Reclaiming Omelas

Thursday, September 21st, 2006

“In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads stand near a rusty bucket. … In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops.”

— Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”

Now that even Republicans are gagging on the war on terror, as lavish descriptions of psychosis-level torture seep into the mainstream — and as a flailing, unpopular president clings in the face of reason to his right to maintain a gulag of “enemy combatants” (for God’s sake, George, most of them are innocent) — Americans are finding themselves on the brink of the moral debate they’ve been trying to avoid for the last, oh, 50 years or so. It’s been brewing my whole lifetime.

We’ve shuddered at our foundations, and changed fundamentally, twice in our history: during the Civil War and the Great Depression. Now President Bush, in his doubt-free arrogance, has forced the ugly paradox of who we have become, in this last half century of unprecedented prosperity and unprecedented fear, out into the open.

“Debate” is hardly the right word, since the moral niceties at stake are hardly academic, and since the bouncers that police our institutions of public discourse won’t allow it. The gatherings of elected representatives (once you’re in, play it safe) and the media forums of popular culture (which traffic in celebrities and their scandals) function as distractions. They lack the courage to probe national matters that are soul-deep.

Still, something’s gotta give.

“In the few short years since the first shackled Afghan shuffled off to Guantanamo,” Patrick Quinn of the Associated Press wrote this week, “the U.S. military has created a global network of overseas prisons, its islands of high security keeping 14,000 detainees beyond the reach of established law. … Captured on battlefields, pulled from beds at midnight, grabbed off streets as suspected insurgents, tens of thousands now have passed through U.S. detention.”

They live in cages. They have no rights. They’re in our custody forever, or until we decide, inscrutably, that we’re done with them and eject them, broken, back into whatever remains of their lives.

Only the hard-shell security extremists continue to insist that this is necessary, that we’re safer because of it. For the rest of us, the sham is becoming more and more bizarre, and in spite of ourselves we find ourselves empathizing, to the extent possible, with the shattered detainees our government insists are our enemies.

The president can only hope that empathy will never trump fear, and that his Christian supporters keep believing that the core Bible verses they learned as children — Matthew 25:40, for instance (“And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’”) — aren’t meant to be taken seriously.

But even as polls track Bush’s plummeting popularity and seem to indicate that our moral principles are kicking in, the president’s rhetoric on war and national security remains unapologetic and unchanged, as though, eerily, his allegiance is elsewhere: to some value system we’re not privy to.

In pondering this phenomenon, I thought about Ursula Le Guin’s prescient short story (or “psychomyth,” as she calls it), “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which was published in 1974.

In this burnished gem of a story — one of the most troubling I’ve ever read — Le Guin postulates a utopian city called Omelas, whose residents are joyous, loving and creative, their lives the fulfillment of all human striving. The scenario is seductive, though hardly credible, so the author pauses midway in the story to ask: “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.”

And she tells us about the child, who had been ripped away from a mother it still remembers and locked forever in a squalid mop room. Its absolute misery constitutes the terms of the city’s prosperity and happiness. All the residents of Omelas know about the child, their visit to its cell in early adolescence a coming-of-age ritual.

They leave in tears, but most wind up accepting the bargain: one child’s misery in exchange for the happiness of thousands. A few, however, “walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. … It is possible that it does not exist.”

Here’s what’s different in the real world: As we walk away from Bush’s America, we also stand our ground. We’ve done it before. We’re reclaiming a nation that was conceived not as a utopia but in human ideals, which once again require our full commitment.