Whether or not the rhetoric is sincere, it aims to persuade us that our country is on the side of the angels. Stories to the contrary are ignored or forgotten. The simple but effective mechanism for suppressing the nation’s guilty conscience is to concoct a devil figure. If our enemy is evil, then we are a force for good. This self-serving logic is regularly recycled. It keeps bad memories in check whenever or wherever they might pop up. It works like a vaccination to immunize us from a dreaded disease.
Just the other day, on July 22, 2014, readers of Tom Engelhardt’s TomDispatch.com were exposed to an uneasy memory. In “Jonathan Schell, A Niagara Falls of Post-9/11 Violence,” Engelhardt recounts Jonathan Schell’s insight that violence has become a path to hell on earth. After 9/11, the U.S. decided on a policy of global military action against terrorism. Schell observed, in The Unconquerable World (2003), that “by calling the campaign a ‘war,’ the administration summoned into action the immense, technically revolutionized, post-Cold War American military machine, which had lacked a clear enemy for over a decade. And by identifying the target as generic ‘terrorism,’ rather than as al-Qaeda or any other group or list of groups, the administration licensed military operations anywhere in the world.” Regime change and preemptive war defined U.S. policy. “A policy of unchallengeable military domination over the earth, accompanied by a unilateral right to overthrow other governments by military force, is an imperial, an Augustan policy,” Schell wrote, which sets the stage for “catastrophe.”
That is an uncomfortable memory with critical implications for the ongoing global war on terrorism. It could infect the country with a severe case of doubt over endless imperial warfare. We might begin to question whether we are acting on the side of angels.
We got a booster shot on July 23. Not that Dan Coats was speaking directly against Jonathan Schell’s earlier warning, but with the broad intent of reassuring the public that the U.S. is “a force for good,” the U.S. Senator from Indiana pointed his finger at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “imperial ambitions, motivated by his pathological insecurities and a quest to restore lost glories. These are dangerous delusions,” Coats insisted, “that, if not confronted firmly, will come to threaten us all.” This is a defining moment for the United States—“with our commitment to the rule of law, rules of evidence, and the demands of justice”—to be “a force for good” against “Putin’s outrageous territorial aggression,” his “brutal ambitions,” and his “ruthlessness” (Dan Coats: Here’s What We Need to Do Next with Putin, Ukraine).
There you have it. We are inoculated against self-critique.
John Pilger gasped, after attending a performance of 1984 in early July, that George Orwell’s “warning about the future was presented [on the London stage] as a period piece: remote, unthreatening, almost reassuring.” Today’s society is thoroughly de-politicized. Political language is turned on its head. Democracy is an empty gesture. Reform means regression. Peace is perpetual, global, imperial warfare (The World We’ve Constructed is Far Beyond George Orwell’s Worst Nightmare, July 11, 2014).
Whether in the British theatre or on the American political stage, we remain a force for good by virtue of misdirection and amnesia.