Saturday, August 4, 2007

What the US Stands For

In an article for McClatchy Newspapers, Mike Drummond reports that a US Military base in Iraq has set up separate latrines for the Iraqis who work with them at tremendous risk to their lives. “It’s been nearly 60 years since President Harry Truman ended racial segregation in the U.S. military,” Drummond writes. “But at Forward Operating Base Warhorse it’s alive and well, perhaps the only U.S. military facility with such rules, Iraqi interpreters here say.” Iraqis are also face special restrictions in the dining hall. “It’s to keep problems from happening,” said Army Capt. Janet Herrick, a public affairs officer. “It’s a preventive measure . . . so no one gets belittled.” Drummond writes:

But the Iraqis who’re paid $80,000 to $120,000 a year for their interpreting services are offended.

“It sucks,” Ahmed Mohammed, 30, said of the latrine policy. He called the signs - in English and Arabic - “racist.”

He’s worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military since 2004. He’s college educated and well versed in the ways of Western plumbing. He said Warhorse was the only American base where he’d encountered U.S.-only signs on latrines and country-of-origin restrictions on dining hours.

“I live in the same tent with 80 Americans,” he said.

Mohammed works for L-3 Titan Group, a unit of New York-based L-3 Communications. He declined to have his picture taken for publication. He fears for his life. He said his brother was killed last year in Baghdad for working for an American company.

Drummond quotes Laila al Qatami, spokeswoman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington: “I don’t understand having separate bathrooms. It seems to go against everything that the United States stands for.”

I suppose what she really means is that it seems to go against everything that US politicians and governmental officials say it stands for. For to me, a policy of separate bathrooms seems to be in tune with everything that the US actually stands for and more obviously seems to be in perfect harmony with our own national history. I’m old enough to remember seeing separate bathrooms, separate drinking fountains in public places as a child traveling in the South. And the ink’s barely dry on the recent US Supreme Court decision sabotaging the long struggle for racial integration in the US’s educational institutions. Politicians like the POTUS often use phrases like “everything that the United States stands for” with deliberate hypocrisycovering over the ugly history and ugly reality with a smirk.

I realize Laila al Qatami is speaking here in the register of “should” rather than that of “what really is.” But I wonder just how useful that register is in 2007, given the ease and frequency with which US politicians speak lies.

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