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Strange Interlude

by jessica curtis '07

Jessica Curtis '07 with colleagues from London Program
Speaking of crowds, Jessica Curtis (second from left) hobnobs with colleagues from the London program.

The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Bags in tow, escalators carry me into the noise and scuffle of the great machine of the London Underground. I wait clumsily to join the crowd as it swells and changes shape, bumping rudely against me one moment and giving way graciously the next as a thousand individual wills insist on their right to get wherever they are going. Nine o’clock on a Monday morning is never my favorite time of day to enter Waterloo Station; London crowds perpetually seem to be moving in a direction opposite of mine, and negotiating space around these commuters requires a grace and deft familiarity with a particular form of British civility that I appear to lack.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “crowds” lately, about group identity and formation, and that of nationality in particular. At what precise moment does the anonymity a crowd promises become, from an outsider’s perspective, synonymous with identity? Intrigued by the possible answers to this question, I applied to the London Program determined to hold my “American” political and legal culture up to a level of scrutiny more exacting and less immediately accepting than my own. I’d imagined this happening on damp winter evenings in front of roaring fires in back-alley pubs, good- natured ripostes with locals accompanying ale of respectable vintage. I’d never imagined the process making me so uncomfortable.

One experience in particular captures the essence of what I mean. I recently attended the documentary Iraq in Fragments, which followed several very different lives—a young boy living in Baghdad, a Shiite cleric following Moqtada al-Sadr, and Kurdish farmers from 2002 until 2005 when, as the director put it, Iraq became too dangerous for foreigners. The film ended; the Q&A began. Never had I felt so conscious of, and so uncomfortable with, being American. Caught up by the film’s terrible beauty, I found myself unwilling to speak, to give away my accent, lest I be identified with a country whose increasing disregard for international law mystifies me. I found myself profoundly embarrassed by America’s blatantly under-conceptualized undertaking. The Bush administration failed to account for what Iraqi reality would be post-invasion and relied, in place of planning, on the rhetoric of terror to create, then justify, its haste to attack. In the past, this realization had often angered me; surrounded by non-Americans, it humbled me.

Living here has forced me to come to grips with what it means to be from a country currently in such opposition to things I generally thought it championed: due process, the rule of law, a respect for human life and dignity. As the US steps over international human rights conventions and nods its assent to the use of torture to elicit confessions from suspected terrorists, I wonder: How many acquaintances here identify me out of hand, because I am American, as someone uninterested in human rights save when they bend to my benefit? Here, where my identity is based primarily on my nationality, are the benefits of being American worth the price of being identified as one?

Such questions reveal the self-centeredness these conversations can take. But any self-centeredness on my part, I’ve realized, does not do away with the larger part of my concern: the farther-reaching implications of recent government decisions that have squandered our nation’s credibility in the human rights arena. I fear the risk we run of becoming identified with a crowd of countries whose roguish inattention to these matters we have routinely condemned.

Is America—and pardon the pun—at its own Waterloo? Can it still be said to be a country that properly weighs its own national security against the global interest in protecting human rights? As I see it, the United States is one nation amongst many; it exists both autonomously and in relationship to them. What good can come of its current solipsism, of its maneuvering around international standards on human rights and the laws of war, to justify—and this is sadly but one example—the horrors of extraordinary rendition in the name of a “war on terror”?

To be sure, international law, like all legal systems, is often flawed and altogether human in its mechanistic, imperfect ability to cure the ills of the most delicate of human situations. This is a curse from which current human rights instruments and courts are not exempt. Rather than using these weaknesses to justify untenable positions, I would have the United States uphold the ideals it stands for in the best of its moments.

I would have us recognize the debt we owe to all guardians of human rights and the guidance we might stand to seek from the crowd of nations watching us now.