The same, only different: Reflections on the myth of American Exceptionalism
by Tim Wise
Though I have little faith in his ability to detect (or even define) irony, it would be interesting to know what the President thinks about the decision to reopen the investigation into the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, in 1955.
Especially since Mr. Bush has spent the better part of the past week insisting that the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib is inconsistent with the character and spirit of America and Americans. We, so the story goes, are better than that, and presumably always have been.
We don’t abuse innocent people; we don’t kill them; we don’t mistreat them.
It’s a version of American history that has, unfortunately been swallowed hook, line and sinker by most residents of the United States, especially the white ones who have been given very little reason to know better, and whose bullshit detectors are notoriously inept precisely because we have such a need to believe the lies we’ve been told since birth.
It’s the same stunning naivete that allowed whites, upon seeing the pictures of Americans hanging from a bridge over the Euphrates in Fallujah, to remark upon the barbarism of our enemies in Iraq.
They, unlike we, are monsters.
They, unlike we, have no respect for human life.
They, unlike we, have no regard for civilized norms of behavior.
What person worthy of the title human being could, after all, mutilate a body, burn it and hang it with such glee?
Apparently quite a few, including the ancestors of many of those who look upon the Fallujah murderers as some unique expression of evil, or who view the individuals who beheaded Nick Berg on videotape as symbols of an intrinsically inferior culture.
The mind races, wondering if any of those currently shocked by the depravity either of some Iraqis or some U.S. soldiers might be related to one William Tucker, as in Captain William Tucker, a good Christian to hear him tell it, I’m sure, who in 1623 took his soldiers to negotiate a peace treaty with the Powhatan Indian nation. Afterward, Tucker persuaded the Powhatans to drink a toast with poisoned wine. Two hundred died immediately and his soldiers killed fifty more, bringing back heads as souvenirs.
Or perhaps some of those appalled at the inhumane actions of certain Iraqis or certain soldiers are either related to, or at least still enamored of Thomas Jefferson, who said of the indigenous of this land: “Nothing will reduce those wretches so soon as pushing the war into the heart of their country. But I would not stop there. I would never cease pursuing them with war while one remained on the face of the Earth.”
This is, of course, a call for genocide, as purely evil as anything uttered by Hitler, yet we are still taught to revere this man: a criminal and a moral reprobate in every sense of the word.
Or perhaps we might ruminate on the character of Andrew Jackson, who, after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, supervised the mutilation of over 800 Indian corpses, including the cutting off of noses, and the slicing of strips of flesh from their bodies for use as bridle reins.
Fifty years later, the Third Colorado Volunteer Cavalry massacred Cheyenne and Arapaho noncombatants at Sand Creek. The victorious cavalry, fighting on behalf of the life-respecting white government, scalped the dead, severed the male genitals, used severed testicles for tobacco pouches, and then paraded in the streets of Denver with severed female genitals stretched over their hats.
The images from Fallujah were not unique to Iraqis, and those from Abu Ghraib are not exceptional in the least. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that literally thousands of white Christians in this country would regularly engage in weekend lynch parties, or at least observe as spectators, giving the events all the spectacle of a three-ring circus.
The lynch mobs would, with full approval of the demented white Christian crowds that gathered to cheer them on, drag blacks to death behind cars, torture them with blowtorches and burn them to death in what were advertised as “Negro Barbecues.”
Lynching and other forms of mob violence against blacks in the wake of emancipation resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of African Americans between 1866 and the turn of the century. Well into the 1900s such atrocities were common, and became even more depraved, with the instruments of death “progressing” from ropes and burning pyres, to boiling tar.
In the aftermath of lynching it was not uncommon for spectators to purchase the amputated body parts of the victim as souvenirs: the commoditization of murder as the ultimate symbol of Western superiority.
Amazingly, some of the inhumanity of current U.S. forces is reminiscent of an early variant practiced by white colonizers and genocidists upon entering the Americas.
