TW – some discussion of the 9/11 attack
I was in high school in 2001. My childhood dream of being the starting centre for the Philadelphia Flyers was already gone (for obvious reasons we don’t need to discuss here). My backup was soldier. I romanticised the idea of being a modern knight protecting my family and friends from the bad guys of the world.
It was very Captain America because I was barely 5 feet tall and weighed shy of 80 pounds. Standing up to the baddies was not something I could do realistically – except with my brain. The Air Force felt like a good bet. I could apply my intellect and some Archimedean means to defend others with that branch.
One September morning, I was getting changed for gym and some of the ‘burnout’ types were talking about knocking over buildings in a joking tone. I paid them little mind.
We lined up to start the class and the young woman in front of me, a sweet girl whom I respected and adored for her class and kindness, was distraught. What if someone flew a plane into our school?
Why would that happen? Perhaps if it had been someone else I would have ignored it, but she deserved kindness and patience. I reassured her that would not happen.
When I got to my French class the next period, it was all over the television. Both of the towers had been hit and everyone in the school had stopped to watch the live coverage. I got to class shortly before the news broke about the Pentagon. The future soldier in me felt awakened. The protector in me was livid. The academic in me was confused – who did this?
At this point in my education I knew only the watered down version of history one learns in grade school. The whole of World War II takes a week or two – Nazis bad, America helped stop them, and now on to the 1950s and the Cold War. George H.W. Bush was the first President I remember, but mostly in name. I was vaguely aware of the Gulf War as a child, mostly being scared that my country was fighting a war. Even at five, war seemed like the thing of history books for the United States, not the sort of thing a nation of our strength would have to face. Clinton is the first President I truly remember.
Then came the news about Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Then Iraq. Then WMDs. You know the story.
This is where I started to lose the plot a bit though. The protector in me still wanted justice for those attacks. Someone had hurt innocent people, and now we knew who they were. There was no shaking the academic in me though. He had to know who, in essence, these people were. Okay, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. That’s a who. But why? Because they hated America and her freedom? That was the story we received.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that Bin Laden (and Saddam Hussein) were once American allies. We financed and supported them against other enemies – one of them being the Soviets, our World War II ally.
Every step of the way, a case could be made for American exceptionalism, for necessary leadership because of our position in the world, for not sleeping so well in exchange for serving some greater good.
However, every step of the way, a case could be made for American greed and selfishness. The United States ignored situations that seemed to have no American interest and intervene in situations that did not require it when an American interest existed. More and more of history felt whitewashed in accordance with an American view.
Ask some Americans when World War II began – observe how many say 1941 (or do not know). We learn that the Nazis were bad and the US became directly involved after Pearl Harbor. The Greatest Generation. They invaded the beaches at Normandy, liberated Europe, then won the war in the Pacific.
We don’t discuss the rise of national socialism in Europe before the war, or American reluctance to get involved, or efforts to preserve American interest without getting directly involved, or Soviet contributions to the war effort, or British efforts to safeguard their Empire over fighting for the liberty of free people everywhere, or the extent that antisemitism pervaded the Allied nations.
Perhaps the greatest crime? Teachings about World War II can glance over the prelude to the war all too quickly. Why did Germany give way to the Third Reich? We did fascism take hold in Germany, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere? Why did America and Britain take the positions they did? Why did Japan proceed the way it did?
History was full of good guys and bad guys, and because we discussed it in a vacuum (Remember the animosity towards the French during the War on Terror? With the freedom fries and all of that nonsense? We dismiss the role the French played in the foundation of our nation, helping us against the British – the British, who are now our greatest ally). The common thread through all of it was American exceptionalism.
I don’t offer this as a pure condemnation of the United States or even to offer a moral equivalence with others. I do not think the United States is the most vile institution today or ever, nor do I think it is the pillar of freedom, democracy, and right that we Americans are meant to believe it is. I look at other world leaders with a critical, disapproving, sometimes even scornful eye for their conduct both at home and abroad, and I do not convey those feelings towards the citizens.
I distrust Putin, but I love the Russian people. I dislike Duterte, but I love the Filipino people. I disapprove of Netanyahu, but I love the Israeli people. So on and so forth.
