Recent events – be it the death toll in Gaza, police killings of unarmed Americans, or the Torture Report – highlight that mainstream America takes positions with respect to the use of and accountability for violence that everywhere else in the world would be considered undeniably extreme. It may be time to look in the mirror and accept that we Americans are in fact extremists.
This summer during the war in Gaza, I had wanted to write something about how I perceived the difference between the way my friends in America and the rest of the world were commenting on those events. Tragically at that time my brother’s girlfriend was dying of cancer and I couldn’t get myself to put anything down in writing.
What had struck me as being so revealing was that almost all of the facebook comments on the war from friends in America were enthusiastic apologies for the tactics that caused the most death to civilians and children. Of course, one can easily understand – although one may not agree with – American’s support for Israel and for military intervention against Hamas in Gaza. Another thing is the persistent justification and rationalization by Americans of the taking of innocent life (particularly that of civilians and children) in such disproportionate numbers. Just for some perspective, note that more New Yorkers have been killed by the NYPD in the last five years than Israelis have been killed by Hamas missile fire (albeit thanks in large part to American taxpayers’ financing of Israel’s anti-missile defense system).
In stark contrast to my fellow Americans, my non-American friends who commented on the events – mainly Europeans and both Christian and Muslim Arabs – uniformly pleaded for safeguarding the lives of innocent people and for an end to the violence regardless whether it was being perpetrated by Hamas or the Israeli government.
As Joseph Levine wrote this month in the New York Times in relation to the University of Illinois professor whose tenure offer was rescinded for “incivility” after having tweeted that supporters of the Israeli attacks were awful human beings:
according to the United Nations, more than 2,100 Palestinians had been killed, over two-thirds of them civilians, among whom almost 500 were children; 11,000 Palestinians were wounded, 20,000 homes were destroyed, and 500,000 people over all were displaced. During this period 70 Israelis were killed, 64 of whom were soldiers, and one of whom was a child.) So, was this tweet an illegitimate breach of civility? . . .
. . . No, these people aren’t awful, but what does it say about our society that we can support such an attack without being awful? What does it say that decent people can even entertain the kinds of excuses we hear (“but they were storing weapons near where those kids were playing”) without counting automatically as indecent?
And that is exactly what was going through my mind this summer. Just as my brother’s girlfriend – a young women who had recently turned 26 – was fighting for her life with her grieving mother, sisters and my brother by her side, I couldn’t conceive how callous and ruthless we Americans could be to take the extreme position – even publicly boast on social media and in the press our advocacy for the position – that it is okay to kill children because bad guys hide weapons close to them. That is the position of extremists. It is the position that elsewhere is taken by tiny fractions of the population in the other parts of the world – the terrorists, radicals, militants, and jihadists – that we are constantly denouncing as evil precisely for such extremism.
Just think about it. Americans suddenly decided that it was morally acceptable to kill human shields. Could you imagine if instead of Hamas hiding their rockets in schools filled with Palestinian kids, they had hid them amongst American civilians? Would we then say that Isreal could kill our children? Of course, not, that would be what the terrorists do. That is what extremists do. How about every hostage scene in every Hollywood movie you have ever seen? When the bad guy grabs the women or little kid and says “if you shoot me, I shoot her”, does the crowd go into crazy applause as the hero kills them both? Of course, not. That would be pathological.
And when the former Vice President of the United States goes on national television basically to proclaim that if anyone does something bad to Americans, we are justified in doing absolutely anything we want to anyone in the world, regardless of whether that person is innocent, with absolutely no accountability or transparency whatsoever? Is that an extreme position? Is Charles Krauthammer or your uncle or your college buddy who agrees not an extremist? Is the majority of America extremist?
Once 9/11 happened, Dick Cheney ceased to believe that the CIA should be subject to the U.S. Constitution, statutes passed by Congress, international treaties, or moral prohibitions against torture. Those standards would be cast aside. In their place, moral relativism would reign. Any action undertaken by the United States would be subject to this test: Is it morally equivalent to what Al Qaeda did on 9/11? Is it as bad as murdering roughly 3,000 innocent people? If not, then no one should criticize it, let alone investigate, charge and prosecute the CIA. Did a prisoner freeze to death? Were others anally raped? Well, what if they were?
If it cannot be compared with 9/11, if it is not morally equivalent, then it should not be verboten.
That is the moral standard Cheney is unabashedly invoking on national television. He doesn’t want the United States to honor norms against torture. He doesn’t want us to abide by Ten Commandments, or to live up to the values in the Declaration of Independence, or to be restrained by the text of the Constitution. Instead, Cheney would have us take Al Qaeda as our moral and legal measuring stick. Did America torture dozens of innocents? So what. 9/11 was worse.
If you have ever spent any time in abroad, for example in Europe or the Middle East, you would know that the advocacy and apology for violence towards innocent people in order to teach them a lesson (as Tom Friedman argued for the killing of innocent Iraqis) or to keep us safe from them belongs to tiny minorities of extremists. That is how the 911 terrorists justify the murder of those 3,000 American lives. That’s right, there are over a billion Muslims in the world, and only a miniscule portion would support the use of indiscriminate violence on innocent people. Meanwhile Mr. Cheney and a large chunk of mainstream America believe that it is perfectly acceptable that
- Americans engage in torture with impunity (despite having prosecuted others for the same acts),
- 25% of those tortured were innocent (with absolutely no recourse), and
- at least one of the innocent people torture dies as a result.
All because, as Cheney repeats constantly, “torture is what the terrorists do to us”. Once again, Mr. Friederdorf:
Cheney is dodging questions by invoking the 9/11 dead. It would be as if O.J. Simpson said, “You think I murdered my wife and her friend? Murder is what al-Qaeda did to 3,000 New Yorkers on 9/11. The notion that there’s a moral equivalence between my actions and what al-Qaeda did is an insult to the American people.”
Cheney’s most telling response was to Todd’s questions about people who were detained completely by mistake but who were nevertheless tortured — in at least one case to death.
You have to be something other than a normal human being not to be troubled by that.
But Cheney’s response was: “I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent.”
And he would famously do it all again. “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective,” he said. “‘I’d do it again in a minute.”
[Of course, note that false bravado of “I’d do it again in a minute” really means “I would do it again in a minute because I would get away with it again”]
What Cheney was saying is basically: If you have a goal and you kill innocent people while you’re at it, tough shit. That is how terrorists think; it’s not how moral people think — or at least are supposed to think.
The entire notion that America’s actions should be measured against a group of terrorist murderers is a further example both of our extremism and tendency towards the depraved and sociopathic. So if we are okay with torture and collateral damage, then why don’t we just come clean: we are like that tiny minority on the world’s fringe, we are extremists.
Finally, as an aside, if we are capable of taking extremist position because of the death of 3,000 American lives at the hands of foreign terrorists, imagine what we should be able to achieve with 30,000 deaths per year domestically at the hands of our fellow armed Americans? As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about the greater threat to American security, that being American-on-American crime:
I demand a TSA checkpoint at every shopping mall to shield Americans against Americans. I demand drones to kill Americans before they kill other Americans. I demand that American leaders stop pretending that American morgues and American cemeteries are full of young men because of jihadis. The evidence is clear—American-on-American violence is a silent killer that only Americans can stop. American criminality is now so rampant that it must always be the only topic of any conversation. Let us not speak of any act of international terrorism until American terrorism has been wholly vanquished.