It’s truly stupefying that today, in the midst of the Obama era, that legions of Americans continue to find it so easy to rationalize and doggedly defend the Bush administration’s torture program.
As more details are revealed it’s clear that never before in human history has such a complex system of abduction, international rendition, and judicial and legislative manipulations been employed to advance and empower an extremely narrow yet far reaching political agenda.
Bush and Co. have turned American democracy on its head and redefined political criminality and neo-fascistic hubris while injecting their poison into the minds of untold millions of Americans via a compliant and self-serving media system. They have rendered Orwell’s horrific vision for the future of humanity in ‘1984’, quaint. But above all, what is most astonishing to me is how they have made my 86 year old Italian-Catholic, Jesus loving mother, embrace torturers and denounce Peace Makers.
My two brothers and I used to have a good laugh when my parents would talk about the ‘good’ Mussolini brought to Italy. For my entire adult life, spirited political hyperbole and great food have always been a part of my family’s dinner table experience. ‘Pass the ravioli – the Japs deserved two nuclear bombs!’ ‘How could you say such a thing I thought you believed in Jesus?’
A study released in April by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press indicates the more often people attend church, the more likely they are to support torture. Sadly, the sobering data supports my own personal struggle growing up in an extremely conservative, Italian Catholic family. I will always remember my parents’ deep-seated belief that the biggest mistake ‘Il Duce’ ever made was aligning himself with Hitler (I think Hitler saw it the other way around) and how amazing my mother’s gnocchi were.
Even in the face of obvious political malfeasance and criminality, my parents always justified the ‘right’ and demonized the ‘left’. Diabolical acts like the bombing of Cambodia or My Lai or the blatant illegal dabblings of Richard Nixon, seemingly antithetical to the 12 years of Catholic education I received were always ‘justifiable’.
Although my mother would never admit it, she probably would grant the benefit of the doubt to the nefarious and twisted ambitions of the Inquisition. Murder and torture in the name of Jesus are ‘A- OK’, as long as the Pope gives his blessings, unless the Pope contradicts the President – then that’s another story. My mother is a truly wonderful and beautiful woman — she is just so profoundly frightened by what she has been told about the world, that her value system has been turned inside out.
My parents were children of Italian immigrants and have been ardent Republicans, defenders of Nixon, detractors of FDR, haters of the Beatles, unions, gays, environmentalism and consumer advocacy. As far as African Americans go, suffice to say that the angst ridden look on my parents’ faces is forever etched in my mind when I told them an African American girl (and Catholic) asked me to her prom and I accepted.
It was the first indication that I was on a different path. Although neither of them completed college, my father (now deceased) and mother were great, committed loving and intelligent parents who encouraged their three sons to aim high and achieve great things. But there was always this ever-present layer of fear based bigotry on their part that tainted our relationship and generated extremely frustrating and painful arguments.
Enrico Romolo Corsini was a proud first generation, Brooklyn born, Italian-American and a WWII and Army Air-Corps veteran. When we argued politics, he would always make me prove my claims. I would say to him, ‘Dad – the Soviet Union lost 20 million people during WWII’ and his classic response would be, ‘Show me where you read that! Who wrote that?…That can’t be true!’ and I would respond angrily, ‘Here it’s in your Encyclopedia Britannica!’ And I would open the volume and read down to the casualties. He was silent, then grumbled. Although it took a lot of effort, God bless his soul, Dad’s ego would succumb to the weight of evidence, albeit grudgingly. My mother is another story altogether.
My own political evolution toward a liberal point of view probably began on the day I witnessed a Catholic nun strike a six year old boy. Sister Mary Agnes, Principal of Holy Family grammar school was tall, skinny and had beady-eyes. Her coke-bottle lenses on 60s style pointy eyeglasses made her eyes shrink to the size of steely-cold ball bearings. She was scary. I clearly remember the day Sister Agnes made a young boy stand on a bench so she could have a clean swipe at him and reared back and slapped him across the face.