Are these leaders corrupt or tyrannical? I have opinions but no basis in fact because I honestly cannot tell how much of what I know is propaganda on behalf of the other side. This is not partisan either. Yes, I despise the Trump administration and I know if you go back through my social media you will find criticisms of Bush. Clinton and Obama did things that I largely overlooked. Is it an excuse, probably, but I was too young to understand the politics of the Clinton era and Obama was a refreshing change to me from the Bush years. Trump reset the clock. It obscured things about the Democratic periods that I cannot condone.
See the John Mulaney bit about Trump as a horse loose in a hospital. He concludes with a similar admission that conservatives and Republicans will challenge him about a lack of oversight when Obama engaged in similar behaviours during his term, to which he offers the defence (paraphrased) that Obama seemed smart and good at his job, so there was no impetus to check up on him as much.
In other words, it was shitty then and it is shitty now. I am more outspoken in my criticism now only because I am paying close attention to it, but that does not absolve any prior wrongdoing and I am not the arbiter of these things. Wrong is wrong and we should not tolerate it from anyone in that office or any office.
I look back through US history and find myself thinking, “We have not had what I would consider a ‘good’ President since Franklin Roosevelt, if then.” I consider FDR good mostly for what I know about him and because time has erased much of the clarity surrounding finer points from our consciousness. It exists only in the rose-coloured rear-view mirror of American history.
From Truman forward it has been a series of bad policies, both at home and abroad, furthered, deepened, and worsened, either deliberately or tangentially, by the policies of each subsequent administration.
And while I would not absolve the domestic issues of nations and regions from their state of affairs, when I look at US relations abroad today I see, clear as day, the stamp of those terrible US policies on the current climate. US involvement in Mexico, Central America, and South America. US oil interests and Soviet defence attitudes in the Middle East. Anti-communist decisions in Southeast Asia. All of these things profoundly colour US relations with these parties today.
So I get it when people around the world cast a scornful eye towards the United States and it upsets me because that is not who we were supposed to be.
When I look at the social ails facing the United States today, I see debate and consensus about root causes. What troubles me though is that when one looks at those root causes, they are policies set forth by the United States. They are not situations forced onto us, they are situations freely chosen, supposedly in the best interest of the nation. More and more the glitz of history strips away to leave it looking like the greed of the few rather than the liberty of the many.
Here’s one specific avenue (yes, this is reductive but intentionally so): Why do we have problems at the US-Mexico border? Well, among them, MS-13. They are a threat to the safety of US citizens, to be sure.
But MS-13 originated as a means of protecting immigrants while travelling from Central America and then while living in the Los Angeles area to protect against other gangs (and there is something to be said for why those gangs existed and were in conflict, too). Perhaps the most auspicious member of the gang, Ernesto Duras, had special forces training from the US.
Why were they fleeing Central America in the first place? Violence. From their independence in 1821, El Salvador relied heavily on coffee for their economy and the suppression of rural discontent (the people responsible for growing the coffee) to support it. The US would become involved alongside a coup-d’état and communist influence in the region that led to the Salvadoran Civil War in 1979.
If 1979 sounds familiar to Americans, perhaps it’s because it coincides with the Iran-Contra affair when the federal government sold arms to Iran and used the money to finance fighters in Central America against communism. The arms deal to Iran was secret because officially the US had an arms ban against the Iranians after the hostage crisis, which the US still supported publicly to contain the spread of communism in the Middle East. The US needed money and Iran needed weapons. Why? To fight off Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi forces who invaded.
It’s all far more complicated than the scope of this piece allows, but the point is this tapestry of causality that has American fingerprints all over it. The United States is not solely responsible for the ails of the world, but I see our stamp on the events that lead to most of them.
My family and closest friends are American. I have lived here my entire life and culture shock alone is reason enough for me to question the likelihood of succeeding living anywhere else (I’ve sometimes thought of Ireland or the United Kingdom, but Brexit worries me more than the current US political situation). That’s my answer to those who say, “Don’t like it? Go somewhere else.”
Yet I realise even that is wrong. “Don’t like it? Go somewhere else.” Believe me, I’ve considered it. That dismisses a critical thing though – I don’t like it. Who should like it? Sure, some of us, myself included, have benefited and will continue to benefit from American policy. We can and should demand that we do better on the international stage, and yet we do an inadequate job.
Or perhaps we do the best job we can, but circumstances beyond our control prevent that job from having any effect.
Next up – Part II: The Citizen
This first part regarded my moral disapproval of the United States as a collective whole towards the rest of the world. Part two will focus domestically on the broad relation of that same sense of morality towards national politics.