American Shame

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The American flag flies over Naval Station Guantanamo Bay.
The American flag flies over Naval Station Guantanamo Bay.

I don’t like going to the doctor. I‘d rather be in denial.

It’s Tuesday morning, and I’m a new patient sitting in a doctor’s office. I’ve already filled out reams of medical forms. Now a nurse is asking me about my current medications. I gently place my Combivent inhaler next to her on the desk. It expired and I need to get it refilled.

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She looks at it for a moment and then turns back to her computer. She’d like to know more.

It’s a coughing asthma, I tell her. It’s dry, chronic, and it has a really weird sound. I developed it in 2003 or so while I was living in New York City. It arrived with a host of other symptoms, including a stabbing pain in my stomach and a burning in my chest. And then, of course, the incessant coughing, which lasted for several minutes at a time. I went to a doctor. After running some tests, he told me I was internally bleeding.

She nods, so I continue.

The doctor referred me to a specialist, who told me I was too young to be sick and I shouldn’t worry about it. But everything got worse, so I went to another doctor, who diagnosed me with a “new form of asthma,” he said. Something like cough-variant asthma.

I also had an upper endoscopy because of the burning in my chest. The doctor told me my esophagus was raw and irritated. He didn’t know what was causing it. The internal bleeding was baffling as well. So he told me to just watch what I eat and keep a food diary. But I found out the asthma is most likely related to 9/11.

She thanks me for the information and tells me to wait. The doctor will arrive shortly.

**

As I sit in the examination room, I think about the coughing spasms and brain fog that developed from lack of oxygen. My life in New York certainly had a muted ending. Things were at a standstill because of my illness. I couldn’t think so I couldn’t write. And I was depressed because being sick is depressing.

I remembered getting on the W train two blocks from my house one morning and hearing others with the same, weird cough. And they had inhalers too. I chocked it up to coincidence. Or maybe I noticed it because now I had the same problem.

Those nights, before going to bed, I’d meditate to search for answers. All I could hear in my head back then was “Get out of New York.” So I did.

Over the next few years, I’d land in Austin and then skip to Alabama. New doctors in new cities gave me different medications to try. Some worked for a short time; others didn’t work at all. Whenever I got a cold, it triggered the asthma. On average, it took well over a month to recover from minor sniffles.

My mother occasionally weighed in to tell me how my sickness must be related to 9/11. I needed to report it to someone.

Since I grew tired of her nagging, I found the World Trade Center Health Registry on the web. Although I felt stupid calling, I spoke to a woman who asked me a litany of questions, including my old NYC address. Then she told me my “new form of asthma” sounded like 9/11 cough.

But they diagnosed me with cough-variant asthma, I told her.

Yes, she responded. That’s what they were telling people back then. She told me that if lived in New York, I could get free medical care for my respiratory illness. Perhaps I could get a doctor in Alabama to examine me, fill out the paperwork and send it in.

When the paperwork arrived at my house, I opened it, cried and shoved the forms into another pile of papers. I haven’t look at it since.

**

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The doctor has arrived. He checks the computer screen and we make small talk about Alabama. Where am I from originally? What brought me to the South? And about that 9/11 asthma …

The asthma came from the cloud that night, I told him. The smell of burnt metal and bodies woke me from a sound sleep. It was such an awful smell, I ran outside to the sidewalk because I thought my apartment was on fire. But I figured out the cloud it was in my neighborhood. Up until that moment, it didn’t occur to me the air was unsafe to breathe. I was really too stunned by everything I saw that day to think clearly. Then, the government reassured us all the air was fine.

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My friend, Sal from Little Italy… Nine months after 9/11, he was still getting bloody noses from breathing the air.

The doctor tries to be comforting. Maybe they didn’t know, he says.

Oh, I tell him. They knew.

**

Christie Todd Whitman, former EPA chief.
Christie Todd Whitman, former EPA chief.

I haven’t thought about Christie Todd Whitman in a long time. She was the Environmental Protection Agency chief who assured everyone the air was safe in the days after 9/11.

“Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C. that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink,” she told the country.

According to a 2003 report, the EPA had no basis to make such an announcement. No science, nothing. Even as we could all smell the asbestos, concrete, dead bodies and burnt plastics for months afterward, the government told us there was nothing to worry about.

This same report exposed how the National Security Agency controlled EPA communications, adding reassurances for residents while deleting precautions.

