January 24-30, 2007

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The Byrne Report

Morgue News

By Peter Byrne

Until the day she visited the Morgue, Irene Beltrán had lived in angelic ignorance, not from apathy or stupidity but because ignorance was the norm in her situation.
--Isabel Allende, Of Love and Shadows

One of my favorite authors, Isabel Allende, resides in Marin County. How lucky we are to have her in our midst. Of course, her books reside everywhere that people read, so the whole world is lucky. Like so many others, I admire Allende because she creates in her fiction a true picture of human reality. Her novels investigate real life with a journalistic flair. They are more true as accounts of human suffering and its causes than the mainstream media articles that typically sanitize stories about poverty, oppression, patriarchal excess, war atrocities and business agendas--smothering emerging political fire with a foam of disinformation.

Like her mother and so many others of her social class, she escaped into the orderly, peaceful world of the fashionable neighborhoods, the exclusive beach clubs, the ski slopes, the summers in the country. Irene had been educated to deny any unpleasantness, discounting it as a distortion of the facts.

When the gruesome video of Saddam Hussein's lynching popped up in cyberspace, I clicked on it with heavy heart. Witnessing Saddam's death in the same dark, squalid chamber where he murdered his political enemies when he was America's friend, I saw beyond the cold-blooded extinguishment of one man. For I do not avert my eyes from seeing the American-sponsored horror that streams daily out of Iraq, Gaza, Beirut, Afghanistan and the Abu Ghraib Archipelago. I have seen the photographs of weeping mothers and stone-faced fathers carrying the limp bodies of children killed by hellfire missiles manufactured in "Christian" America.

In my life, I have seen hundreds of photographs of murdered bodies piled up in anonymous mounds inside the morgues of Baghdad, Kandahar, Mogadishu, Panama City, Managua, Guatemala City, San Salvador, Santiago and on and on. And every time I see them, my heart shudders. And I must see them, because if I refuse to see them, then I am without a heart, without a sense of humanity, without a moral being.

Irene had lived surrounded by the gales of hatred, but remained untouched by them behind the high wall that had protected her since childhood. Now, however, her suspicions had been aroused, and making the decision to enter the Morgue was a step that was to affect her entire life.

The photographs of children being burned alive by American napalm dropped on Vietnamese peasant villages galvanized millions of people around the world to protest and fight for the American withdrawal from that bomb-blasted country a quarter century ago. Our military-informational complex learned a lesson in media-management from the overexposure of the Vietnamese genocide. You will be hard-pressed today to find a major media outlet running photographs of the dismembered Iraqi children we kill for profit. But make no mistake, it is our "angelic" indifference to genocide that fuels genocide. Yes, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Powell and Rice will answer to history for their crimes against humanity, but so will we commodity-satiated Americans who have become adept at hiding from political responsibility behind manufactured ignorance. The truth is we do not want to see real dead children on our televisions.

She had never seen a dead body until the day she saw enough to fill her worst nightmares. She stopped before a large refrigerated cellar to look at a light-haired girl hanging on a meat hook in a row of bodies. . . . Horrified, she stared at the extensive marks of beatings on the body, the burned face, the amputated hands. . . . When she left Irene Beltrán was no longer the same; something had shattered in her soul.

In Allende's novel, the heroine, Irene Beltrán, who is a journalist, bravely documents a series of political murders performed by North American-approved militarists. Her story, supported by grisly photographs, sparks a rebellion against a Latin American oligarchy. Because Beltrán opens her eyes and dares to report what she actually sees, reality changes for the better.

So often, I hear from people, "Sure, it is horrible what we are doing in Iraq, but I am powerless, I can do nothing." Learn from Allende: That is not true! When we do nothing, we are doing something. And just as every flutter of a butterfly's wings matters in the cauldron of global weather that creates both hurricane and Elysian breeze, so does every protest against injustice matter. When we open our eyes and dare to shout, we make a difference, even if it is only to our children. And, believe me, they are watching.

Contact Peter Byrne or send a letter to the editor about this story.