It’s an unsettling feeling, becoming a cliché. Heading out to the US in August, fresh from the application process, both myself and my husband knew all about the mission of Senator Fulbright to ‘increase mutual respect and understanding’ between Americans and people in other countries. Coming back four months later, the difference was, we felt it.
For me, my background as both a criminologist and a lawyer meant that I held a certain jaundiced view on the US response to counter terrorism. The abuses in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, the clever lawyering that had somehow made torture acceptable, and the use of CIA black sites and rendition all meant that I approached the comparative exercise with a degree of cynicism about the role played by human rights in US counter terrorism response, symptomatic to some degree of broader differences between the two power blocs. ‘Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus’, right? So what I didn’t expect to find in the course of my research was a domestic criminal justice system largely unchanged in the face of the greatest domestic terrorist attack on American soil, a robust commitment to constitutionalism and a reticence to jettison fundamental principles such as those relating to preventative detention. It was interesting and challenging for me to read articles about the long civil libertarian tradition in the US and the near sacrosanct nature of the law and the legal system in that society. It was equally fascinating to observe first hand discussions on human rights, particularly rights such as privacy, which appear to me to be conducted with greater frequency than in Europe. Sure, there were egregious breaches of liberty rights and other rights in the years immediately following the attacks, and it’s important not to minimise the impact of these, but appraising the relative dearth of change US citizens have experienced certainly forced me to cast a colder eye of European developments where certain areas of criminal justice, such as extradition, have been radically overhauled.
In a cultural sense as well, we certainly experienced the warmth and highly sociable nature of fellow Slopers. Living in Park Slope in Brooklyn with our three year old daughter for four months, we were immediately invited out on play dates by parents of kids who attended her (excellent) daycare and who went out of their way to fill us in on the neighbourhood and nearby attractions for kids. As one parent said to us within a few days of arriving: ‘kids practically run this area!’ and so it proved to be! Faye was treated to sprinklers in the nearby (numerous) playgrounds, a wonderful YMCA, pottery, arts and crafts, singalongs, children’s museums, zoos, carousels, puppet shows, pumpkin-picking, and, of course, Coney Island! One aspect of Park Slope culture which we found particularly endearing (and useful) was the way people left out kids’ clothes or toys outside their buildings when they were finished with them. You can imagine our delight when, moving into a new apartment with no cot or toys for Faye (too bulky to bring), we happened upon a child bed rail and whole host of jigsaws- it really was like someone had read our minds!
Both professionally and personally then I think I now really understand what Senator Fulbright was getting at. Getting under the skin of a culture, in as much as you can in four months, really forces you to make sense of difference in previously unthinkable ways. There is something intangible about culture that means it has to be experienced to be really understood as a ‘variable’ as such, including the manner in which it is contested within the society itself. Four months zoomed by all too quickly, but I can now say with some confidence we are more tolerant of the differences between the US and Europe now, more alive to the reasons for those differences and –what’s more- really look forward to returning. Hopefully the kiddy freecycle movement will still be going strong!
– Dr. Claire Hamilton