We are Good
“We must never forget.” So proclaims a solemn parade of United States politicians, pundits, and propagandists preparing for an orgy of narcissistic national self-righteousness, self-pity and patriotism to mark the ten-year anniversary of 9/11/2001.
“We must never forget” the terrible bright September day a decade ago when a great, democratic, and benevolent nation was attacked by evil people who hated our “freedom.”
We “must never forget” how we were so unjustly assaulted and how we vowed to defend our country and its noble values with a bold and just military response to Evil.
We “must never forget” because we must always be on guard to defend our exceptional nation and its inspiring beliefs and institutions, its excellent “free market” economy and other virtues that make us the greatest nation of all time – “the beacon to the world of how life should be,” as Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) described the U.S. in a speech in support of Congress authorizing George W. Bush to invade Iraq.
We “must never forget” how splendid we are. As Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright once explained, "the United States is good…We try to do our best everywhere.”
Of course, in properly appreciating that goodness, good Americans are expected to dutifully forget the United States' long record of inflicting massive military mayhem on officially designated enemies and defenseless civilians abroad. Right thinking citizens understand without asking that crimes are committed by evil others, never by noble “America.” Bad things are done by “them,” never by “us.” “They” have malevolent intent but “we” are good, driven by gracious and gallant goals and ideals. The only victims worthy of acknowledgement and compassion are those assaulted by “our” officially designated enemies. The larger number murdered and maimed by us and/or our clients and allies (e.g., Palestinians killed and suffering under U.S.-sponsored Israeli occupation and apartheid and dissidents murdered and muzzled by U.S. client states like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Columbia, and Honduras) do not merit sympathy or consideration. They do not exist.
So Much to Fail to Remember
There is so much we must fail to remember, compared to the only two times the U.S. has been assaulted on its own soil – during the War of 1812 (by the British Empire) and (al Qaeda) on September 11, 2001. (I exempt Pearl Harbor since it took place on Hawaii, stolen from its native inhabitants forty four years prior to the Japanese attack). We are expected to loyally overlook: the United States’ savage racist elimination of native peoples’ and civilizations from “frontier” territory claimed by white settlers (celebrated in Theodore Roosevelt’s multi-volume Winning of the West as a great “feat of power” over dangerous “savages” that furthered the Darwinian "spread of English-speaking people over the world's waste spaces”); the military theft of much of the American Southwest and California from Mexico during the 1846-1848 Mexican War (the first in which a U.S. army invaded another country and occupied its capital); the U.S. butchering of 600,000 Filipino natives (labeled “niggers,” “Apaches,” and “barbarians” by their “’turkey-shooting” executioners) between 1899 and 1902 (4,300 Americans were lost); the bloody U.S.- re-imposition of de facto slavery and colonial rule on Haiti during and after World War One (justified by “the Negro race’s” inherent unsuitability for democracy, according to Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing); the mass-murderous U.S. atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, justified by Washington as necessary to defeat Japan when the White House and high American military command knew very well that Japan was exhausted and seeking surrender.
“From the end of World War Two through the present,” John Pilger noted in 2007, the U.S. Empire caused “the extinction and suffering of countless human beings. The United States attempted to overthrow fifty governments, many of them democracies, and to crush thirty popular movements fighting tyrannical regimes. In the process, twenty-five countries were bombed, causing the loss of several million lives and the despair of millions more” None of this is to be remembered – even registered (see below) – by good Americans.
The officially non-existent victims of American benevolence since 1945 include:
- 3 million mostly peasant Indochinese (chiefly Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians) killed in a massive, multi-pronged U.S. assault between 1962 and 1975 (58,000 U.S. soldiers died in this one-sided attack, encouraging U.S. president Jimmy Carter to claim that “the destruction was mutual” during the so-called Vietnam War).
- Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans killed and maimed by authoritarian governments (including “Third World fascist” regimes in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua) and paramilitaries funded, supported, and equipped by the U.S.