I knew then that my reality didn’t match what the government was telling me. And once your eyes are open, you can’t ever close them again.

**

The doctor wants me to get a tetanus/whooping cough shot, a flu shot and a blood test. Three needles in one day? That will not be happening.

The blood test is the most important, so I’m sent to the second floor blood lab. Sitting in a sterile waiting room with no magazines, I turn to my smart phone. The Senate Report on the CIA Torture Program has been released. I scroll through Twitter comments expressing shock.

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I’m stunned. How can they be shocked?

I’m not trying to be snarky. I really want to know. Because for years we’ve heard debates about whether torture is effective. Why would we have those debates if we weren’t doing it? Yes, it is horrific. Inexcusable. Evil.

And the American public has been conditioned to accept it through our culture and entertainment. It became the basis for TV shows and movies. The self-image reflected back to us, through Patriot Porn, is that we are a people who torture others. They deserve it. And isn’t it exciting to watch?

Do you think the stories we tell ourselves are accidental? Do you not think the government has a hand in our mainstream entertainment?

If I said this out loud during the Bush years, I would’ve been labeled a conspiracy theorist. Though my liberal friends were more open to questioning things. But once the Obama years were under way, they didn’t want to hear any of it. Questions led people to think you were a political traitor or racist. In fact, it seems as though many of my liberal friends have swallowed a piece of the dualistic Bush philosophy, tailored for their own ends. You are either with us or you are with the terrorists. Terrorist is defined as Republican. Don’t question anything. Don’t.

And then I consider what I learned while working as a Domestic Violence advocate in the ‘90s: Be careful. Sometimes what you protest against is what you become.

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**

The next morning, I start my shift as an English as a Second Language tutor. I study with people in Korea via an audio connection similar to Skype. For over two years, I’ve had 10- or 20-minute sessions with Koreans from all walks of life, including Buddhist monks, business executives, teachers, university students, and children. I speak with 25-30 Koreans daily during my morning and evening shifts.

The company calls them students; I call them friends. I’m given prepared lessons, though my friends can drop them at any time and practice having a spontaneous conversation with me. My sessions are recorded, so we can refer to them for later lessons.

My first session of the day is with Ann. She prefers to have conversations about current events. We have been friends now for almost two years. And we really are friends because we are the same age. In Korea, age defines relationships. Ann tells me we are equals and therefore, we can be good friends.

Yesterday, we talked about the Korea Air executive who turned her plane back to the gate because she was served nuts incorrectly. Ann believed the executive’s behavior brought great shame on Korea. I told her nobody in America thinks poorly of her country because of the actions of one individual. We understand how people are responsible for their own actions. She didn’t seem convinced.

Today, Ann knows about the CIA torture report and would like to know details, along with my opinions. I explain it as if I am a newscaster, telling her about the report and the American reaction to it.

Ann assures me that torture happens in many countries, even good ones. Then she tries to name a good country, but honestly can’t think of one. We laugh.

Their country’s CIA also tortured political activists and innocent people, she says. It was about 20 or 30 years ago.

I’m astonished by her admission because, during my lessons, most Koreans don’t want to talk about this part of their history. They will discuss the Miracle on the Han River, which covers the financial recovery from the Korean War. And they will discuss the IMF Crisis in the ‘90s, when the people came together to pay off the country’s debts. But there is a span of time that is not discussed, and it involves political instability, torture and assassination.

I even teach a debate lesson that asks whether terrorists should be tortured. My friends focus on the terrorist part, telling me that it isn’t a part of their experience. They never link the torture part to their own history.

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Ann tells me that torturers wrap their actions in patriotism because they believe they are protecting the country. But the people they tortured wanted democracy. It happened about 20 or 30 years ago. It was common, she says.

Did people ever go to jail, I ask.

No, she says. I don’t think so.

Americans are ashamed, I tell her.

No, no, she says once again. Torture happens in other countries too.

Our session is over before I can tell her I think the problem transcends politics. I don’t think it is a Republican or Democrat issue. Regardless of who we elect as president, the cancer still exists: The global surveillance as revealed by Edward Snowden is a continuing problem.  So much evil has happened in such a short time. We, as Americans, see our government as us. They are supposed to be us, but they’re not. I want to tell her I don’t recognize it and it frightens me.

But I think she would tell me, again, that this happens in other countries too. America is just like every other country on Earth.