By Roger H. Lieberman
Special to PalestineChronicle.com
Sixty-two years ago this week, the most destructive terrorist bombings in world history took place. On August 6, 1945, the United States Air Force dropped a 15-kiloton atom bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and three days later proceeded to devastate the port of Nagasaki with a similar weapon. By current estimates, 140,000 men, women, and children in Hiroshima, and nearly 80,000 in Nagasaki, perished in the immediate explosions, and in the ensuing months and years from radiation poisoning.
These horrible acts of political violence illustrate in somber colors the power of a military-industrial complex to pervert the academic pursuit of science for destructive ends. The advent of nuclear weaponry ushered in an age of almost unfathomable danger for humanity, from which we have yet to emerge. The revelations of early 20th Century physicists, harnessed to the mass-production of missiles and bombs, have provided the leaders of powerful nations with the means to turn man’s most nightmarish myths into self-fulfilling prophecies.
Ironically, through a disturbing turn of events, American public awareness of the nuclear danger, painfully acquired during the anxious years of the Cold War, has in our own time been subverted by neo-conservatives as an instrument of bellicose propaganda. This has taken the form of lurid tales about what might conceivably happen should one of the officially-designated “rogue states” acquire a small number of nuclear warheads – as opposed to the thousands possessed by the United States. This implicitly (if not explicitly) racist hysteria was stirred up with appalling success (and in gross contradiction to the facts) by the Bush Administration in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, when Condoleezza Rice made her ludicrous speech about Saddam Hussein’s next message taking the form of a “mushroom cloud”.
Five years later, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dead and nearly four million have become refugees either inside or outside Iraq. Thousands of American families have lost loved ones serving in the military. Decades of economic development have gone up in flames, and sectarian extremism continues to spread like pestilence. The fault for all of this rests ultimately with the Bush Administration, the duplicitous “intellectuals” and pundits who marketed its falsehoods, and the irresponsible politicians in Congress who supinely acceded to them rather than be subjected to a barrage of schoolyard name-calling. Yet, far from being chastened by the ghastly spectacle they unleashed, the neocons are chafing at the bit for fresh carnage under the pretext of “pre-emptive defense” – this time targeting Iran – and most of the supposedly “opposition” Democrats are once again parroting their balderdash.
When one hears Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani fulminate against Iran, while Barack Obama trots out to threaten Pakistan with military action, one cannot help but feel something is seriously wrong with “mainstream” American society today – something beyond politics. Everything from the sad state of our popular culture to the decline of our urban communities suggests a fundamental disregard for the fragility of human life – for the basic requirements of a sane society that transcend politics and creed. Disregard for decency in the name of Machiavellian statecraft has been the dominant theme of our foreign policy for decades – as has clearly been manifested in the invasion of Iraq, to say nothing of our scandalous sponsorship of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
The psychological disconnect between middle America and most of the world has undoubtedly been exacerbated in recent times by the corporate-dominated media and the suburban lifestyle, but its roots extend much farther into the past. America’s abundant material wealth and its vast territorial expanse both derive largely from the fact that the country’s early conquests, with few exceptions, came quite cheaply. While European nations for centuries battled each other over land and resources at dreadful cost, the United States gained mastery over a continent in just a few generations largely at the expense of indigenous peoples whose military capabilities were no match for those of an emerging industrial giant. The War of 1812 against Britain and the 1846-48 conflict with Mexico incurred thousands of American casualties, but these were more than recompensed by enormous territorial acquisitions in the West.
This rapid growth of the Republic during the 19th Century led to profound changes in America’s political and cultural outlook. The Jeffersonian ideal of a largely rural agrarian society gradually lost ground to a Northern-dominated industrialist paradigm that favored aggressive mechanization of the labor force, a standing army, and a highly centralized federal government. Attendant to the ascendancy of urban industrialism was a rise in evangelical Protestant fervor, which portrayed America’s future in a millennial context. The opening of new lands in the West to settlement fueled the ambitions of religious-minded Northern and Midwestern businessmen for a nation that stretched from Atlantic to Pacific, built by European immigrant labor and connected by railroads – the vision embodied in the phrase “manifest destiny”. It also drove the Northern states into increased rivalry with the South – which, stoked by ideological quarrels over slavery and trade policy, erupted as fratricidal conflict in 1861.
Much of the behavior that has unfortunately become stereotypical of America in wartime can be traced back to Northern attitudes during the Civil War. Most strikingly suggestive of George W. Bush’s Neanderthal moralizing was the tendency to portray the conflict with the South as a climactic showdown between “good” and “evil” – the Biblical Armageddon. It is easy to see the consequences of such boorish propaganda in the vicious conduct of the Union forces marching through Georgia under William Tecumseh Sherman, just as the atrocities at Abu Ghraib bear witness to years of subjecting young Americans to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim indoctrination by neo-conservative hate-mongers.
It is sadly evident that the United States has never quite outgrown the juvenile cultural chauvinism that accompanied its meteoric rise. A century and a half after America’s first ideologically-inspired bloodbath, politicians and pundits still pretend that our “way of life” bestows on us the right to dictate the future of millions of human beings in distant lands, irrespective of the death and destruction entailed in our misadventures. The men and women prosecuting the “Global War on Terror” would like to define “patriotism” by such vacuous criteria as how glassy-eyed Americans get during the 7th inning stretch at Yankees games, when Kate Smith’s fossiliferous ululation is blasted over the loudspeakers (a ritual that has considerably dampened this author’s enthusiasm for major league baseball).
But true American patriotism must not be confused with staring down at one’s shoes while the neocons set fire to the Middle East. The responsible patriot has a moral obligation to rescue the libertarian vision of America’s Founding Fathers from the small-minded ideologues who wish to permanently impress upon the world our image as an empire of violence and hypocrisy. Responsible patriotism means being able to take pride in America’s moral victories while condemning its crimes. It means admiring the bravery of the marines at Iwo Jima while reviling the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany while mourning the Allied firebombing of Dresden. Finally, authentic patriotism means being able to distinguish between political fiction and moral fact – to recognize when a longstanding foreign policy grossly violates American values, notwithstanding the hyperbole of its proponents.
It is with this last point in mind that one should reflect on one of the major ideological screws the neo-conservatives attempted to bore into the American psyche amid the horrors of September 11, 2001. It was then that certain apologists for Israel’s racist government attempted to conflate the terrorism visited by al-Qaeda on New York and Washington with Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation. This scurrilous distortion, encapsulated by the catch-phrase “We’re all Israelis now”, was a deliberate attempt to exploit 9/11 as a pretext for hardening American hearts toward Palestine – a pretext which the Bush Administration embraced with disastrous consequences.
But what Americans, and especially New Yorkers, experienced on that awful September morning was a sense of helplessness, of having their lives turned upside down by political forces beyond their control – and for which they bore no responsibility. And that is precisely what Palestinians have experienced for sixty years at the hands of Israel and its supporters. In suffering a catastrophic disruption of daily life, and the loss of so many innocent people, might we have experienced something of Palestine’s travail? As we continue to struggle with the political and emotional consequences of September 11th , let us meditate on this. In doing so, we may at last discover the insights that will reconcile America with the global community, and pass on a better world to future generations.
-Roger H. Lieberman is a graduate student of environmental, technological, and medical history at Rutgers-Newark and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.