“Better stay away from him,
He’ll rip your lungs out, Jim.
like to meet his tailor).”
–Warren Zevon, “Werewolves of London”
"I never met a human being
from whom I could completely detach myself."
- Mahatma Gandhi (attributed)
Seething with indignation and outrage over
United States torture and war crimes, I walked into the American Citizen Services Unit of the Consular Section of the United
States Embassy in Bangkok, destitute, without access to food, water, or a bed to sleep in, acutely in need of the Embassy’s
help but unable to refrain from voicing my opinions about the conduct of my country’s shadowy secret servants.
This began a strange odyssey through a netherworld of terror and joy during which the wonderful
and hospitable Thai people graciously carried me, a impecunious American foreigner, though the Thais were mainly unable to
understand my strange story of conscience and good will, through eight days of severe physical deprivation, which deprivation
was tolerated by the Embassy of the wealthiest country on earth, a country of which I am a citizen.
After I returned to the Kao San Road, a stranger remarked that “that was an awesome stunt you
pulled at our Embassy today.”
My journey to Thailand had begun
in the Netherlands, to which I had traveled from America, thinking of myself as a refugee poet and political writer in disgust
with the U.S. war in Iraq, making a temporary home for myself in a delightful café where I tried to engage with Dutch
cultural discourse, discovering that Western Europeans at this point in history are really quite possessed by reaction to
theocratic Islam, and in what seemed to me to be a somewhat bigoted way.
My bourgeois egalitarian upbringing by left-liberal journalists in the Hollywood Hills had not prepared me for the current
depth of Dutch antipathy toward Muslims. My position was that however offensive to Western Enlightenment ideas of tolerance
theocratic political Islam is, and however much our civilization’s best values recoil at its oppression of women and
at its cruel and unusual punishments, that in our personal relations we ought not to treat individual Muslims poorly or with
prejudice. I emphatically agree with Hirsi Ali in at least one thing: that we must distinguish between theocratic Islam’s
repressiveness and Muslims as individuals, and found that the easy Dutch disparagement of Muslims grated very harshly on my
sense of fairness.
In a society still reeling from the murder of Theo
Van Gogh by a fundamentalist Islamist, my discursive critical stance toward the misdeeds of the U.S. national security establishment
against real (or presumed) enemies in the so-called, “war on terror” did not serve me well as I tried to make
friends over drinks in Amsterdam.
Out of the frying pan and into the
fire I traveled in going from Amsterdam to Bangkok, utterly unaware that on the very day of my arrival the Thai military would
take over the country in a popular coup d’etat and ban political gatherings of five or more persons.
It was the theft of my ATM card in Bangkok which rendered me unable
to access my bank account, so that I found myself in a city controlled by the Thai armed forces without the means to pay for
drinking water, food, or a bed to sleep in. Subsequent to this theft and without relatives on whom I
could call for financial help, I had no choice but to become a beggar.
Perhaps the most meaningful experience of my 48 years on the planet was the opportunity to serve the anti-apartheid
movement in Cape Town, South Africa at around the time of Mandela’s release from prison. In the course of that experience
my coworkers and I were helpers to persons recently released from apartheid’s notorious prisons, some of whom had engaged
in armed struggle against the apartheid regime, and the values of the African National Congress, which had motivated me to
take the trip to Africa in the first place, had been my values for several years already.
It was in the course of my nonviolent participation in the struggle for a democratic, nonracial South Africa that I began
to see behind the veneer of civilization which colonialism has imposed wherever it has plundered and oppressed so-called “third” world peoples, and this perception has informed my perspective and conduct ever since.
To paraphrase a masterful poet: to
begin to see oneself as part of the enemy can be quite intellectually liberating.
It has been a source of great trouble and sorrow for me, though, that to be a critical advocate for colonized “third”
world peoples and to try to draw back the curtain on the murder and torture which has emanated from Europe and America over
the course of the latter part of the twentieth century has also alienated me profoundly from my fellow “first worlders,”
causing them to regard me as “other” and as “suspect.”
This sense of alienation, I suppose, came to a head that day at the Bangkok Embassy.
As I struggled to survive as a beggar on the streets of Bangkok, I was able to draw
on inner resources which I somehow owe to the former prisoners I met in South Africa and their steadfast determination in
the face of adversity far worse than what I was experiencing, to the men and women of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing
of the African National Congress. It now occurs to me that having been refused help by my own Embassy, I might have been able
to get some help from the Embassy of South Africa.
That said, and to be fair,
my knowledge of the doings of the U.S. national security establishment disposed me against being polite to the Embassy officers
who might otherwise have helped me that day, and they are only human.
is a sort of person in this world who has preoccupied me for many years, and he is the ultra-psuedo-civilized, human-all-too-human
“gentleman” in the well- tailored suit who trades in death, oppression and torture, and who is nevertheless us.
