Tom Paxton’s We Didn’t Know

(The first time I  heard this, the Vietnam War was raging.  It was sung either by The Kingston Trio or The Chad Mitchell Trio.  It requires no imagination to substitute words like, “I guess we’ve  gotta’  drop those bombs if we wanna’  keep Iraqis and Afghanis  free.”  Or,  “Torturing prisoners is an Al Qaeda game and you can bet they’re doing the same.”    Citizens and policy makers  who stand in the way of  a just reckoning for those who ordered torture  are writing   verses for all our children, grandchildren and theirs.)

We didn’t know said the Burgomeister,
About the camps on the edge of town.
It was Hitler and his crew,
That tore the German nation down.
We saw the cattle cars it’s true,
And maybe they carried a Jew or two.
They woke us up as they rattled through,
But what did you expect me to do?

We didn’t know at all,
We didn’t see a thing.
You can’t hold us to blame,
What could we do?
It was a terrible shame,
But we can’t bear the blame.
Oh no, not us, we didn’t know.

We didn’t know said the congregation,
Singing a hymn in a church of white.
The Press was full lf lies about us,
Preacher told us we were right.
The outside agitators came.
They burned some churches and put the blame,
On decent southern people’s names,
To set our colored people aflame.
And maybe some of our boys got hot,
And a couple of niggers and reds got shot,
They should have stayed where they belong,
And preacher would’ve told us if we’d done wrong.


We didn’t know said the puzzled voter,
Watching the President on TV.
I guess we’ve got to drop those bombs,
If we’re gonna keep South Asia free.
The President’s such a peaceful man,
I guess he’s got some kind of plan.
They say we’re torturing prisoners of war,
But I don’t believe that stuff no more.
Torturing prisoners is a communist game,
And You can bet they’re doing the same.
I wish this war was over and through,
But what do you expect me to do?

Words and Music by Tom Paxton

Torture Photos: Is a public release necessary?

It depends on our purpose.

In October 2003,  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)  sent  a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)  request to the Departments of Defense,   Homeland Security,  Justice  and several  other Bush Administration agencies.  The request was for  documents related to the US Government’s role in the torture and/or rendition of individuals in its custody.  The ACLU claimed,  “[The  Government has] failed to address the numerous credible reports recounting the torture and rendition of Detainees.  Nor have they explained what measures, if any, the United States has taken  to ensure compliance with its legal obligations with respect to the use of torture and the infliction of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or  punishment.  [And] to determine whether the United States is honoring its obligations under domestic and international law….”

Bush Administration officials refused to release the “torture photos” because, according to them,  the photos would inflame the Middle East, put unidentified individuals, groups and in-theater military personnel at risk and would run afoul of  international laws  prohibiting the public parade and humiliation of war prisoners.

In September 2004,  the US District Court in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) stated,  “Congress enacted FOIA to illuminate government activities.  The law was intended to provide a means of accountability, to allow Americans to know what their government is doing….  Yet, the glacial pace at which defendant agencies have been responding… shows an indifference  to the commands of FOIA.”  The judge also noted,  “As of today, eleven months later, with small exception, no documents have been produced by [the Department of Defense, et al].”

The District Court ordered the public release of  the photos after viewing a representative sample in camera (e.g. in the privacy of the Judge’s chambers).  Since then, the Federal judiciary has consistently ordered that the photos and other pertinent  documents be  redacted and released in compliance with national and international laws that prohibit the public humiliation of prisoners.

In August 2006,  the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the SDNY’s order to release the photos after  noting that the Bush Administration had interpreted certain legislative amendments to FOIA as “a diffuse and nebulous authority for keeping inflammatory information secret (though, curiously, only inflammatory information in law enforcement files).”  The Court continued, “Release of the photographs is likely to further the purposes of the Geneva Conventions by deterring future abuse of prisoners.”

On April 23, 2009,  the Obama Justice Department informed the Court that the Department of Defense would release its photos by May 28, 2009.

On May 13, 2009, nearly six years after the ACLU issued its first FOIA request, President Obama’s Justice Department informed the Court that the President had changed his mind,  “…upon further reflection at the highest levels of Government, the Government has decided to pursue further options regarding that decision…”  including a possible appeal to the US Supreme Court by June 9, 2009.

Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs expressed President Obama’s concern that release of the photographs would inflame the Middle East and increase the threat to US personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Obama team does not believe the Bush Administration adequately portrayed those risks in its Court filings and appeals.

Yesterday, The Huffington Post carried this ACLU response, “These photographs provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib….  Their disclosure is critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse.”

The U.S.  Federal Rules of Evidence state, “Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice… or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.”  In short,  not all relevant evidence is equal or admissible. A judge must determine whether its value as evidence substantially outweighs its potential harm.

There’s also a notion in civil societies  that an inflamed person is unlikely to be judicious.

Is it reasonable to believe that “The Amorphous Middle East” would be inflamed by a 24-7  media blitz of photos in which an occupying military force tortures citizens of  foreign lands?  Will “The Amorphous Middle East” see the photos as evidence  of the  Bush Foreign Policy, distinct from Obama’s?  And,  will that Middle East view efforts to hide the photos as a continuation of Bush policies?

One friend I spoke with said she wants the photos disseminated publicly. “Maybe pictures will  make Americans feel shame.  Maybe pictures will provoke an American conversation about who we really are and what ethics we really believe in.  Maybe it’ll force the politicians to really do something.”

