"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is a short story by Ursula K. LeGuin, first published in 1973. Clocking in at four pages, it is one of shortest truly great short stories I am aware of. Finding, somehow, the dilemma at the exact epicenter of politics, ethics, and the value of happiness, it poses a question so central to human nature that maybe there is no way to ask it except through fiction. But if you don't read closely, you'll miss what the question is.
The story -- there is no plot, as such, though I will avoid quoting the ending so you can experience it for yourself, if you wish to -- is about a city in a fantasy world. The city is called "Omelas." (Le Guin later wrote that she got the name while driving past an exit sign for "Salem, O." and spelling it backwards.) It is a city of perfect happiness. The people of Omelas are all of them healthy, wise, learned, graceful, peaceful, and skilled at whatever profession they love most. The narrator of the story, in fact, spends a good deal of the four pages convincing us that she is really being serious, that the city of Omelas and its people really are perfect.
How can I tell you about the people of Omelas? They were not naive and happy children – though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! but I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you.
Further, even though "Given a description such as this one tends to look next for the King," the narrator assures us that there is no King, and that the laws of Omelas are "singularly few." And, "As they did without monarchy and slavery, so they also got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb."
So we are to understand that Omelas is perfect politically, as well as personally. Indeed we can see that the two are one, here. Finally the narrator implores the reader to simply imagine it for him or herself. She does not personally think that there are any recreational drugs in the city of Omelas, for example, but if you do, dear reader, then let the drugs be as perfect and non-addictive as you please.
And she pauses, the narrator. And it's here that the point of the story starts to come home. "Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy?" She thinks we do not. And she's right: for some reason this sort of thing just doesn't click. We can imagine the perfect happiness, or think we can, but we do not believe it. So, in order to bring the city of Omelas within the scope of realistic acceptability, the narrator adds one more thing. She adds a room. In a paragraph so powerful it ought to be enshrined next to the best of Shakespeare, the narrator goes on to describe it. The room is somewhere in Omelas. About three feet by five. It is Abu Ghraib in little. It is Guantanamo Bay. It is a black site, though everyone knows it is there. And there is a child in it.
They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.
The narrator knows that this is enough to get us to believe in the people of Omelas. The people of Omelas are now, if not realistic, at least possible. They are no longer a violation of the logic of human nature. The point Le Guin here makes through the narrator is at once very simple and very, very profound. At the intersection of the believability of fiction and the tragedy of human nature, she asks, "Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible?"
Why should that be, though? Why does the logic of perfect happiness dictate that there be such a room, such a child? Is this a point about human nature or a point about the believability of the stories we as humans tell, and is there a difference?
The narrator then goes all-in. "Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible? But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible." The thing that is not credible, but yet is true, the narrator assures us, is that some of the people of Omelas, leave. I won't quote this last bit, because I should rather let you experience the end of the story as Le Guin intends. But I do want to make a point. If we are not very careful here, we will think that this is the point of the story, to ask the reader, to ask us, "Are you the type of person who would stay in Omelas, or are you the type of person who would leave?" And, of course, that is one point. But not the main point.
The main point, I think, is slightly hidden near the end. As the narrator describes the people who decline the bargain, she mentions the place to which these people go. It is a better place than Omelas; she says, almost in passing, "I cannot describe it at all."
Recall -- and this is the thing that would be easy to miss -- that this same narrator just spent the beginning of the story describing a city of perfect happiness to us. And she did it very well. She did not introduce the tragedy, the price, the child, until later on. And yet here she is, now, saying that she cannot describe this place that is better than Omelas, at all. One would have thought that the better place would simply be like Omelas, minus the hidden room, minus the tormented child. But the narrator could have described that; in fact, she did. So the place to which the decliners go must be some other sort of place, entirely.
The point here is very deep. I think the idea of the story is that the narrator cannot violate the logic of human happiness, which requires a price, a flip-side. Our very conception of happiness, perhaps, has built into it a notion of the impossibility of perfection. This being the case, the fact that there must be a price of some sort -- not so dramatic or singular as the price of a tormented child in a locked room, but a price none the less -- seems inescapable. The place where the people who decline the bargain of Omelas go must therefore be a place where something other than happiness reigns; a place where some other inconceivable concept applies.
Now, after all of that, I will finally to get to my point. What are we getting in return for Guantanamo Bay? What are we getting in return for the Global War on Terror? Go back into Le Guin's story, take out the words "happiness" and "joy," and insert the word that strikes you as best capturing what the American people are getting in return. Is it "safety"? Is it "justice"? Is it "peace"? Is it "No attacks on American soil in seven years"?
On January 22, Reuters published an article by reporter Sayed Salahuddin headlined Guantanamo closure too little too late: ex-inmate:
The closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison will do little to erase the blot on the U.S. rights record unless other U.S. detention centers are also shut and inmates compensated, Afghan and Pakistani campaigners said on Thursday.
-- snip --
"He is closing it in order to put an end to the criticism from human rights groups and also to get rid of the bad image it created for the Americans," said Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan who spent more than three years imprisoned at Guantanamo.
"But he needs to restore justice for prisoners who were persecuted there during investigations," he said. "There were innocent people imprisoned there. He needs to put on trial those who were involved in the persecution of inmates."
I'd ask you to imagine for a moment that you live in the fantasy world in which Omelas exists -- not in Omelas itself, and not in the indescribable city at the end of the story, but in some ordinary town a few miles over from Omelas. Now, suppose that one day the people of Omelas let the tormented child go. They just sort of open the gates to the city and let that kid in the room wander off. How long do you think it would take you to forgive them? Would you ever forgive them?
Perhaps it gets worse. On January 23rd, the New York Times published an article by reporters Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane headlined Where Will Detainees From Guantanamo Go?
Republican lawmakers, who oppose Mr. Obama’s plan, found a talking point with political appeal. They said closing Guantánamo could allow dangerous terrorists to get off on legal technicalities and be released into quiet neighborhoods across the United States. If the detainees were convicted, the Republicans continued, American prisons housing terrorism suspects could become magnets for attacks.
Keeping in mind that Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the man connected to the 1993 bombing of the world trade center, and the man who actually called for attacks on American soil should he die while in prison, is being held in North Carolina, it is worth asking whether the Republican scare-mongering is playing on conceptions of peace more narrative than rational.
This is part of the point about the necessary flip-side of some conceptions of political justice, peace, and tranquility that I think Le Guin's story brings out, if read closely. Which of those conceptions do we have, which do we want? Recall, we are dealing with a political party, the Republican one, that calls itself "brave" but does not think the United States Constitution is worth 3,000 civilian lives. What exactly do they mean by justice or peace? What work are those concepts doing for them?
As it turns out, 50% of American men support the use of torture under some circumstances, with 49% opposed. 31% of American women support the use of torture under some circumstances, with 65% opposed. Especially in the case of the men, this is very bad. All of this is enough to make you wonder how the very way we think has been twisted by the war on terror. Have we gotten to a place where we cannot imagine "safety" or "peace" without a prisoner in a room, somewhere? Worse, "happiness"?
The task before us is not to walk away from this Omelas we have constructed, but to find a way to redeem it in the eyes of the world, and in the eyes of the children we held there. I don't know if we can; but I don't know what other project could possibly be more important. This is first and foremost a political task, but it once again shows that political decisions are mortal and more than mortal: they proclaim who we are, and to those who live after us, they proclaim who we wanted to be.