In taking responsibility for the death by Predator Drone of Warren Weinstein, an American development expert, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian aid worker, two men blown to pieces by our unerring CIA, President Obama said, “It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes—sometimes deadly mistakes—can occur.”
One assumes the President didn’t intend the irony associated with the reference to the “fog of war”—the title of Errol Morris’s documentary eviscerating former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara for the needless slaughter in Vietnam, of which he was the prime architect—but it did create a mournful echo.
Then Obama lurched from compassion to calculation. With a nod to the war-mongering super-patriots, he said, “One of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”
“American exceptionalism”—a lofty re-phrase of the oft-chanted “We’re Number One!”—argues that the United States is at the apex of the world’s hierarchy and criticism is unwelcome or irrelevant. A metastasis of the tumor injected into the lexicon by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who dubbed America “the indispensable nation” and justified the death of half a million Iraqi children from US sanctions as “worth it,” American exceptionalism allows us to bask in the sun of certitude rather than subject ourselves to self-examination as we violate the laws and standards lesser nations are required to honor.
In fact, this monumental arrogance is a disease eating at the very root of our principles.
Among the other “things that make us exceptional,” Obama might have included murder by drone itself. That bloody policy created the very mistake for which he wants to ease his conscience by compensating the Weinstein and Lo Porto families. He made no mention, however, of any effort to compensate the families of the publicly unknown but substantial number of innocent civilian Predator victims in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and probably Somalia who, unlike Weinstein and Lo Porto, are simply written off as “collateral damage.”
Murder by drone, initiated by the Bush/Cheney regime along with other heretofore unthinkable acts like first strikes, “Shock and Awe,” preventive detention, hooding, brutalizing, waterboarding and other tortures, was not only continued but magnified by Obama to a degree apparently unthinkable even by Rumsfeldian standards.
While not only maintaining but amplifying the robotization of warfare initiated by the Bush administration, Obama disparaged and discontinued, at least overtly, the rest of their bag of ugly tricks. But, again with a nod to political calculus, he chose to “look forward, not back” and refused to prosecute the clearly criminal behavior of that smug, self-indicting mob.
Our impoverished communities, our schools and our prisons are full of wounded, sick, broken and mentally ill Americans. They long for teachers, counselors, judges and parole officers willing to “look forward, not back.” Meanwhile, the perpetrators of great crimes, the architects of inequality, walk free and bleat unending praise of American exceptionalism.
A dear friend of mine, a courageous, heroic progressive leader, said at the collapse of the Soviet Union that that time would mark the beginning of the greatest challenge the US would ever face. Far more than the world wars or the Cold War, he said, the challenge facing our country as it became the world’s sole superpower would be whether it could, with no viable challenge from outside, live up to its principles.
Could the US meet the test of world leadership while continuing to work toward the realization of its inherent promise? Could it actually become the nation the founders’ vision made possible?
The answer lies ahead. But every day it is growing less visible, thanks to a thick, smoggy haze of self-congratulation, self-indulgence, winner-take-all voodoo economics, chronic class, race and gender bias and increasing popular despair.