My morning at work started with this gchat with my buddy Max:
Max: guess who I saw on K street this morning. i’ll give you a hint: he’s evil
me: doesn’t exactly narrow it down…Eric Cantor? Tim Pawlenty?
Max: wayyyyyy more evil
me: Newt Gingrich? Oliver North?
Max: more evil
me: more evil than Newt and Ollie North? Must be a real monster. war-related?
Max: oh yeah
Max: haha you wish. you are red hot though
me: Donald Rumsfeld?
Max: Ding ding ding
me: no shit?
Max: yeah he was walking by Farragut North
me: that’s fucked up. what did you do?
Max: nothing, i went to work and told you
what was I supposed to do? Call the Hague?
me: idk, i feel like i would have to say something. Donald Rumsfeld shouldn’t be able to just walk around like everyone else, at least not without some pushback. There’s a reason he can’t go to a lot of countries. He’s a fucking war criminal
Max: easy for you to say now but cmon, you really going to make a scene on the street?
I’ve been pondering this question for hours. What would I do if I saw Donald Rumsfeld in public? What should I do? It’s not hypothetical; I work by Farragut North. If he’s so cavalier, I could run into Donald Rumsfeld one of these days. The larger question is: how should anonymous citizens behave when they see a celebrity in public? Is engagement inappropriate? Does the etiquette change when the celebrity is responsible for untold suffering and death?
I’m reminded of this stanza in a Joseph Fink poem I read in The Toast last year:
In New York, no one looks at celebrities.
We pretend they don’t exist.
We look through them.
They shout “help.”
They shout “help please I’m on fire.”
(Sometimes the celebrities are on fire.)
But we see that they are famous
and so we just act like they aren’t there.
We move out of the way so we don’t catch on fire too,
but other than that we act like they aren’t there.
Also homeless people, although they are only metaphorically on fire.
As with New York, the question of how to act around celebrities in public is especially germane to Washington, where the nation’s architects and arbiters of wealth and power walk and take the Metro among us. Political and media figures aren’t movie stars, they’re more important. Their actions affect the material conditions of the public and dictate the direction of the country. Some you like and agree with, while others you believe to be willfully endangering the country and the planet. So how do you play it in public, especially in the latter case?
I think most would agree to a basic social contract: you should play it cool, let the person go about their business, refrain from being a jackass. If you see someone you like, it may be appropriate to recognize them and voice your support (If I saw Rachel Maddow on the street, I would enthusiastically thank her). But otherwise, the general rule of thumb is definitely to leave the celebrity alone, even—or perhaps especially—if you dislike them. If you don’t have something nice to say, shut the hell up and keep walking.
But Donald Rumsfeld. Donald Rumsfeld is different.
Donald Rumsfeld is a war criminal whose words and deeds have engendered human misery on a massive scale. This isn’t a partisan political statement, it’s a legal and moral indictment of a man whose disregard for human dignity has left a lasting stain on the United States. Rumsfeld was, along with Dick Cheney, the chief architect, salesmen, and overseer of the illegal and disastrous Iraq War that killed at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians and 4,491 American servicemembers. Needlessly, of course. Iraq was an elective, pre-emptive war of aggression, a violation of the U.N. Charter, which permits invasions only in cases of self-defense or when the Security Council has approved. It destabilized the region and bankrupted the United States. It spawned a new generation of anti-American zealotry that will continue to plague us and pull us into foreign conflicts where many more will die. Words cannot express the extent of the damage that the Iraq War has done to our country, their country, the planet. To say that Donald Rumsfeld has blood on his hands is an understatement.
But that’s not all! He also sanctioned the use of torture on America’s prisoners, a plain violation of the Geneva Convention and a transgression against mankind. Rumsfeld directly authorized the use of inhumane interrogation techniques like waterboarding and the sort of sexual humiliation famously found at Abu Ghraib. He violated the U.S. War Crimes Act, which prescribes life imprisonment or death. Beyond the legal ramifications, America’s use of torture ceded any moral edge we had over our enemies and impelled countless thousands to take up arms against us. Torture has left a permanent stain on our nation and people and left us all less safe. Oh, and to tack one more thing on, Rumsfeld also oversaw a DoD program of coordinated extrajudicial executions around the world. Few men have committed such evil and suffered so few consequences.
I find it outrageous that Donald Rumsfeld is a free man, much less one who would show his face in public like it’s no big deal. It makes me really mad. So, in answer to my friend’s question, if I saw Rumsfeld on the street, I feel like it would be my duty to confront him, to call him out for his villainy, to make it slightly less comfortable for him to walk the streets among decent people. I would consider it an act of cowardice to remain silent. Civility goes out the window pretty quick when you commit the sort of crimes Rumsfeld has. I wouldn’t think to lay a finger him or do anything else illegal, but I would start to shout, to make people in the vicinity aware that such a monster was in their midst. I would follow Rumsfeld until he reached his destination, blasting him for his crimes against humanity all the while. I would look the man in the eye and excoriate him to the extent that I could and face whatever consequences arose. I would have to.
There is a precedent for this. In 2009, Rumsfeld was in DuPont Circle waiting for a bus when a man started berating him, calling him a warmonger and a rapist for his handling of the Iraq War. As this transpired, onlookers stood silently, watching the scene, until the man started yelling at them for not being similarly outraged by Rumsfeld’s presence. You can read the man’s account here.
I love that this guy confronted Rumsfeld and enumerated some of his crimes, but what I love most is that he started yelling at the bystanders for not being outraged along with him. What a righteous scene. And yet, by most accounts, the guy yelling at Rumsfeld was out of line. He was the asshole, not Rumsfeld. In Washington, berating a political figure in public is apparently more looked down upon than leading an illegal war that claimed the lives of nearly 5,000 Americans. That Donald Rumsfeld can walk unadulterated through the streets of Washington is an indictment on the people who live and work here. Those in this city, like the white moderates of which Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, seem to care far more for order than for justice.
Not me. If I ever see Donald Rumsfeld in public, I’m going to make a scene. You should too. Rumsfeld had no compunction about authorizing wanton acts of physical and psychological cruelty against his fellow human beings, so I think he can handle a little street heckling.