He collapsed to the asphalt. I caught the act of blatant child abuse from a distance as I was crossing an empty playground following recess – I was in eighth grade. More profoundly disturbing than the act itself, was the lack of response and incredulity my parents exhibited towards the revelation when I recounted the story.
This kind of ‘denial’ scenario would extend into my high school years when my brother and I would report to our parents the strange behaviors of a certain Franciscan priest who liked to wrestle 9th graders in an isolated room during ‘Saturday detentions.’ He was the Dean of Discipline. No joke. If you beat him, you could get out of your detention. He had a disgustingly protruding stomach and would take groups of a half dozen juvenile ‘detainees’ to a remote classroom, clear the desks and begin his matches.
He would make his opponents wear a leather ‘protective’ jacket to avoid marks and bruises and he liked to smother challengers with his massive gut. Being well trained football players, both my brother and I were able to defeat him, but only after nearly choking him to death in a head lock. I remember his eyes would bulge as sweat poured down his face – and he just wouldn’t give up. And although there was no overt sexual contact that I witnessed, I now understand that near asphyxiation was part of his sexual fetish. He was ‘getting off’ and we were ‘weirded’ out. My parents thought it was funny and we weren’t sure what to think.
Thirty years later Father Chris Kearney has been caught up in the church’s self-inflicted wounds of sexual abuse, scandals and mendacious cover-ups; in a way, a victim himself of unfathomable denial. Honestly, Father Chris was a likeable person. He wasn’t brutal and had a quirky sense of humor that most students liked. But he was sick and needed help. His behavior went on for two decades at the same High School implicating administrators, teachers and priests alike for their lack of attention and inaction. Everyone knew that Father Chris was a little ‘odd’ and no one did anything about it, including hundreds of parents. That’s where the real crime began.
Two hundred cases later and after nearly a billion dollars in liability has been paid out, Archdiocese of Los Angeles Cardinal Mahoney has publicly apologized for the church’s transgressions including those of Father Chris – and my mother remains dismissive and even refused my suggestion to see the film ‘Doubt’ with its uncanny presentation of the complexity of Church’s pedophilia cover-up scandals. One thing I can say about my Mom is that she has been consistent and tenacious in her denial.
For obvious reasons I left the church far behind as I began my college years at UC Santa Barbara, much to my mother’s disappointment. Ever since, although I love and would do anything for my Mom, she and I have had a highly antagonistic relationship primarily based on the moral hypocrisy she consistently displays between her ‘faith’ and the reactionary socio-political values of her cherished GOP and its sacrosanct media mouthpiece, the FOX News Channel.
She’s fans of Hannity, Bill-O, Rush and others of similar demeanor. Over the years, for my own mental health, I just had to accept the familial divide – but the task has proved to be more challenging than I ever could have imagined. Both my sense of spirituality and commitment to non-violence have been fundamentally challenged by my own mother, her self-righteous Catholicism and myopic Republican doctrines.
My life experience, education and professional work would say one thing, and she would say the opposite. Whether my insights from spending two years in the Peace Corps or my work producing
documentary films about the inner-city, she would always say ‘…why do you care so much about those people?’ For most of my life I was able to accept the differences between us, enjoy her as a loving mother well into my adult years and appreciate her impeccable Italian cooking. Then came the attacks of September 11th 2001 and everything changed, including the nature and tone of our political differences. Dinner at Mom’s has never been the same.
As America prepared for war and revenge, Pope John-Paul II admonished the Bush Administration publicly for its bellicosity and condemned all acts of vengeance. For once in my life I was able to feel inspired and hopeful that perhaps all was not lost with the church if the Pope was able to stand up for the essence of Christianity. Of course, we all know the outcome of that story. George Bush Sr. was immediately dispatched to the Vatican for a private audience with the maverick ‘Pontiff’. John-Paul would not budge on his position and the elder Bush returned to Washington licking his wounds from the greatest diplomatic defeat of his political career.
