America Exceptionalism (Orwell was Right)

It’s been an interesting month among the brethren and talking heads and Facebook commentators—all over a Senate report.  (Oh glory, if we were only so concerned about all business conducted in the hallowed halls of Congress).  The obligatory paeans to our Founding Fathers–and the system of government and accountability to the people they bequeathed to us—followed by an effortless segue into the divine right, nay, infallibility of Vice Presidents, if they are named Dick Cheney.  The head spins.

Much is spoken of American Exceptionalism.  How could the world not know—or the Democrats for that matter—that USA USA USA is Number One?  Granted, once our Exceptionalism did mean that we were a nation of laws, of laws written by common consent, of plain laws enforced fairly.  Once, it did mean that birth status was not the major determinant of success; that good schools and good jobs at livable wages were available for those willing to exert the effort.   Once it did mean that the rich and powerful could not write their own rules and could not evade accountability for their actions.  Yes, American Exceptionalism was all of these things, even if imperfectly applied or enacted.  But mostly it was the adherence to an ideal that the individual matters; that all men had inherent rights—rights that were not awarded by, but rather protected by, the State.  My my, remember those days?!

A quick look back–our Exceptionalism manifested itself most dramatically after the Second World War in which the United States emerged as the preeminent Power on Earth.  Rather than consolidate our position in Empire, as so many dominant Powers have done throughout history, we directed our efforts to rebuilding a world devastated by war.  Cities rose from the ashes. But just as necessary world social, financial, and legal order had to be reestablished as well—the result being the UN, Bretton Woods, GATT, World Bank, IMF, and updated Geneva Conventions.  We made this happen, we agreed to all of it, even though such arrangements between and among nations had the potential to restrict our freedom of action.  Exceptional indeed, that a supreme power would allow others to restrict the exercise of that power—that we would accept, willingly, limits to our reach and influence—all for the greater good of the world order and to allow other nations and peoples to flourish.  We knew it was not a zero-sum game we were playing, and that rather than expending the resources and efforts to direct a far-flung empire, it was easier and more beneficial to agree to some guidelines to behavior with which we all could live.  In the history of world politics, an amazing, and truly exceptional state of affairs and behavior for a Nation.

What happened?  If one reads and listens to so much of the commentary over the last month, it seems the argument has become that because the assault on 9/11 was so dastardly, we are within our rights to react in kind and throw out the rules of conflict—rules we were instrumental in devising.  Because of the shock to our collective system on 9/11, anything goes.  (The weary tone often taken by these proponents is that this change in behavior was natural—anyone or any country would have reacted the same to such an insult.  Well, so much for our vaunted Exceptionalism if we are just like everyone else.)

Which brings us back to the Senate report and the use of torture.  Rather, more like the tortured use of words and logic that has come to be all too common.  The physical abuse detailed was a direct consequence of the Orwellian use of words.  Either captured members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other associated groups and offshoots are prisoners of war and subject to a certain standard of care as outlined in the Geneva Conventions—or they are criminal elements who are then subject to criminal law to be fairly tried and then fairly shot (or not).  Unwilling to consider the guilty parties (and the unlucky few captured by mistake) as POWs or criminals, we by fiat created a third category of prisoner not covered by law or convention—and then treated them as trash as a direct consequence since we don’t recognize their status as belonging in one of the other two categories.

President Bush stated the United States does not and did not torture…yet it’s come to pass that we did engage in behavior we had previously called torture—and had prosecuted others in the past for such behaviors.  Whether we tortured for information, or tortured for pleasure, is not a distinction the United States would have accepted as mitigation in any other conflict.  If any other country had chained a prisoner to the wall and allowed him to die of hypothermia, we’d be the first to call for a human rights inquiry (as long as it wasn’t to which a country we had “renditioned” the sorry soul).  That the man was mistakenly captured, it turns out, did not make a difference.  It certainly didn’t to the Vice President— to him that a few innocents died while in our custody is a small price to pay…but pay for what?  Recall, the Vice President, and others in the previous administration, are the same leaders who tried to paint the abuses at Abu Ghraib as the work of rogue actors.  This is almost plausible as an excuse, as all wars, and all prisons and penitentiary facilities and their minders, have seen and engaged in their share of abuses.  But this time, this behavior—previously frowned upon—was officially sanctioned.

Orwell was prescient, in this as in most things.  The torture done to language attempts to obfuscate the same behavior we inflicted on others.  Can there be no doubt as to the true meaning of ‘enhance interrogation’?  (For that matter, does anyone really not know to what ‘collateral damage’ refers?  To what ‘rectal hydration’ is?)  How can it be for an administration to say ‘a thing is so’, and that be the final word?  Saying it even thrice does not make it so.  Since when does a practice we have condemned, that we have court-martialed our own and imprisoned our adversaries for conducting, have labeled torture in other venues and times, suddenly become an accepted practice and strongly and vocally supported by elected leadership?  American Exceptionalism should not mean we follow the rules and laws and treaties, except the ones we ignore.  The Geneva Conventions prohibit torture of captives…and is the law of the land.  If we ignore, or use verbal gymnastics to deny, such proscriptions, how can we expect them to be followed by others?

Not only oppressed and dispossessed individuals, but many educated and successful persons throughout the world want to come to come to the United States for the Exceptional Ideals we embody in our founding documents; for our Exceptional Absence of a ruling class; for our Exceptional Openness as a people; for our Exceptional Mobility economically, socially, and habitually; for our Exceptional Abilities to innovate–not because we carve out Exceptions for ourselves.

As Orwell would say, this is “double plus un-good”.

About Monk

Schooner Captain, pilot, and aikidoka
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