Back in the day it was not uncommon for the Spanish to enter an indigenous community and read the inhabitants a decree declaring the land the property of the Spanish crown. Read in a language totally unfamiliar to the natives of the land, the decree would then demand compliance from them, and when such compliance would fail to materialize, the invaders would kill everyone in sight.
This practice has apparently made a comeback in Iraq, where U.S. Marine reservists beat a former Ba’ath party official to death because he refused to “follow orders.” The fact that none of the Marines who interrogated him spoke Arabic (of course not), and that there was no translator assigned to the inmate who could have made clear to him what his torturers wanted, made little difference to his ultimate fate of course. After all, if you don’t speak the master’s language, it’s your fault, so you can be murdered.
Likewise, according to the recently released report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, language differences often led to detainees “being slapped, roughed up, pushed around or pushed to the ground.” The report goes on to say, “A failure to understand or a misunderstanding of orders given in English was construed by guards as resistance or disobedience.”
None of this is to say that the U.S. and its forces are any worse than folks elsewhere, who no doubt engage in this kind of violence as well. It’s just to say that we’re not any better either; we’re all too similar in fact.
The “shining city on a hill” has always been filled with our fair share of murderers, rapists, torturers, thieves and psychopaths: many of whom have been elevated to the highest offices in the land, and many more of whom donned the nation’s uniform to protect and defend it against others.
My Lai was not an exception. Abu Ghraib is not an exception. The behaviors in evidence there were commonplace in our wars against the indigenous, the conquest of the Philippines, the atomic incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the horrors at No Gun Ri, or any of the myriad defilements of Southeast Asia.
And all of them were animated by one overriding mentality, which of course goes largely unmentioned in the dominant press: white supremacy; a belief that the dark skinned peoples of the world are less than fully human, and that no one will mind too terribly if they are treated as such. Thus the willingness on the part of white G.I.s to photograph themselves in mid-torture. After all, who would care?
The only thing mildly different about the pictures from Abu Ghraib is that they showed American soldiers actually willing to get their own hands dirty in the process of debasing others.
This is in marked contrast to the typical M.O. of such folks, whose racism is matched only by their own systemic cowardice: a cowardice that encourages them to kill and maim from a distance in most cases; to drop bombs from 10,000 feet, to shoot from several hundred yards away from a helicopter.
That, in most instances, is the biggest difference between them and us: the fact that in most cases we have the financial and technological wherewithal to murder in a relatively antiseptic and distant fashion: the very definition of inhuman, truth be told, because it involves such emotional detachment.
And make no mistake, just as the leaders in other countries bear responsibility for the depraved indifference to human life evidenced by their troops, so too do our leaders bear responsibility here.
That is what it means to be the commander-in-fucking-chief, frat boy.
Especially when the folks doing the torturing were reportedly (according to an AP story today, May 10th) trying to pump detainees for information on weapons of mass destruction: the phony rationale for this war, but one which American forces have been led to believe is real by the President and his closest advisors.
Thus, the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees is directly related to the criminal deception of the Bush Administration and all in both parties who went along with it.
Until they are, every one of them, facing hard time for their actions, there will be no justice, there will most assuredly be no peace, and there will remain no need for the majority of Americans to look themselves squarely in the mirror and ask what we have allowed to take place in our names — and paid for, and even celebrated — for far too long.
That so many are still able to wallow in the fantasy of white, western cultural superiority, even in the wake of such public evidence contradicting it, is a testament to the fundamental sickness that comes with empire.
That many millions around the globe are willing to speak against the disease, including an increasing number from within the empire itself, is, thankfully, equally compelling testimony to the effect that the patient, though reeling, is not dead yet.
Tim Wise is an antiracist essayist, activist and father. He can be reached at email@example.com. Hate mail and death threats, while neither desired nor appreciated, will be graded for form, content, grammar, and originality.