Was I a good American? How good an American was I? Did I do what I could to resist the takeover of my country and the brutalisation of my fellow human beings? How much further could I have gone? Were the crimes of the Bush administration those that demand you give up your life and everyday commitments to throw yourself into maximum resistance? If not, then what were we waiting for? The questions have troubled me regularly these last five years, because I was one of the millions of American citizens who did not shut down Guantánamo Bay and stop the other atrocities of the administration.
I wrote. I gave money, sometimes in large chunks. I went to anti-war marches. I demonstrated. I also planted a garden, cooked dinners, played with children, wandered around aimlessly, and did lots of other things you do when the world is not crashing down around you. And maybe when it is. Was it? It was for the men in our gulag. And the boys there. And the rule of law in my native land.
Before the current administration, it had always been easy to condemn the "good Germans" who did nothing while Jews, Gypsies and others were rounded up for extermination. One likes to believe that one will be different, will harbour Anne Frank in one's secret annex, smuggle people across the border, defy the authorities who do evil. Those we scornfully call good Germans merely did little while the mouth of hell opened up.
I now know the way that everyday life can be so absorbing, survival so demanding, that it seems impossible to do more on top of it or to drop the routine altogether and begin a totally different life. There is the garden to be watered, the aged parent in crisis, the deadline looming; but there are also the crimes against humanity waiting to be stopped. Ordinary obligations tug one way even when extraordinary ones tug the other way. The Bush administration is by no means the Third Reich, but it produced an extraordinary time that made extraordinary demands on US citizens, demands that some of us rose to - and too many did not.
Periodically, I would speculate on what was the most extreme and radical thing I could do to stop the illegal prison camp at Guantánamo; picture chaining myself to the gates of the Senate, becoming one of those activists who takes up residence outside the White House or takes over a TV station to get a message out. I wanted to do something so epic that it would turn the tide, stop the crime. Then I would consider that the best approaches were probably already being taken, by the heroic lawyers at the Centre for Constitutional Rights and other human rights organisations, and I would write another cheque and some more letters and feel a little futile and a little corrupt.
These days Americans seem to be waking up one at a time, groggy and embittered, from the hypnotic nightmare that was the Bush administration's one great success - spreading a miasma of fear and patriotic submissiveness that made it possible to mount an illegal and immoral war, piss on the bill of rights, burn the constitution and violate international charters on human rights and prisoners of war with widespread torture. None of the sleepers seems to remember that they were part of the legions who obeyed the orders to fear and hate - but we welcome the latecomers into our ranks anyway.
What took them so long? How could people believe that a fairly defanged country, one we had been bombing since the first Gulf war, was an apocalyptic menace in a world where most nations were well-equipped for mass civilian murder? A year ago, the turning point was marked by the comedian Stephen Colbert's volley of (accurate) insults delivered to Bush's face, in the guise of giving the keynote address at the Washington press corps' annual dinner. He was just aggressively ignored by the mainstream media. Perhaps Katrina turned the tide: the indifference, incompetence, and obliviousness of the federal government was so gross that its pedestal melted.
And there were others who were in resistance all along. I remember with admiration the Japanese-Americans who came out in the months after 9/11 to testify that they had been incarcerated en masse during the second world war, not for what they did but for who they were, and they were not going to remain silent as the same treatment was meted out to Arabs and Muslims. I remember the way that 20,000 of us in San Francisco came out to shut down the business district the day the war broke out, and the huge marches before and after. I remember the few congresspeople - mostly African-American - who dared to stand in opposition early on. I went to Camp Casey outside Bush's vacation home in Texas and spent a day with Cindy Sheehan, who gave her life over to stopping the war after it took her soldier son. Others did as she did. Some of them are my friends.
There is resistance. But if it were enough, the crimes would have stopped, the war would have ended. When it does and they do, some will have been heroes. Some will have been honourable but moderate, in times that did not call for moderation. And some will have consented, through inaction, to crimes against humanity.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of Hope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power, and Wanderlust: A history of walking.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2007