HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 3, 2007
From Liberty Street

A U.S. Truth Squad

John Turner


Now and then I ask myself how I would dispose of vast wealth if I should ever get possession of it. There's scarcely anything less likely than my becoming rich on the scale of a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett, but just thinking about the prospect turns my mind to how money could best be used.

There are lots of useful things to be done and numbers of rich guys turned benefactors have put their minds to them. But as far as I know none have addressed the project that could have the most dramatic effect. I am speaking of an attempt to interest the people of the United States in truth, and, in particular, the truth of their own nation over the past half-century.

It's obvious that the American people love myth more than they do truth. Myths are not without their uses. I wouldn't want to see them washed away completely. But when they aren't tempered by respect for truth, they can turn monstrous, and that's what has happened in this country recently. The people have become so enamored of the myth of the United States as the preeminent international hero they are losing the ability to direct their own political future or to work -- except sporadically -- with the rest of the people of the world on humane development.

If the people of America could become aware of what their country has been, and what it has done since the mid-1950s, we would become, almost instantaneously a more decent and imaginative people. We would understand the world better and our place in it more intelligently, and gradually we would begin to understand why we are seen as we are.

If a thousand competent scholars could be brought together, backed up by adequate supplies, administrative services, and housing, and charged with documenting, in the most careful and scrupulous manner possible, the number of people over the past fifty years who have been killed, tortured, or imprisoned either by the U.S. government or with its support, we would have an archive of inestimable value. It would turn the attention of the people to truth in a way nothing else could, and it would concentrate our determination to ensure that our nation live more consistently in line with our professed ideals than we have ever before done in our history.

I realize some might say the work has already been done. If anybody seriously wants to know what our government has carried out there are scores of scholars and books that will tell him the truth. That may, indeed, be the case. But the results are scattered. They don't exist in a form that requires the major media to take account of them. Consequently, most citizens can -- and do -- ignore them without the slightest disturbance of their complacency.
The work, if it were done well, would have to give the killers and their champions every opportunity to defend themselves, to explain why they thought violence against their fellow humans was not only justified, but required. Their arguments would need to be a significant element of the truth-telling project, and there would be no detriment in giving them full voice. As long as the people knew what was done, it would be completely acceptable to allow the killers explain why they did it.  The goal of truth telling is truth. There could be no demand for anything else.

The argument that history cannot be written objectively would constitute no barrier to this project. History is the whole story and the truth -telling project could make no claim to wholeness. It wouldn't actually write history. It would merely document what happened as a result of governmental action.

You can argue forever, for example, about whether, in the context of the entire Cold War, the government of the United States was justified in helping to overthrow the government of Guatemala in 1954, and then, for some forty years afterward,  in supporting the subsequent government which killed tens of thousands of its own citizens in the most brutal and extralegal ways possible. But you can't argue with the fact of the death and torture. The evidence for it is incontrovertible. And the American people, for the most part, don't know about it. It would be good for American citizens to know how many people were killed, the manner of their killing, the way the government tried to cover up the killing, and how the killers were supplied and trained by authorities of the United States. Then Americans would be in a position to make an informed decision about how heroic its own government was with respect to this policy.

The story the truth-tellers would bring to the attention of Americans about Guatemala could be repeated with respect to country after country. Citizens could see photographs of the mutilated bodies of people slain by U. S. money. Maybe Americans would continue to cheer. Maybe they wouldn't. But at least what they did would be based on solid knowledge of what happened.

I'm willing to bet that if Americans knew what their government has done, future foreign policy would be markedly different from what it will be if we continue current practice. I think it would be more intelligent and humane, but, certainly, it would be different.

Who can object to the citizens of a nation knowing what their government has done? And where is the billionaire who will help push that project along?

We can hope. But don't hold your breath.


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