Abu Ghraib troubles Americans abroad

May 26, 2004|By Laura Hambleton

PRETORIA, South Africa -- Until about nine months ago, when we moved from Chevy Chase to Pretoria, my 9-year-old son read the newspaper every day. He started with the sports pages, flipped to the end of the feature section for the comics and finished by studying the front page. He crunched his cereal while he scanned the headlines and read captions. On the occasion when a photograph caught his eye, he would often read the story.

In South Africa, my son's newspaper habit has gone dormant. He doesn't yet love the country's rugby team, the Springboks, as he loves his New England Patriots. He hasn't learned the ins and outs of cricket, as he knows every nuance of the Boston Red Sox. He now glances at a local newspaper if it is left out on the kitchen counter, searching for a comic strip.

He did so the other day when the Pretoria News carried a front-page picture of Army Pfc. Lynndie R. England in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. I watched my son reach for the paper to pull it toward him, but I was quicker. I deftly turned the paper toward me and turned to an inside page of comics. I committed an age-old act: diverting the attention of my child from a harsh reality. The irony is I am the wife of a newspaperman and the day's news is our dinnertime conversation. This time, though, I didn't want to approach the subject.

My son loves America. He defends it and promotes it. A few months ago, a boy in his class said that South Africa has the best beaches. My son countered by asking if the boy had been to Delaware, North Carolina, Florida, Maine, California. Now there are beautiful beaches, he said.

But what ammunition would he have to defend the actions of American soldiers in Iraqi prisons? For that matter, what would he make of the beheading of 26-year-old Nicholas E. Berg, in a game of one-upmanship?

To be sure, war is treacherous and messy, as is the aftermath, which the photographs so succinctly and powerfully portray. Even the Federal Express man who comes to my house at least once a week to deliver packages told me that everyone does these heinous acts in war. No big deal, in his mind. The bizarreness now is someone documented it, he said.

Perhaps that is exactly the point, because the contrast between Private England's smiling face -- real or staged -- and the words first used when we rode into Iraq on such a high moral ground are jarring.

No wonder I am not feeling high and mighty these days as an American overseas. I bowed my head and spoke quickly when I bought a newspaper at my neighborhood news stand the other day with the headline, "How the CIA teaches the world to torture."

"I'm ashamed to be an American right now," said a friend in an e-mail from Rome. "And I'm very, very angry that these people were stupid enough to act in these reprehensible ways. The outpouring of support and sympathy after 9/11 here was a beautiful thing. Flowers covered the entire entrance to the embassy and made all of us Americans cry. Most of that feeling has completely disappeared now."

The father of one of my son's friends told me recently that when a driver asked him where he was from, he hesitated. He almost said Canada, as some Americans here say and American journalists have said for many months in Iraq, but he admitted the United States. The driver responded with a drawn-out "Ohhh."

I often am stopped and asked which part of the States I live in, after someone hears my accent. I am asked if I like South Africa and where I've been. A man I walk with many Sunday mornings with our dogs tells me how he'd like to move to America and that he likes President Bush.

I hear it a lot.

At the same time, my 12-year-old daughter tells people I didn't fly a flag after 9/11. I didn't put a flag sticker on my car, and I don't wear red, white and blue on the Fourth of July.

What kind of American are you? she asks, half in jest and half looking for a serious answer.

I am an American who loves my country, but I expect so much more from it, especially when I'm living in a place such as South Africa, where the majority of the people for so long had no voice.

As my son has, the world gave America the benefit of a doubt. In Pretoria, and around the world, that no longer seems true.

Laura Hambleton is a freelance journalist who lives in Pretoria, South Africa.

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