Maybe;  but I doubt  the photos will stimulate the American public to a greater outrage.   Many of the people I know have been outrage- saturated by a plethora of criminal actions and a dearth of incarcerations.  Thankfully, the ACLU has a ton of arrows in its quiver.

Germany was shamed after World War I and a handful of years later we fought World War II.   We fire-bombed Germany during World War II and held them to account at Nuremburg. Germany is now home to one of the world’s fastest growing populations of Skinheads and other xenophobes.  Whether or not  cause and effect can be proved  in those examples,  they tell us  that shame is not a cure-all.

Our purpose, as opined by  the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, should be to deter “future abuse of prisoners”  and to ensure, as the ACLU demands,  that  “the United States is honoring its obligations under domestic and international law….”

We have a system of justice intended to do just that.  We place the accused on trial.  We hear the evidence against and for  them.  We release or punish them.  As a matter of course,  we  parade our convicted felons publicly.  We hope that their shame will deter others – will demonstrate our adherence to the rule of law.

With that in mind, whether the photos are released publicly or viewed in camera or by a jury,  the real issue is not which evidence will be presented (there’s tons) but rather, will Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, Dick Cheney, et al stand in the dock.  Will they be paraded publicly to cleanse rather than inflict shame?

A public trial of those who conceived and implemented the torture policy would stimulate a discussion about the American ethic and reassure the world of our honorable intention to uphold our ideals. Without that,  publishing the photos is just more Bread & Circuses and I fear, provocation.


Legal documents at ACLU website

Grandparents, The Old Arts and New Ways

Wherever they  lived,  Grandma Marje and Grandpa Amos cultivated the land.  Their organic vegetables, chickens and eggs  sustained their family and neighborhood through the Great Depression. In the 1950s, they came to live with my parents, brother, sister and me.  Soon after, the whole kit and kaboodle packed up and moved to a place with more tillable land.

Together, we grew  enough  organic veggies to feed the east side of Cleveland year-round, re-built the chicken coops, re-wired the farmhouse, dug a new well and harvested  apples, strawberries, cherries and big sweet black caps.

While Mom and Dad worked “real jobs” for money, Grandpa built our beds, wardrobes and china cabinets, ran new electric wiring and plumbed the water pipes running from the well to the faucets.  We ate fish out of the creek and eggs from the hens.  Grandma  baked our bread, crocheted our rag rugs, sewed our clothes and preserved the harvest.  When her fingers were too gnarled with arthritis for needlework,  she spent most Wednesday’s at The Goodwill Store, combing through the bargain bins.

*   *   *

In the spring, with her neck bent far back,  Grandma  stared long and hard at the  black walnut tree.  She was hatching a plan that would harvest every nut the tree could yield.

When  the first frosts of autumn turned their husks green-yellow, I gathered the “tree-fall” nuts in a red wagon and dumped them on drying screens in the garage.  Night after night, the family  crushed and peeled the leathery husks so the shells inside could be dried, cracked and the meat dug out. Our fingers were stained black-green till the New Year.

*   *   *

The snowdrifts were up to Grandpa’s  knees and I was perched on his shoulders as he tramped from the kitchen to the south-facing hill where our cold-frames nested. The frames were constructed of old windows and lumber  rescued from a barn we’d torn down.  Through long afternoons, Grandpa had shown me how to putty the battered  sashes and glaze the old panes.  When finished, the cold-frames were large and tight enough that we  had leafy greens all winter to supplement the carrots, yams, potatoes and onions stored in the root cellar.

It was Gramps’ and my job to clear the cold-frames of snow after a storm  so the sun’s warmth reached through the glass to the lettuce and spinach.  In a few weeks, we’d transplant  seedlings grown indoors, but that morning, as he  tramped through the drifts with me on his shoulders, we were cold and ready for one of Grandma’s breakfasts: fresh bread, eggs  collected before sunrise and strawberry preserves that tasted of the day we’d picked the fruit.

*   *   *

When I (and years later, my children)  jumped off the school bus and ran toward the house,  grandparents waited in the yard. Always, while parents worked at jobs that took them from home, we were greeted by grandparents tilling gardens, planting trees, laying stone, hauling wood, canning vegetables and baking bread.   There was a center to our lives that we could trust, no matter what.

*   *   *

My memories of a family that didn’t make a million dollars but provided itself with much of what it needed from what it  had at hand are at the root of CottageWorks.

As a child, I yearned for store-bought clothes and toys.  Even Grandma, for all her living and baking from scratch, lusted after   Miracle Mix White Bread and chewy Archway cookies.

Today, I want a world where we value our shared labor and take no more than we need. Where money isn’t the only currency and barter is encouraged.  CottageWorks is young but I hope  it becomes a place where we preserve  the old arts and the fruits of our unique labors.

In that spirit, when you have a chance to stop by  CottageWorks,  think  of a skill or trade you can share.  Email me your idea and I’ll bet we can make it happen.  I’m interested in most everything  from jewelry- making to dowsing for water so you’ve got no excuses.

Then,  skip  over to Domesticities & The Cutting Garden.  Email or call Anne and Fritz about the “Story Booth” they’re putting together. Help them build a future that doesn’t neglect the past by recording your memories of the good ole days.

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