Too Bad to be True

Statue of Liberty. (Credit: Derek Jensen)

Statue of Liberty. (Credit: Derek Jensen)

One nasty attribute of U.S. exceptionalism in this era of perpetual war is the endless exemptions America gives itself from the constraints of international law.

As historian Alfred McCoy observes, the U.S. routinely defies the very rules it helped to write for an international community of nations governed by law. The sum of exceptions includes “endless incarceration, extrajudicial killing, pervasive surveillance, drone strikes in defiance of national boundaries, torture on demand, and immunity for all of the above on the grounds of state secrecy.” Why do Americans so seldom perceive this lawbreaking record as jarring and disconcerting?

The answer, in part, is that this behavior is too bad to be believed by most Americans. American innocence is an article of faith.[i] Nothing is more central to national identity than the mythos that dissociates the U.S. from evil and shields it from its own wrongdoing. We want to believe that America is a force for good, not a bully or a rogue nation, not even something in-between. Regardless of supporting evidence, it is simply incredulous to allege that, in Tom Engelhardt’s words, “the White House has in our time become a war-making and assassination-producing machine.”

Just as we don’t want to believe that our country regularly does bad things on the international scene, we disbelieve accusations of bad behavior on the domestic front. If we distrust stories of extraordinary rendition and torture of enemy combatants, how likely is it that we give credence to stories of similar abuses being perpetrated against the U.S. citizenry? Such stories are beyond belief, too extreme to be true.

Who, for instance, wants to believe reporter Spencer Ackerman’s recent story of Chicago’s militarized police force operating clandestinely to detain and disappear U.S. citizens at its abuse-laden “black site”? It’s absurd to think the war on terror has come to roost in the homeland, that “a nondescript warehouse on Chicago’s west side known as Homan Square” serves as an “off-the-books interrogation compound.” Detainees shackled for long periods, beaten, and denied access to lawyers—that’s just too ludicrous.

In the meantime, democracy and liberty fade further into the shadow of the war state. Engelhardt warns (but it sounds too bad to be true): “we, the people, are ever less in control of anything. The police are increasingly not ‘ours’ nor are the NSA and its colleague outfits ‘our’ intelligence agencies, nor are the wars we are fighting ‘our’ war, nor the elections in which we vote ‘our’ elections. This is a country . . . head[ing] into a heavily militarized future. In the process, an everyday American world is being brought into existence that, by past standards, will seem extreme indeed. In other words, in the years to come an ever-less recognizable American way of life will quite expectably be setting in the west. Don’t be shocked.”

It is easier to defer to the evolving war culture than to question the myth of American innocence.


[i] Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 153-89.

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