To recognize the humanity in this man and to bring it out, to acknowledge that
Arendtian merchants of gruesomeness, state terror, and domination of the global south by the global
north belong to our species, the human species, to see them, together with Lady MacBeth’s “damned spot”
which is barely concealed beneath their Brooks Brother’s suits and buttoned-downed shirts, as fully human, is simultaneously
to recognize the oppressor in us and the vicious animals in Saville Row attire each and every one of us has as a dark potential
It has come to seem very important to me to acknowledge that those
who do the very worst things that humans do are nevertheless humans. Indeed, this acknowledgement
is, it seems to me, the bravery which is a necessary precondition to the amelioration of the evil that they do. The easy,
cowardly thing to do is to regard them as “other” than us, as less than human and therefore to render their doings
as “beyond comprehension.”
When we see even the officer who brutalizes
a prisoner under questioning unto death as a man who has himself been degraded both by his training and his conduct, and as
a fellow human, we acknowledge our responsibility for him and our responsibility to try to participate in a radical transformation
of the imperial consciousness and mindset which produced him. It was a truly perceptive person who first observed that the
torturer demeans and brutalizes himself through the very torture which he perpetrates. As Booker T.
Washington observed, “You can’t keep a man down without getting down with him.” The oppressor victimizes
himself in his very victimization of all the rest of us.
any rate, I very successfully cut off my nose in spite of my face and was asked to leave the Embassy, walking out onto Thai
soil, still destitute, still without food or water, still without a bed to sleep in.
A destitute man is presumed to be a desperate man, and carries with him something I came to think of as “the threat
of the poor.” Everyone he meets who perceives him to be destitute may well also experience a twinge of fear coming from
a thorn of guilt and shame at one’s own comparatively good fortune.
Our institutions, whether they are banks or Embassies, do not respond to need. They are simply not designed to do that. Need
alone, at either place, entitles one to exactly nothing.
it is entirely understandable that the Department of State has policies in place to prevent itself from being abused as a
“safety net” for American travelers who have simply and irresponsibly spent all of their money, and I fully understand
that the Embassy had a need and a right to verify that I was not such a person, but rather the victim of a crime which had
rendered me without access to my bank account.
Soon, yet another theft would render me without a passport t or any form of identification.
In the course of my month in Thailand, I saw the corpse
of a soldier lying in a police station, two other corpses on the back of a pick-up truck, and a naked body lying on a sidewalk
which I at the time thought belonged to an unconscious person who had perhaps succumbed to too much drink but which I now
upon reflection think must also have been a corpse.
On many other occasions,
the unmistakable odor of death was present in my immediate surroundings. These sights and smells were something for which
I was utterly unprepared psychologically, and I consider myself still suffering to some extent from the trauma of having been
exposed to them.
I found myself standing destitute by the side of a road,
my feet in agony from trudging through the streets, when I was approached by strangers speaking with American accents.
“David, we’ve found a party for you to go to,” one of them
said and, desperate to get out of the tropical elements and desperate, also, for a roof over my head and perhaps some food
to eat, I got into their vehicle and was driven through the streets of Bangkok to a building in the diplomatic district. “We
are at the Embassy of Taiwan,” one of the Americans said.
the Embassy, though my clothes were filthy from sleeping in the streets so that I was hardly appropriately dressed for a diplomatic
dinner party, but there it was: fifteen or so people, mainly westerners, apparently just having finished eating, sitting at
I sat down. Soon, the other guests at the party began to batter me.
I stood from the table and they began shoving my indigent self from person to person, almost playing catch with me.
Then, one of them said very quietly and ominously in my ear, “David,
we’ve arranged some help for you.” Just at that moment I saw a man in medical scrubs enter the area of the Embassy
where the dinner party was being held. He carried a tray, on which we’re arranged a collection of medical implements.
Absolutely terrified, I remarked, “I think I may be about to receive treatment
with some sort of special medical skills, and I would like the Consul General of the United States at Chiang Mai to be apprised
of that fact immediately.”
The man in scrubs with the implements backed
away immediately, like a misbehaving local police officer whose prisoner had just asked to phone his attorney.
Then, I was escorted into the security office of the Embassy, where two armed security officers
were sitting. One began questioning me quite closely and aggressively, focusing on where I was staying in Bangkok. He must
have asked me ten or fifteen times, over and over.
When he finally was satisfied
that I had nowhere to stay, that I was homeless and slept in the streets, he remarked, “Execution will be immediate.
Stand over there.”
I find myself subjected by my own mind, as a result
of this odyssey through terror and deprivation, to recurrent thoughts of death, dismemberment, gruesomeness, and gore.
I have seen behind our empire and am forever changed.
I had presented myself at the American Embassy asking for a repatriation loan at the beginning of what would be an eight day
period of utter destitution and indigence on the beautiful streets of the gloriously humid, tropical city of Bangkok, peopled
by some of the loveliest people I have ever been among.
I imagine that during
my eight day descent into penury I came to satisfy our Embassy’s criteria for repatriation on grounds of destitution.
And so I arrived again at the U.S. Embassy, having made
the humid pavements of Bangkok my bed for a week, absolutely filthy from head to toe, declaring myself to be on the verge
of collapse from exhaustion.
At that point, this American citizen was finally
served by the American Citizen Services Unit of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.