- 300 Iranian civilian air passengers (including 90 children) blown out of the sky (on Iranian Air Flight 655) by the U.S. Navy in Iranian air space from Iranian territorial waters by the U.S. warship Vincennes on July 3, 1988. (The commander of the Vincennes William C. Rogers III was subsequently rewarded with a Combat Action ribbon and the prestigious Legion of Merit "for exceptionally meritorious conduct.” Scott Lustig, the U.S. air-warfare coordinator who directed the attack received the Navy Commendation Medal. The medal citation noted his ability to "quickly and precisely complete the firing procedure.” The U.S. later settled the incident for $61.1 million in the International Court of Justice).
- More than 125.000 Iraqis killed, mostly from bombing, so that the U.S. could punish the renegade behavior of its former client Saddam Hussein in the so-called Persian Gulf War of 1991 – an operation that cost the lives of less than 200 U.S. troops. (The body count included many thousands of surrendered troops slaughtered while in full retreat from Kuwait on the infamous “Highway of Death” in the night of February 26-27, 1991, A reporter described the highway scene as “ a blazing Hell” and “a gruesome testament,” noting that “To the east and west across the sand lay the bodies of those fleeing”).
- More than 1 million Iraqis killed by a U.S-imposed weapon of mass destruction called “economic sanctions” between 1991 and March 2003.
- More than 2 million Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Yemenis and other predominantly Muslim and Arab people killed in criminal U.S. wars of occupation, revenge, and petroleum-control since 9/11/2011.
“The Price is Worth it”
Last May on the Public Broadcasting System’s “News Hour,” Madeline Albright applauded the death of the former U.S. client Osama bin Laden. The just-murdered bin Laden had “killed not only Americans but a lot of other people,” Albright noted. The PBS anchor interviewing Albright appeared to find nothing remarkable about that comment. It was a telling non-reaction. A reasonably civilized news culture would have been shocked by righteous expressions of concern for innocent victims from a person (Albright) who as Secretary of State said the following to CBS News about the killing of more than half a million Iraqi children by the U.S.-led sanctions: “this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”
Beneath that statement lay a deeply racist and imperial mindset that “prices” the lives of Arab children as no greater than those of insects when compared to the need to advance the inherently noble global objectives of America – the inherently excellent nation that, Albright once claimed, “stands taller and sees farther” than all the rest. Seven years after Albright uttered her noxious judgment on national television, the Pentagon’s computer program for estimating civilian deaths likely to result from the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003 used an interesting term to designate the ordinary Iraqis to be killed: “bug-splat.”
“Why Didn’t We Attack Sweden?”
One does not exonerate the mass-murderer bin Laden by acknowledging the wisdom of a comment he made after 9/11. If al-Qaeda’s goal was not to punish the U.S. for its imperial role in the oil-rich Middle East but rather to express hatred for Western freedom and democracy, bin Laden asked, then “why didn’t we attack Sweden?” Like many other Western Europeans, after all, Scandinavians enjoy more freedom and democracy than do the corporate-managed residents of the U.S., where policy and society are savagely subordinated to “the unelected dictatorship of money” and politics remain “the shadow cast on society by big business” (John Dewey) in a nation where the top 1 percent owns more than 40 percent of the wealth (along with a larger share of the elected officials) and bottom 40 percent owns essentially nothing (0.3 percent of American net worth).
Many U.S. military personnel in the 21st century have described their actions in the Middle East and Southwest Asia as “revenge for 9/11” – a common motivational theme in the preparation of 21st century U.S. imperial gendarmes to kill “Hajis.” American troops, officers, intelligence operatives, and pilots have for a decade now been encouraged to take out their hatred for bin Laden and Muslims more generally on innocent men, women, and children across the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
The American petro-imperial revenge machine reached its gory apex, perhaps, in April of 2004. That’s when the U.S. Marines responded to the killing of four American (Blackwater) mercenaries in the Iraqi city of Fallujah with a quasi-genocidal assault that included the bombing (including hyper-lethal cluster-bombing), mortaring, napalming, gassing, and shooting of civilians, the destruction of hospitals and clinics, and the targeting of ambulances. U.S. snipers boasted of killing “anyone they could get in their site.” This assault alone considerably out-did al Qaeda’s 9/11 death count.
