Lisa Martinovic: Is Guilt Obsolete?
- Because we're Americans. We have no regrets
Is Guilt Obsolete?
by Lisa Martinovic
Now that the various Abu Ghraib commissions have finished their
unseemly tap dance around the assignation of blame, it's time to
explore some of the subtler, far-reaching implications of
Before Abu Ghraib, before Fallujah, in fact just weeks before the
whole shock and awe campaign was to launch, came news of a preemptive
strike -- on memory. The stealth attack was initiated by clever
scientists who thought not of a cure for infectious greed, or a
vaccine against the plague of moral relativism, but instead prepared
to market a pill that will help us forget what we cannot bear to
To the unimpeded brain, painful memories provoke responses as varied
as solemn reflection, incapacitating fear, or self-imposed exile to
the bleak landscape of guilt and regret -- depending on our role in
the precipitating event.
But with a very off-label use of the beta-blocker propranolol,
doctors can stop the emotions associated with a traumatic event from
embedding in the brain where they otherwise act like land mines;
every time they're triggered, an explosion of memories forces us to
relive the grief we suffered or inflicted.
Scientists seeking to spare the rape victim her trauma forgot that
what's good for the victim is good for the perp, forgot there might
be a downside to sealing off access to a conscience -- the very
capacity that defines us as human and endows us with compassion and
empathy. Imagine: our internal moral compass, painstakingly honed by
evolutionary forces over millennia, circumvented by one little pill.
And wouldn't this pharmacological end-run come in handy during the
preemptive wars of the future? Handy for any soldier not sufficiently
amputated from his emotions by military hardening and pre-battle
infusions of sado-porn and methamphetamine; useful for those medics
who cannot block the acrid stench of charbroiled flesh; and essential
for the Special Forces operative who's not far enough away from
collateral or intentional damage to pretend that this strike was
surgical and he a mere technician.
So if he's close enough, and sober enough, his senses not dulled
enough to keep him from taking in the enormity of his deed, he can
instead take the warring-after pill and feel no pain, suffer no
remorse, believe he was just doing his duty. He'll go home PTSD-free,
kiss his wife, and get on with his life. He may still father deformed
children and die of cancer the VA insists is unrelated to depleted
uranium, but by God he'll die with no regrets at all.
But that was before shock and awe, before Fallujah, and before Abu
Ghraib where American soldiers and their digital cameras proved that
there was no big bonanza for the pharmaceutical companies because
among the perpetrators there was no guilt that needed to be
medicated, nor memories to be short-circuited.
To the contrary, the offending troops were so unconcerned with the
legality and morality of their behavior that they chose to
immortalize it, gleefully sharing those memories with friends and
family. Pfc. Lynndie England apparently spoke for many when she
testified to her belief that she had done nothing wrong. (It's not
like we were beheading anyone.) Likewise, for Rush Limbaugh and a
startling number of Americans, the whole episode was on par with a
fraternity prank, little more than light amusement for the troops.
Others among us pray that those same troops will someday discover
that you can't dehumanize your enemy without diminishing your soul.
And those further up the chain of command? Apparently, if all you did
was order the torture, or look the other way, or sign a Presidential
Directive authorizing it in the name of national security, well
you've got no trauma to get over, do you?
And, perhaps, no soul to wound.
In the end, we are all being poisoned by a culture that breeds
generals who boast our god is better than theirs; a nation where
lawyers are paid good money to decide who is eligible for civil
rights and who for torture; and a press corps that laughs along with
a president who jokes about not finding the weapons of mass
destruction he dreamed up to justify a war he can't win.
In such a culture that little pill for guilt is obsolete.
Because we're Americans.
We have no regrets.
We're in a war on terror and our humanity is just so much collateral
The use of memory-blunting pharmaceuticals has not been much
reported, though it deserves to be. Even the President's Council on
Bioethics has concerns. Check them out at
Lisa Martinovic is an artist, essayist and performance poet whose
work has appeared in print and online, from the San Francisco
Chronicle to commondreams.org. She has written and voiced
commentaries for several NPR affiliates, including KQED in San
Francisco, and her poetry is featured in numerous anthologies
including The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, Will Work for Peace,
and Poetry Slam. Currently on hiatus from performing, Lisa is busy
marketing her recently completed screenplay, a scorching political
satire that aspires to inspire multitudes.
Her website is: www.slaminatrix.com
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