Friday, October 28, 2005

How to survive 11 years of solitary confinement: Tips from Mordecai Vanunu

"How did you survive seven years of solitary confinement," I asked Mordecai Vanunu this afternoon. Vanunu is an Israeli nuclear whistle-blower who spent 18 years in jail. Considering the way that the Bush bureaucracy is hacking and hewing away at the U.S. Constitution, this is JUST the sort of thing that we Americans need to know about.

"It wasn't seven years," answered Vanunu. " It was 11 years." (I was writing down what he was saying as fast as I could and I hope I wrote down his words correctly. If I didn't, blame it on my leaky pen.) "They kept me in a cell with the lights on for two years. They tried to break me. They took my freedom in the body but they couldn't take the freedom away in my mind. I read aloud from the Bible so that I could hear the sound of a human voice. I structured my day." Gotta remember that one. I would probably just lie around in my cell bunk for at least the first five years. That, and go through internet withdrawal symptoms.

"They allowed me to read books." Whew. I'd go crazy without the latest Janet Evanovich novel. "I read about history, philosophy and health. I tried to stay healthy. If you are weak, you are more dependent on your captors. I thought that after five years in solitary that I was starting to die so I watched what I ate. They were hoping I would die or go mad before I got out but I didn't. I also sang opera." We'd all better start memorizing LaBoheme just in case.

I asked Vanunu if he still kept up on nuclear weapons issues. He has a court date in January and there is a possibility that Israeli judges may send him back to jail, claiming that they needed to protect Israel's nuclear security. "As for nuclear weapons," he said, "I know nothing more than what I learned in 1985 and that knowledge is all obsolete. And if you are looking to find nuclear weapons in Iran, you won't find them. You would be better off to look for them here." In Israel.

One of the conditions of Vanunu's being released from jail is that he would have no truck with foreign journalists. No worry about ME being a foreign journalist -- although I do get an occasional letter to the editor published in my hometown rag, the Berkeley Daily Planet. Does that count?

"I am not allowed to leave Israel but I tried to go to Bethlehem last Christmas," continued Vanunu, "and they arrested me. The charge was that I tried to run away from the state by going to Bethlehem -- as if it was another state." Israelis are always claiming that it isn't. Palestine is a big issue with Israel. It is with Vanunu also. He lives in the Arab part of Jerusalem now. "The Palestinians here watch out for me and protect me," he said -- probably because they too know what it is like to lose their freedom.

Why is Vanunu speaking out even after being threatened not to? Because he is a man of great courage. "They monitor my cell phone and e-mail. They know my every move. They want to keep me paranoid but that is no way to live. And publicity is helping me. That is one reason I'm talking -- to keep my face before the public." I guess he doesn't want to fade way in some unknown cell again. "I am telling you my story in order to come back from my exile from freedom of speech. I want to have freedom of speech." It means a lot to him. Duh.

This may sound old-fashioned and corny but we too need to protect our freedom of speech. Freedom of speech was worth 11 years of solitary confinement to this heroic man. And yet here in America we are throwing it away like the Bill of Rights was some candy bar wrapper.

Hopefully, Americans will follow this man's courageous example and start to stand tall like Mordecai Vanunu. And hopefully it will happen soon -- while we still have some shreds of the Bill of Rights left to stand by. I don't know if I could survive 11 years of solitary confinement in order to defend my right to freedom of speech. But who knows? Could you?