The Hypocrisy of American Exceptionalism

newdojsealBy now the story is all over the news. On Monday the Associated Press reported on a case in which the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is asking a Miami judge to issue a sentence of 147 years in prison to a man who has been found guilty of a crime. The irony that begs too many questions to count is that this sentence is being requested for a man who has been convicted of torture. This man’s name is Charles McArthur Emmanuel and he is the son of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. Apparently the son was the head of a paramilitary group while his father was President and as head of this group the son was found to be responsible for the torture of people in Liberia. Apparently there was a law passed in the U.S. in 1994 that says that we can try people for torture committed in other countries (source).

Let’s assume that this is all fine and well. Charles McArthur Emmanuel has been convicted of torture, he has done horrible things, and he should get a heavy sentence, right? I have no problem with that. I will assume he did commit egregious crimes that should carry a heavy punishment. What I do have a problem with is the hypocrisy that flows like a powerful, raging torrent through the heart of this request from the DOJ.

The DOJ is part of the executivebranch of the federal government. The job of the executive branch, as laid out by the U.S. Constitution, is to enforce the laws that are passed by the legislative branch of the federal government. The U.S. Department of Justice is one of the many departments (others include the DHS, the FBI, the EPA, etc) within the executive branch that have been created to help facilitate the carrying out of this Constitutional task. So we could easily say that the DOJ is doing in job in making such a request.

The hypocrisy lies in the fact while the DOJ is seeking such a harsh penalty for a non-American citizen convicted in an American court for crimes committed in another country, Americans who have been convicted torture and prisoner abuse in Iraq, under U.S. jurisdiction have been given nothing more than slaps on the wrist. Where were the calls from the DOJ for heavy sentencing for Private First Class Lynndie England? She was only sentenced to three years in prison. What about Specialist Charles Graner? He received the heaviest sentence of any of those accused for torturing and abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. He was given a hefty 10 year sentence at Ft. Leavenworth military prison. Have there been any trials related to the use of water boarding by the U.S. military?

Not a new method, this photo shows American soldiers using waterboarding during the Vietnam War.

Not a new method, this photo shows American soldiers using waterboarding during the Vietnam War.

Recently the Senate Armed Services Committee, which includes 12 Republicans, issued a report from their investigation into instances of torture on the part of U.S. military personnel. In their report they accuse top ranking officials from the Bush Administration, including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, of being responsible for the “abuse of prisoners” that has occurred at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba (source). Of course “prisoner abuse” is our slanted way of saying torture so we can still feel good about ourselves and our place of moral superiority in the world. Not only did top administration officials encourage the use of torture but they are trying to redefine American law in such a way that allows them to argue that they have done nothing wrong or illegal.

In an interview with Jonathan Karl, Dick Cheney himself says the U.S. openly uses torture and that top level administrators, including himself, were aware of the torture programs. He just doesn’t use the word torture. He admits to the use of tactics such as water boarding to elicit information from prisoners such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. However, he justifies such tactics on the basis that the Bush

Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney

Administration sought legal opinions from the DOJ on the matter of interrogation techniques and were given the go ahead (source). So basically, “Our own legal team said it was okay to torture and so we do. Since our lawyers said we could, it is legal and since it is legal it is not torture.” Does that about sum it up Cheney?

Token sentence were given to U.S. military personnel convicted of war crimes and “prisoner abuse.” The DOJ has sanctioned water boarding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Bush Administration officials at least as high up as the Vice President were aware of and at least complicit with the use of the tactic. We’ve heard nothing from the DOJ about prosecuting Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney or anyone else in the Bush Administration. It seems that even President-elect Barak Obama may be balking at the idea of trying Bush Administration officials on war crimes charges. Meanwhile the DOJ is requesting a sentence of 147 years in prison for a crime committed by non-American citizen in another country.

American Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism

Does this not speak the worst of the American fantasy of exceptionalism? We’ve gone from the dream of being a city on a hill to the reality of being the world’s bully in the name of our shiny pillar of democracy. It is not enough that we invade other nations upon our own whims and fabricate evidence to support those actions. It is not enough that we violently dispose of foreign leaders who don’t tow our political line. We go even further. We punish people who aren’t Americans for crimes they commit in other countries. We are applying our laws to people in other places, people who are not even bound by our national laws and at the same time we are unwilling to prosecute, let alone sentence our own citizens, those in our government who are accused and most likely guilty of committing the same crimes. We are America, we are special, and we can do whatever we want. We don’t have to follow the same laws, rules, or codes of conduct as the rest of the world because we are better than the rest of the world. We are the superpower. We are the shining example of democracy and freedom. Everything we touch turns to gold and our excrement smells of a fresh spring bouquet.

It is a crock. However, this is the worldview of the Bush Administration, many others within the Federal government, and of a great many of this country’s citizens. It is a dangerous worldview that has helped throw the world into chaos over the last decade, but which reaches much farther back into history in its role as a global destabilizer. This same sense of American perfection, rightness, and exceptionalism runs through the history of the Cold War and our battle against the “evils” of communism. It even runs as far back as our quest to dominate the western frontier, a war with Mexico and the genocidal path that was cut through Native America in order to achieve that aim. American exceptionalism is nothing new and it runs as strongly through the themes of today’s “war on terror” as it has at any other point in our short history as a nation. It is a worldview that will continue to wreak havoc on the world until we the people ourselves realize that we need to work in equitable cooperation with the rest of the world if we are all to live in a free and peaceful world.

We need to come to the realization that forcing others to follow our lead is no way to lead. It is no way to create a better world for Americans or for anyone else. We need to drop our sense of entitlement, our sense of being better and superior to the other people’s of the world. This sense that we are right and everyone else is wrong, a belief suckled and matured in the arms of the nation’s churches, must go. This idea is virtually bred into our children as they are taught that Christianity is right and all other religions are wrong.  How easily that sense of superiority has been transferred onto patriotism and blind obedience to a flag.  If this worldview is not rejected, who knows to what dark place America will next take the world. The particular hypocrisy in the incident of the requested sentencing for Charles McArthur Emmanuel is only a small manifestation, the latest example of this problem of American exceptionalism that stands at the doorway to many of the worlds geopolitical problems.


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