Blowing Up Afghan Children v. Scaring New Yorkers
Another one of many episodes in the long record of wanton U.S. imperial violence since 9/11 took place in May of 2009. That’s when U.S. air-strikes killed more than 140 civilians in Bola Boluk, a village in western Afghanistan’s Farah Province. Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by U.S. explosives were children. Just 22 were males 18 years or older. As the New York Times reported:
“In a phone call played on a loudspeaker on Wednesday to outraged members of the Afghan Parliament, the governor of Farah Province, Rohul Amin, said that as many as 130 civilians had been killed, according to a legislator, Mohammad Naim Farahi….”
“ ‘ The governor said that the villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred,’ Mr. Farahi said.”
“ ‘Everyone at the governor’s office was crying, watching that shocking scene.’ Mr. Farahi said he had talked to someone he knew personally who had counted 113 bodies being buried, including those of many women and children. Later, more bodies were pulled from the rubble and some victims who had been taken to the hospital died, he said.”
U.S. President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to apologize for the mass aerial destruction of Afghan children. By contrast, Obama had just offered a full presidential apology to New York City and fired a White House official after that official scared New Yorkers with an ill-advised Air Force One photo-shoot flyover of Manhattan. The flight had briefly reminded people below of 9/11.
Frightening New Yorkers called for a full presidential apology and the discharge of a White House staffer. Blowing up 93 Afghan children did not elicit an apology. Nobody was fired or disciplined.
Here at least Obama stayed true to one of his campaign statements. During his rock-star visit to adoring crowds in Berlin in the summer of 2008, CNN’s Candy Crowley asked the next president if “there’s anything that’s happened in the past 7 1/2 years that the U.S. needs to apologize for in terms of foreign policy.” Obama responded bluntly: “No, I don’t believe in the U.S. apologizing…I think the war in Iraq was a mistake…But, hindsight is 20/20, and I’m much more interested in looking forward rather than looking backwards. …The U.S,” Obama made sure to ad, “remains overwhelmingly a force of good in the world.”
True to his comment to Crowley, Obama refused (during a June 2009 White House visit by Chile’s president Michele Bachelet) to consider an official U.S. apology for the United States’ central role in Latin America’s Nine Eleven – the September 11, 1973 coup that overthrew Chile’s democratically elected government and installed the mass-murderous fascist dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Obama justified his refusal with the claim that "I'm interested in going forward, not looking backward,” the same language he used to rationalize not investigating and prosecuting the George Bush II administration’s war and human rights crimes. For good measure, Obama added that “the United States has been an enormous force for good in the world” even if “there have been times where we've made mistakes.” Under Obama as under U.S. presidents since Reagan, the White House and Pentagon continue to refuse to apologize for Iranian Flight 655.
Even While it Was Happening It Never Happened
Of course, Latin America’s 9/11 never really happened as far as the dominant U.S. political and intellectual culture is concerned. I misspoke when I wrote (above) that “good Americans are expected to forget” (the United States' long history of murder abroad). The deeper truth is that we are not supposed to ever register any parts of that record in the first place. You have to know that something occurred in the first place to forget it. But in the U.S, and indeed across much of the West, the record of ongoing U.S. criminality is airbrushed out from official history and the mass culture even as it occurs. It is instantaneously tossed down George Orwell’s “memory hole.” As Harold Pinter noted in his acceptance of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, dominant Western cultural authorities behave as if past U.S. imperial violence did not exist. Even while it was happening,” Pinter added, “it never happened. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.”
If anyone cares, this is how the Nazis dealt with Germany’s imperial crimes: as if they’d never happened. A relentless propaganda campaign claiming (among other things) that poor, persecuted Germany had done nothing to produce its Versailles victim-hood and to provoke hostility and attack from outside helped fuel Adolph Hitler’s rise to power and his scheme to achieve the global hegemony that fell to the American Superpower during and after World War II.
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of many books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010); and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011).