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Commentary ::
Meet the New Boss…
13 May 2004
Why are so many Americans oblivious to their country's arrogant, sometimes brutal behavior, actions that are so easily recognizable to the rest of the world? For the answer, read on.
I’m not sure how many Iraqis have ever heard The Who’s old war-horse “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” but you can rest assured they know the tune. Contrast that with the millions of Americans (all of whom have heard the song at least one billion times each; I have the proof right here) who have expressed shock over the nature of the Abu Ghraib prison horrors, and it’s clear they never once got The Who’s simple message: When it comes to abusing power, the name of the abuser doesn’t matter a whole hell of a lot to the abusees.

The cacophonous condemnation, both by Americans and everyone else on the planet, of the heinous treatment of Iraqi detainees by U.S. Army reservists is wholly well deserved. But when Americans then clench up and insist that these despicable deeds are anomalous and “not something that Americans do,” they display ignorance both of their own history and human nature. Because, wouldn’t you know it, it’s Americans in those photos taken at Abu Ghraib who, sure enough, are doing exactly those very things that Americans don’t do. Same as the old boss.

To many Americans, we are somehow supposed to be above it all, because our country is God’s gift to the world, the bright, unwavering beacon of liberty that unselfishly, wearily, repeatedly attempts to show all other nations the Right Way to live. These same Americans then wonder, slack-jawed, why we’re globally reviled and other peoples rebel when we kill a few thousand of them and destroy their countries to make them more like us. To top it off, we are shocked, shocked we tell you, when “un-American” images like those from Abu Ghraib appear.

Except that that sort of behavior is as American as, say, mass extermination of indigenous peoples, slavery, and lynchings. You want pictures? Plenty of them exist depicting whole towns of folks who’ve just finished torturing and lynching fellow Americans, photos showing smiling families—including children brought along for this most American of pastimes—posing next to their dead, contorted victims, a bloodthirsty ritual that occurred for decades.

Despite these evil deeds performed by Americans, we aren’t inherently evil. We are, however, inherently human. Americans’ self-righteousness stems from our false belief in the manifest destiny of the United States and automatically blinds us to our deeply-flawed humanity and the terrible things of which any of us are capable. So Saddam Hussein’s infamous torture chambers and rape rooms are in use once again, only this time under the auspices of good old Uncle Sam. Meet the new boss.

There’s an entire universe of difference between ideals and idealism, and Americans have always been lousy at separating the two. Are liberty, civil rights, and democracy things worth striving, even dying, for? Absolutely. Has America’s government always put these values first in every action it takes? That’s obviously a rhetorical question. Yet, far too many Americans continue to believe the myth, preventing them from engaging in the only activity that will help us propel this nation forward in the proper direction and quit messing with other peoples’ lives: honest, critical self-analysis of who we are and just what it is we do and why we do it. Too many of us fail to understand a basic, yet profoundly important, principle: Our nation is not judged on what we claim it to be, but on what it actually does.

The outcry over the now-infamous killing and subsequent desecration of American “private contractors” in Fallujah—in reality, four mercenaries making lots of money off other people’s misery--demonstrates just how arrogant and disconnected we are. It was a gruesome, horrifying event, to be sure. But judging from the reaction in this country, one would think that the war had just started. Just what the hell do Americans think has been done to thousands of fellow human beings from day one of this wretched lunacy, fully financed by our current and future tax dollars? Is it the hanging of bodies from a bridge that sparked the outrage? It’s excruciating for the families to see, without a doubt, but the slain are no less deceased. What about the similar pain of thousands of Iraqi families? Somehow, that’s not as important. No, the furor really stems from the fact that those four people were AMERICANS, and nobody but nobody, does that to Americans. Of course, the natural American response has followed: Retaliation with overwhelming, amazingly disproportionate firepower to show the sub-human vermin who’s boss, killing several hundred Iraqis (including more than a few civilians), displacing thousands, and decimating homes and personal property in the process. (The recent beheading of American Nick Berg ensures an encore performance.) Who couldn’t love us now? But if I’m a surviving Iraqi relative, I certainly know my loved one is just as dead whether killed by a Hussein henchman or an American missile. Same as the old boss.

Or how about Rush Limbaugh’s amazing (even for him) statements likening the Abu Ghraib events to "a college fraternity prank that stacked up naked men" (it sounds like Rush had quite the time while attending university) and “blowing off steam”? As much as I can’t stand Limbaugh, one thing is certain: He’s not stupid. So that means he has finally just flipped out (narcotics withdrawal can be awfully tough). I’ll go out on a very short limb here and assume his reaction would have been a smidge different had the nationalities in those photos been reversed. But, since it’s an American holding the leash, it’s OK, because it’s all in the intent, you see. Too bad Iraqis have such a hard time grasping nuances. We don’t get fooled again.

It’s also mind-bending to hear Americans, the alleged creators and utmost defenders of human rights, claim the reservists at Abu Ghraib were “just following orders.” Do the Nuremberg trials ring a bell? The world didn’t buy the Nazis’ feeble rationalizations for crimes against humanity then, and the judges’ guilty verdicts were clear: Soldiers have a duty not to follow orders that are clearly inhumane. Every American responsible for the Abu Ghraib savageries and those committed elsewhere, from the rankest grunt to the highest officer, should receive the severest punishment possible. But talk about hypocrisy: Far more righties than lefties have supported the Iraq debacle from the beginning, and one of the things on which conservatives incessantly harp and for which they ridicule their political opposites for (falsely) not supporting is “personal responsibility,” a principle from which they are now apparently retreating, led by their incoherent cheerleader Limbaugh, in a flat-out run. Same as the old boss.

Another justification for the Americans’ criminal actions at Abu Ghraib is that their behavior pales in comparison to that of Hussein’s regime. Is this now how far down the scale we’ve slid, using Hussein’s barbarism as a measuring stick for our own actions? As long as we’re engaged in such surreal conversation, then, is it too gratuitous to remark here that when it came to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, it was Hussein, rather then Bush, who was telling the truth? And still Americans remain mystified as to why other governments are so reluctant to help us out with our little mess in Iraq. We don’t get fooled again.

I’ll wager Hussein is having quite a chuckle to himself (that is, if he’s overheard the clamor through the panties on his head). He merits zero sympathy, but the irony is pretty thick (a trait shared by plenty of administration skulls). Phony rationales for the invasion of Iraq have been substituted often enough to fill an over-sized scorecard, but the ones that were last penciled in declare that the war was necessary to democratize Iraq and oust Hussein so there would be no more mass graves, torture chambers, and rape rooms.

Whoops. That democracy thing is a little hard to iron out when one’s country is occupied and in flames. We’ve covered the torture chambers and rape rooms. So we’re left to ask: Just how many dead Iraqis does it take to fill “mass graves”? If it’s ten thousand or so, the mark has been attained, and to use a favorite Bush term, we’ve hit the trifecta. Meet the new boss.

As noted earlier, Iraqis—and the rest of the world, for that matter—have no trouble recognizing the same old song; it’s Americans who take the prize for not understanding the lyrics. If Americans really want their country to be respected for sincerely manifesting the truly honorable ideals set forth by its founders 228 years ago, then it’s time to honestly face the music.

This work is in the public domain
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