Father, forgive me, for I have sinned. I fell into a stupid argument in the comboxes of another blog, with someone who misrepresented my positions time and again, insisting on battling straw men of his own creation instead of actually engaging my thought . Like a sucker I fell for it, and found myself getting angry. I promise with the help of God’s grace to engage in futile argument no more and to avoid the near occasions of contention.
What started all this was a post on Vox Nova, a website written by lefty but faithful Catholics. Sounds good, but they also are noted for provocative opinions, which sometimes seem designed more to outrage conservatives than anything else. And many of the writers hide behind pseudonyms, which makes it safe to express views one may hesitate to air if using one’s given name.
In this instance the Provocative Opinion was that the United States of America is the “greatest force for evil in the history of the world”. Now, if I, a longtime critic of my country’s culture and history and foreign policy, who is frequently -and falsely- accused of hating America, think such an opinion is over the top, I can only imagine how it sounds to those many Americans who think America is the Greatest Nation in the World, a city on a hill, with an ordained mission to spread its blessings to the rest of the world, even at gunpoint.
So I wrote that this is just a reverse version of American Exceptionalism, the idea that America is so unique a phenomenon that it is free from the laws of history. And I noted that if the writer expected to convince anyone of anything he should eschew such overstatement.
To his credit, the writer used his own name, which was an unusual one. I did an online search and learned that he had been a soldier, an Army Ranger, and had undergone a pretty brutal combat training. He had excelled, and had been sent to West Point, where he became convinced that the whole imperial military enterprise was evil, and that he could not kill another human. He applied for, and was eventually granted, conscientious objector status.
Now, claiming C.O. status while at a military academy ensures much persecution, and it takes great courage to do so. And as a result of his decision he gave up a career as an Army officer and now struggles to provide for his young family. I still did not agree with his overwrought estimate of American evil, but I became sympathetic to him as a person and said so, which is what inspired my opponent to attack me, or what he claimed to be me, an unrecognizable heretical leftist.
And while claiming that the U.S. is the most evil nation in the history of the world is not accurate -what? worse than Nazi Germany? Or Stalinist Russia? Or the Mongols?- it is no more untrue than the ruling myth of Americanist exceptionalism, and the inevitable double standard that that myth evokes. That is, if America is uniquely good, then any sort of evil may be justified to achieve her destiny.
This leads to defending acts that one would condemn in other peoples. To take the most obvious example, Americans overwhelmingly hold that our policy in World War II of bombing cities and targeting civilians, and ultimately annihilating Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was morally defensible, using the consequentialist argument that this saved countless American lives. Even if this is true- which is highly speculative and arguable- this does not justify such destruction.
What is curious is that when others undertake such evil, even on a much smaller scale, it is condemned without hesitation. They are “terrorists” who have no respect for life.
To cite the most obvious example, consider the 9/11 attacks.
In actuality, these attacks are qualitatively different than the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. From the point of view of the radical jihadists, these attacks could be defended as meeting the criteria of the Just War doctrine: none of the targets was strictly “civilian”; each of them was at the center of the military, economy or government of “the enemy”. Those working at the Pentagon or the World Trade Center were considered direct participants in what was perceived as evil, and the passengers on the hijacked jets could be considered “collateral damage”. We may disagree with this assessment, but the logic is undeniable, given the views of the perpetrators, and the flexible nature of the just war principles, which historically have insured that any government can justify any action, however aggressive.
On the other hand, the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were direct attacks on cities. Some have tried to justify this by pointing out that both had some military significance, but if you read the historic documents it is clear that these cities were chosen because they had not been bombed previously, which would better illustrate to the Japanese the destructive power that the U.S. now possessed. And even if these cities had been major military centers, to say that 100,000 civilian deaths (more or less; we may never know the true numbers) are acceptable collateral damage would be absurd, even though there are people who can look you in the eye and say this.
It is without irony that the site of the Twin Towers was quickly dubbed “Ground Zero”, which was the spot in the New Mexico desert where the first atomic bomb was detonated. It is without irony that American unhesitatingly condemn this act of terror, while defending far worst acts of American terror. It is without irony that Americans continue to employ “shock and awe” bombing tactics- ie, terrorism. And it is without irony that Americans say, with a straight face, that so much of the world hates us because we are good, because we are free.
America may not be the greatest force for evil in the history of the world, but to say this is no more absurd than our reigning myth.
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