Friday, September 23, 2011


Who are we?

At the end of the recent orgy of self pity that was the long drawn out commemoration of 9/11, the Boston Globe published a story of a CIA agent ordered to torture a member of Al Qaeda. The agent refused both because the thought torture did not produce reliable evidence, and because he thought that we – Americans – do not torture. We are above that sort of thing. The CIA agent is noted as saying: "when we torture people we are not… what we believe we are."

This story clearly rests on the belief shared by many of us that we, Americans are somehow different from the rest of the world, that we are better. We are better because we we don't torture, we are better because we live in a democracy, and we are better because we are morally superior to the rest of the world.

The weeks before the 10th anniversary of 9/11 would have been a good time for all of us to ask ourselves: who are we really? Clearly different people give different answers to that question. It would have been very healthy for us as a nation to reflect together about who we are. It would have been good for us to consider our history, to look at what we have done, and what we have not done. Had we engaged in that sort of self examination we might have come up with a more careful and detailed account of who we are than the common one that we are better than everyone else.

What we have done is not a secret. It is there for all to see. We kept slaves until 1864; black people were not allowed to vote until 100 years later. Today poor people are overwhelmingly and disproportionately people of color. We took the country away from the Indians. According to one historian "the United States made 373 treaties with Indians and broke them all."

We attacked and devastated Vietnam on the basis of a cockeyed theory about dominoes. We attacked and devastated Iraq on the basis of false information. We attacked and devastated Afghanistan because Osama bin Laden lived in Pakistan.

Our governments have been careless of American lives and utterly unconcerned about the suffering of people abroad.

These facts that are obvious; everybody knows that. But our journalists and academics keep perpetuating the myth that we are different from other people and better. There is absolutely no evidence for that.

Other nations have acted no better. Nations who built empires have always believed themselves to be superior. First the Greeks called all the people who did not speak Greek "babblers" – barbarians. The Romans too thought that they were better than everybody else. The British believed they brought civilization and enlightenment to benighted, primitive peoples in Asia and Africa--not to mention our continent. ( Of course, they became rich doing that.) If you are going to conquer the world by force of arms and dominate the countries conquered, you need to believe that you are entitled to do so or even have an obligation to do so. Hence we talk about "manifest destiny."

But that is, of course, a monumental self-deception. Its effect is that we, like the other empires before us, are in fact more warlike, more oppressive, more brutal than many other nations.

Instead of using the 10th anniversary of 9/11 to reaffirm our our supposed superiority, our leaders should have encouraged us to look into our own face, and into our own hearts to recognize who we all are really are – a part of the human race, superior to none.