Story By Ken Krayeske • 1:00 PM EST
Russian writer Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, pictured here in 1945 during his time in Soviet prison system, painstakingly documented the experience of just a few of the millions who arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and worked to the death in mass concentration camps.
Needed an ax to shatter the frozen lake within my soul the other night, and by chance, pulled The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956, off my bookshelf.
I've had Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn's paperback, a yellowing 1974 first edition (priced at $1.95), in my library for at least a decade. I don't even know where I got it, a tag sale or a second hand store or an aunt's attic. The story about Soviet concentration camps, first printed in 1973, always seemed important, but I never mustered the courage to open the two-inch thick opus.
For some reason, Monday night, I sought change, new experience to wake me up before I drifted to sleep. Solzhenitsyn cracked my ice mind. He called the first chapter: "Arrest."
Arrest! Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you? That it is an unassimilable spiritual earthquake not every person can cope with, as a result of which people often slip into insanity?
The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: "You are under arrest."
If you are arrested, can anything else remain unshattered by this cataclysm?
But the darkened mind is incapable of embracing these displacements in our Universe, and both the most sophisticated and the veriest simpleton among us, drawing on all life's experience, can gasp out only: "Me? What for?"
And this is a questions which, though repeated millions and millions of times before, has yet to receive an answer.
Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another.
For all of America's prison culture, for our habit of incarceration, for our huge population behind bars, for our desire to punish and for our passive acceptance of Guantanamo Bay, American literature lacks such a vivid description of the experience of arrest.
Our literary canon accurately paints the squalor and oppression of slavery. Alex Haley's portrait of Kunte Kinte's kidnapping and the brutality of the Middle Passage leads directly to the angry prison letters of George Jackson. Tales from captured whites tend to soften the experience. We should draw spiritual sustenance from the night Henry David Thoreau spent in jail.
And of those that spend their lives in jail unjustly? Most of us have never heard Mumia Abu Jamal's clear news voice from death row. And how many could identify Maher Arar's chilling story of extraordinary rendition to Syria, sold out to torture in what seems like a global conspiracy between Canada, the United States and Syria?
Yet Arar's narrative, worthy of an apology from the Canadian government, is all but censored here, not just by a compliant press, but by a collective disbelief that it can't happen here.
Instead, we see arrests from the perspective of the law enforcement personnel, and that shifts our sympathies to authority. The embedded cameras riding along with officers in reality tv/news shows like "Cops" always show the pursuit from the hunter's point of view.
Solzhenitsyn collected the stories of hundreds hunted by the Soviet police apparatus. The senselessness reported in just the first 10 pages makes the blood boil. Take this truth of two women: the first disappeared, the second went to the police station to ask what to do with the missing mother's crying baby. They took her to a prison camp, too. What happened to the baby? Who knows?
Based on the scale of arrests in Soviet Russia, the mass political arrests drove an economy, jobs that brought loyalty and stability to a controllable part of the country. The United States has a similar prison-industrial complex. Geronimo Gi-Jaga, a former Black Panther, claims that every black man in jail is a political prisoner.
The question becomes, how do we turn it around? Can we abolish our network of prisons before it is too late? How do we wake those who sleeps through liberty's grave crisis? First, we must tell what has happened so far. We must talk about Guantanamo, Maher Arar, and Bagram. We must talk about the Bush Adminstration's de facto suspension of the Constitution, its destruction of Habeas Corpus.
We must pursue war criminals, and we must cut Homeland Security's budget, so idle state police officers in Maryland and Connecticut and who knows how many other states have better things to do than to spy on activists, political parties and journalists.