It’s no coincidence to me that soon afterward, the ‘revelations’ of the Catholic priest pedophile scandals reached fever pitch across the nation and especially here in Los Angeles. It seemed as though every day there was another nightmare story about priests having violated children. But the question begged to be ask, why all of a sudden did the issue explode into the mainstream when people had known about the church’s pedophile problem for a very long time?
It appears that there was a clear political consequence for the Pope taking the position he did. The American Catholic Bishops have fallen into line ever since and not a word in the pulpits about the ‘immorality’ of the war – and by extension, torture. The behavior of the American Bishops toward President Obama speaking at Notre Dame University’s commencement is yet another example of their profound hypocrisy. Pre-emptive war is acceptable, but not a woman’s right to choose.
But shockingly when I brought up the Pope’s position on the war to my mother, her response was ‘…well, that’s what the Pope is supposed to say? What are we to do, nothing?’ Then she accused me of being naïve. It was at that moment that I came to the incontrovertible conclusion that my mother is really a fascist because her response to the world around her was and remains grounded in fear, racism and arrogant American ‘exceptionalism.’ Facts be damned – we need to kick some ass. The Constitution is just another piece of paper.
The extent of the Bush-era global catastrophe is just beginning to emerge in the hearts and souls of Americans. It’s clear that Obama’s rise to the presidency was unequivocally enabled by the vast numbers of anti-war activists who marched consistently throughout the Bush years. I was one of them.
Despite my personal responsibilities, family and work, I marched, organized and committed hundreds of hours in the Los Angeles area working on a grass-roots level resisting the push to war and subsequent occupations. For me it was a simple question about what I wanted for my toddler son and teenage daughter – I refused to allow the Bush crimes to go unanswered – that somehow, I had to make an extended effort to challenge the status-quo.
One day in March of 2003 I was visiting friends and family in Europe just prior to the invasion of Iraq. I recall browsing the magazine rack in an Amsterdam bookstore and came across a Newsweek issue displaying the cover story “Bush and God”. I was aghast at the image of the President – striking a very ‘Calvinist’ and prayerful pose. A young Senegalese immigrant was standing next to me and sensed my displeasure with what I was seeing. He said to me, “America doesn’t deserve this.” It was one of the most profound and personally impactful statements about our country I had ever heard – from a West African immigrant, in an Amsterdam bookstore.
My return flight to Los Angeles was booked through Washington-Dulles and I decided that I would seize the moment. I purchased some foam-core and made a sandwich placard that read ‘War is Not the Answer’ on both sides. I tied the placards together, wrapped them in paper to cloak the message and boarded my flight from Brussels to Washington-Dulles. I had a 90 minute lay-over and my plan was to unwrap the placard, slip it over my shoulders and walk in silence down the center of the United Airlines terminal.
I was nervous, sweating yet determined. As I traversed the polished floors of the concourse making my quiet, yet highly visible demonstration against the war in the heart of American power, my action became a study in American ‘realpolitik’ as I gauged the range of responses from outright thumbs up support from African American airport janitorial staff, to hateful disdain and hard looks from pilots and cowboy-hat toting Texans. After walking up and down the crowded terminal several times, subjecting myself to a gauntlet of jeers and sneers before thousands of people, I sat down to pull myself together before making my connection to Los Angeles.
I was surprised that I wasn’t arrested – but I knew the key would be not to utter a word as I walked and it worked. While sitting down, still shaking from the intensity of the moment, a teenager was crossing the terminal with his mother, approached me and said, ‘Sir, I want to thank you and shake your hand for doing what you just did. It was the most courageous thing I have ever seen.’ As he turned and walked away tears welled up in my eyes because a total stranger, a teen no less, completely understood and appreciated the meaning and intention of my action – while I could only expect disdain from my own family if they ever knew what I had done.
