Saturday, December 13, 2014

Reader Writes: "I Don't Think the US Ever Had Moral Leadership to Begin With"

In response to my posting about the torture report and how the U.S. has now forfeited any claim it had to moral leadership in the world, Leah comments

I don't think the US ever had moral leadership to begin with. Any country that simultaneously asserts that "all men are created equal" while keeping large swaths of its population enslaved, whether in chattel slavery, Jim Crow, or systematic racism, is morally bankrupt. Civil rights leaders in the 1950s tried to bring the US to the UN for genocide against its black population, but the clout of the US on the Security Council was such that it never went anywhere.

Success in WWII fueled American empire building and with it an inflated national ego. We went from a sort of colonial European bastard step child to Europe's savior. It went to our collective juvenile heads. Eisenhower tried to warn us but no one would listen. We were too enamored with Camelot.

I agree with both Leah and Colleen, for the most part. The primary reason I framed my posting about the torture revelations with a headline about how a nation "awash in violence" has discovered that it tortures is that I want to suggest that violence has been endemic to the American narrative from its colonial inception. And so I began to speak of the torture report by speaking of the ongoing school shootings that we Americans now accept almost gilbly as a fact of life.

I spoke of the attitude many Americans seem to have that filching a package of cigars (if the hands filching the cigars are the hands of a black male, it should be said) is a more serious crime than tortuing a fellow human being. I talked about how, though the Christian faith is grounded in the remembrance that Jesus was tortured by a ruthless, repressive regime — and that torture is to be lamented and not celebrated — many of Jesus's most ardent disciples in the U.S. today loudly and gladly call for the torture of perceived enemies.

I looked at two mentally challenged men American states chose to execute just this past week. 

I reminded us of how, in many states, people carrying assault rifles are free to saunter into grocery stores and walk down aisles in which mothers are shopping with their children.

We are a nation awash in violence. We always have been a nation awash in violence, a nation that decimated its native population and forcibly moved the remnants of that population onto reservations. We are a nation in which slavery was taken for granted for over two centuries, and in which the horrendous violence practiced in the former slave states against people of color during the Jim Crow period was casually permitted by the rest of the nation for over half a century. 

Torture is not new to American history and culture.

And yet, there is a sense in which this is new, a fatal line that should never have been crossed and has now been crossed to the extreme peril of American democracy and that was one of the points I wanted to make in my posting. We have thought of ourselves — we have at least professed to be — people who stood above torture, and that claim undergirded the influence of the American empire during the latter half of the twentieth century, when Americans claimed to have fought a "good war" against a regime that tortured and murdered millions of people. 

These claims may well have been groundless because American innocence is itself groundless, always has been groundless, from the time the colonists destroyed the native populations of the continent and brought subjugated and enslaved people to till the land that they had taken from the native peoples. But they did mean something to many people around the world (and not only Americans) after World War II.

And they've now been trashed by the torture report, and it appears that those who crafted and carried out the torture of prisoners will no more be held accountable for their actions than George Zimmerman or Darren Wilson or Daniel Pantaleo will ever be held responsible for their actions. Because this is the kind of nation we have now declared ourselves to be in the sight of the whole world, after we held ourselves to be something quite different following the "good war."

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