Beyond the Nation-State
Is there such a thing as a relaxed nation — one that isn’t, you know, obsessed with its borders and sense of identity?
We can easily see how absurd it all is when we read about the hikers recently released from prison in Iran, where they were held in cruelly restricted confinement for more than two years because they had inadvertently strayed across the border, out of U.S.-occupied Iraq. The inhuman nature of Iran’s response — the trumped up charges of espionage against the two young men, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, and their companion, Sarah Shourd, who was imprisoned for over a year — were gleefully obvious to the American media . . . because they were Americans, and Iran is part of the Axis of Evil.
However, the hikers, upon their release last week, strayed across another border as well, and in so doing belied the concept of good nations and bad ones.
“In prison, every time we complained about our conditions, the guards would immediately remind us of comparable conditions at Guantanamo Bay,” Bauer said when the two young men arrived in New York. “They would remind us of CIA prisons in other parts of the world, and the conditions that Iranians and others experience in prisons in the U.S.
“We do not believe that such human rights violations on the part of our government justify what has been done to us,” he added. “Not for a moment. However, we do believe that these actions on the part of the U.S. provide an excuse for other governments, including the government of Iran, to act in kind.”
And Shourd, in an interview with Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now,” noted that “no one can spend over a year, let alone over two years, of their lives unjustly detained, imprisoned and cut off from the world, without feeling connected to other prisoners around the world. . . . We will never, ever be able to forget that other people are still sitting in the position that we were in.”
And some of those people — an extraordinary number, in fact — are sitting in American prisons and detention centers, as the trio stated publicly a number of times, in so doing violating the simplistic patriotism of, among others, Elliott Abrams, icon of the Reagan era Iran-Contra scandal. Such statements by the freed Americans left “a very bad taste” in Abrams’ mouth. “Who exactly are the ‘political prisoners’ in America?” he blogged on the Council of Foreign Relations website. “Can we have some names?”
Considering that America’s world leadership includes leading the world in prison population, that numerous reports have detailed widespread abuse of prisoners and border detainees, and more to the point, that our covert war-on-terror torture and indiscriminate detention operations have generated a tsunami of global publicity, Abrams’ revelation of self-imposed ignorance is almost shocking.
Here’s one name: Abdul Razak al Janko, a Syrian national who was imprisoned by both the Taliban and the Americans. Though he had tried to flee from the Taliban, he wound up being held at Guantanamo for seven years; he was finally released when a Bush-appointed federal judge said his continued detention “defies common sense.”
According to a lawsuit Janko filed last year against numerous government officials, he was subjected at Gitmo to severe beatings, sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures, intimidation with police dogs, threats to inflict intense physical pain (such as removal of his fingernails), extreme degradation (he claims that U.S. soldiers urinated on him when he first arrived at Gitmo), years of solitary confinement, and much more.
This is the degenerated nature of American world leadership, and of course it is not shocking at all that someone like Abrams, who has fused his own identity with that of the nation, would not “know” — regardless how much data he’s been exposed to — that such hellish things are actually occurring on this side of the righteous divide.
The nation-state, as far as I’m concerned, is an obsolete fiction. The division of the world into 194 random fragments, mostly born of war and exploitation, locked in a state of perpetual mistrust and ever-shifting tensions toward one another, is more problem than solution in the 21st century. Nation-states are a convenience of war. An easily exploited, “us vs. them” exclusivity is basic to their identity, which explains the amount of energy that nations expend patrolling and defining their borders, as though these were in some way real.
On a planet united not merely by technology and a global economy, but also by climate change and an array of problems that can only be addressed effectively with worldwide cooperation, humanity needs to claim allegiance both to the whole planet and to the well-being of every individual on it. Neither of these allegiances are the priority of nation-states, as Iran and the United States both demonstrate.
This is a plea not for “world government” so much as a melting of the distrust between governments and peoples, and the flowering not of prisons but of an unprecedented spirit of openness.