Although the peace movement in those years failed to stop the war, it did succeed, despite a near total media blackout and negative bias, in demonstrating to the world that many millions of Americans stood in public opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. My mother called me an ‘anarchist’ as I flew to New York City to demonstrate against the Republican Convention in 2004. She said that I was ruining my life by becoming one of ‘them’.
I have to say Mom was right in some ways. I was a rare ‘forty-something’ activist, new to the game and I was definitely the exception among people I knew. My activism did undermine my work as a producer and my marriage suffered as well. But at the time, I followed what was deep in my heart and at the core of my being.
Despite the myth of a ‘liberal media’ broadcasters, newsrooms and production companies marginalized and ignored the masses of demonstrators standing against the war. They would often find ways to silence and purge individuals within their companies who dared challenge the mindless ‘group-think’ that lead America into the ‘quagmire’ we’re in today. I’m fully confident that my anti-war work has soured numerous job opportunities for me over the years. It’s sad, but true and a sacrifice that I chose to make.
Just recently my daughter was home from college and had dinner with her grandmother and one of my nephews. Following another of Noni’s fine homemade Italian meals, my daughter called me almost in tears and said ‘You won’t believe what Noni said about Obama – that’s he’s the anti-Christ and that closing down Guantanamo Bay show’d that he’s weak and that we have to torture these people to defend ourselves.’ Unfortunately and more significantly I learned that my 20 year old nephew agreed with all of these FOX News/Dick Cheney talking points stating, ‘Sometimes you just have to torture….’
The lesson has been painful and consistent. Fascism is a dark and twisted human phenomenon that transcends gender, ethnicity, borders, cultures, political parties, religions and even families. It lives with us and against us. It’s capable of justifying the worst, fear based and manipulative aspects of humanity; murder, torture, racism and war – even pedophilia. It steals lives and brainwashes and organizes masses of people to act against their own self-interest and that of their grandchildren, friends and families. It’s diabolical in nature and cloaks itself with many disguises – fascism lives on the ‘right’ as well as the ‘left’. It’s a cancer that feeds on our fears and insecurities and easily proliferates like the Swine Flu, into a pandemic catastrophe.
Things are indeed changing in America and President Obama is leading the way. But unfortunately the architecture of fascism in America is both physical and psychological and remains firmly entrenched. The new brand of American fascism’s deconstruction will transcend our lifetimes and may not succeed. As long as people like my 86 year old, Italian/Catholic mother can justify torture and diminish peace makers – it’s easy to understand how Hitler drove the world to the brink of oblivion with the support of his compliant and manipulated populations.
The ‘good German’ Nazi enabler, lives right next door and sometimes even within our own families. When masses of fellow Americans can attribute the worst of motives to Obama’s overtures toward diplomacy and peace and prohibitions against torture, the country has already crossed the threshold into fascism. Turning this paradigm around will require progressively minded Americans to confront and dissuade the forces of misguided hubris, ignorance and racism everywhere they find them, both in our personal and professional lives.
People cannot support torture while claiming to be Christian – they are mutually exclusive. Just like fascism and democracy. Sorry Mom, I love you and your pasta, but you and masses of other right-wingers out there and not the Beatles, homosexuals, Muslims, hippies or rappers, have undermined the footing of American democracy.
You have abandoned your own Christian values of humility, forgiveness and compassion and have empowered craven, greed driven politicians to frighten our nation into submission. It takes far more strength of character to stand for peace, than succumb to war. This is why Jesus was tortured and murdered by people who feared the truth. Fascists all of them!
Robert Corsini is a documentary filmmaker, producer and writer. Born and raised in Los Angeles, a graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara and a former Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, West Africa. Mr. Corsini has produced television news and various incarnations of ‘reality’ television for nearly twenty years with dozens of national credits with NBC News, Discovery Channel, TLC, PBS and PAX to his name.