facilities where they may be tortured or abused,’ the detainees' lawyers said.” (“Gitmo Detainees Ask High Court for Help,” New York Times, April 26th, 2007).
What is America doing wrong?
On Jan. 11, 1945, Peddy was sentenced to 10 years in jail. In a tiled prison cell which was terribly cold at night, my great-uncle died two months later. Mentally and physically exhausted and starved, his body could not fight off the dysentery that affected so many who lived in the tropics.
To the mind of the Japanese, Peddy had died of “natural causes.” It is hardly comforting but Peddy’s case was processed at least, after a year of detention and torture. The majority of the detainees at Gitmo does not have the satisfaction of due process and may be in limbo for as long
as they are kept there.
What is America doing wrong?
Japanese paranoia, language and cultural barriers (as well as the collaboration of two Dutch planters who made up a “planters’ conspiracy” story to escape torture and death) motivated the
Kempeitai to take extreme measures as Japan’s national security was at stake with the potentially vulnerable corner of East Java.
All this was done in the name of Japanese Emperor Hirohito, a war criminal who escaped conviction after the war because U.S. General MacArthur pressed for exoneration; MacArthur felt that Hirohito was instrumental in preserving Japanese unity and the rebuilding of the country after the devastation of the atomic bombs.
To some, who had been tortured and used as sex slaves by the Japanese, Hirohito’s
exculpation was a slap in the face. Hirohito remained untouchable until his death in 1989.
Peddy’s wife, Fré, who had survived the war but who had lost both her husband and two daughters in 1945, had already died by then without ever knowing what exactly had happened
to Peddy… in Hirohito’s name.
Peddy was innocent but Hirohito’s henchmen believed that he was a terrorist. How many Peddys are there at Gitmo Bay and CIA prisons abroad?
Inez Hollander, Ph.D., is Acting Chair of the Dutch Studies Program at UC Berkeley. Her new book, “Silenced Voices: A Personal Journey to Uncover A Colonial Family’s History in the Dutch East Indies,” will come out with Ohio University Press in the spring of 2008. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
What is America doing wrong?
While the wording of the controversial US torture bill was changed at the beginning of this year, President Bush can still authorize the use of torture when our national security hangs in the balance. Strictly speaking, this puts Bush in the same camp with Hirohito.
More than 60 years after the Allied victory of WWII, America has become an empire itself and uses the same torture techniques the enemy used in WWII. Emperor Hirohito was wrong but kept his clothes.
When are we, the American people, going to see that our emperor has no clothes? It is the only way back to a time and place where America can do no wrong…
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