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Gary Younge
Drama relates story of America's downwinders

So begins Mary Dickson's play, Exposed, , which has been playing at Salt Lake City's Plan B theatre, where it sold out within days.

The play, which has been nominated for best new play produced outside of New York by the American Theatre Critics Association, chronicles the human fallout from the 928 nuclear bombs detonated by the US government between 1951 and 1992, and the fate of the 'downwinders' - those who lived downwind of the tests. This is not history.

This story is still going on, with a disproportionate number of downwinders still succumbing to cancer and various neurological diseases. Indeed, it's a story that may never end, given how little is known about the long-term effects of radiation on the environment.

It is a painful play to watch. The Mary in the excerpt above is Dickson. She survived thyroid cancer only to later undergo a hysterectomy. Her sister, Ann, contracted lupus and died. Statistics made real.

Ordinary people caught up in a global power play and destroyed because the wind changed and they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was no escape. If they didn't get it, someone would have.

But it is also important because it raises vital issues about how Americans relate to both their government and its foreign policy and all the more powerful because it does so in a context that is both removed from the big issues of today - namely Iraq and the war on terror - while remaining completely pertinent to them.

First of all is the question of how much should people should trust the government.

Two characters in the play are state officials. Many of their lines come from declassified documents. Shortly before the tests begin one of them warns: "Not only must high safety factors be established, but their acceptance by the general public must also be ensured by our judicious handling of public information."

For the last six years the American public have judiciously handled - not least on the existence of weapons of mass destruction and prevalence of torture.

Exposed reveals how the American government routinely lied to its own people to deadly effect. This has not stopped. Yet each time it seems to come as a shock.

As the confirmation of Michael Mukasey to attorney general is waved through, it seems as though innocence is one of the country's few truly renewable resources.

Second, that patriotism should never be a byword for wilful ignorance or uncritical compliance. "

As patriots, we believed what we were told," says Elizabeth Bruhn Catalan in the play. "Then our cemeteries started to fill with family, friends, neighbours."

At present the only real difference is that the cemeteries that are filling up fastest are in Iraq, while America's graveyards are hosting ceremonies for fallen soldiers, one by one, every day, all across the country.

And third, that the existence of a foreign enemy does not preclude the possibility that your most dangerous opponent might be your own government. Indeed you might even have voted for them.

"The world is now divided in two," says one official in the play.

"On one side, democracy and freedom. On the other, communism. One place falls to communism, then another and another and before you know it the Reds will be in Missouri." You're either with us or your against us.

When the world is partitioned into such simple categories everybody loses. Such a logic is effective neither in fighting the enemy nor in protecting the domestic population.

America may have 'won' the cold war, but innocent Americans like Mary are still fighting it (as are many Russians) in their bodies. Their experiences beg the question whether it is possible to claim to be defending a free and open society by using secretive and undemocratic methods? And how is it possible to simultaneously claim you are protecting America and yet recklessly and knowingly put so many Americans at risk?

There has been great interest in running the play from various theatres across the country which can only be good news.

On a human level the pain, suffering and death of the downwinders are harrowing but will not be in vain if they teach enough Americans the perennial lesson that you cannot export democracy abroad while trampling on it at home.

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Stranger in a Strange Land – Encounters in the Disunited States
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