Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Making “the invisible man” visible

In a recent sermon posted on this site (“Imagine the Sojourner”), the importance of imagination is stressed with regard to the plight of defenseless people, in particular those suffering under torture. Another way of getting at the same point is to say with the great writer Joseph Conrad, “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see.”[1] Ralph Ellison titled his immortal novel about the black struggle The Invisible Man. We don’t know what kind of president Barack Obama will be, but when the Obamas disembarked from Air Force One in London this week, the whole world could see that the African-American black man and woman are no longer invisible. For that, God be praised.

But Conrad’s task has scarcely begun. It takes work to see another person in Conrad’s sense. It requires effort to imagine oneself in strange, unfamiliar, or discomfiting circumstances. It is not our nature to do this work; it grinds against what is comforting and soothing. We who do not do it should greatly honor those who do—the writers of literary fiction, like Conrad, who make us see the “nigger,” the outcast, the alien. The filmmakers also, in recent movies like The Lives of Others, Gran Torino, Frozen River, and The Visitor, help us to see the Other. But part of the problem is that people who want to avoid seeing the Other—the sojourner, the invisible person—do not seek out such movies or books. All the more reason for preachers to search for illustrations. The good journalists are busy helping us. I found an example this morning (April 3) in The New York Times.

The front-page above-the-fold article is headlined, “Immigrant Detainee Dies, and a Life Is Buried, Too.” It tells a story that is in all probability not particularly unusual within our bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). All over this country, foreigners awaiting deportation are held in detention for months and even years while their cases languish. In this particular situation a Pakistani man named Ahmad Tanveer died from a heart attack while in custody at the Monmouth County Correctional Institute in New Jersey. He was only 43. His chest pains and pleas for medical attention were ignored by the jail officials until it was too late. This happened in 2005, and only now, four years later, has Mr. Tanveer’s existence, let alone his death, been acknowledged by the ICE.

The circumstances of the fresh publicity about this case are very important. The key factors are the Freedom of Information Act, The ACLU, the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee, several months of investigation by The New York Times, and not least the efforts of a 73-year-old Polish Jew named Jean Blum who has been corresponding for years with detainees in the Monmouth County jail even though she could scarcely afford the postage. Ms. Blum’s parents escaped with her from Poland just ahead of the Nazis. Here’s what this representative of Judaism at its extraordinary best said to the Times reporter: “I am very, very aware of the issues that involve displaced persons. I could not turn my back, because that is my history.”

But the most poignant aspect of this story involves a letter from a Nigerian detainee who was in the jail with Ahmed Tanveer. In broken English, laboriously writing by hand, he wrote to a correspondent from the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee. “The jail is trying to cover about Mr. Ahmed death,” he writes. “He die today about 6 pm…Mr. Ahmed before he die was saying this [ICE] officer he lay [lie] too much he all the time lay about what is going on with us here…Death need to be investigated, we care very much because that can happen to anyone of us.”

“Yet like a message in a bottle tossed from a distant shore,” the reporter (Nina Bernstein) writes, “even the fact of [Ahmed Tanveer’s] death was soon swept away…The case underscores the secrecy and lack of legal accountability that continues to shield the system from independent oversight…”

Many columns of newspaper type detailing the missteps, neglect, cover-ups, and bureaucratic indifference follow before the final bit of information ferreted out by this hard-working, inadequately paid, underappreciated reporter. This paragraph is the one that drove me to my computer to write this blog-post:

“The Nigerian detainee who wrote the urgent [painstakingly handwritten] letter, an ailing diabetic, was later released pending a deportation hearing. According to social workers at the Queens-based charity that was his last known contact, he is now a homeless fugitive, lost in the streets of New York.”

Thus Ms. Bernstein has remarkably succeeded in Conrad’s enterprise: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see."

[1] Preface to “The Nigger of the Narcissus.” Italics and punctuation original.