Published on Wednesday, May 12, 2004 by the Miami Herald
Arrogance Has Led Us To Quagmire
by Robert Steinback
Denial is a definitive American trait. We never admit when we are wrong; indeed, we rarely admit that we, as Americans, are even capable of being wrong.
If events progress to where we can no longer deny what we don't wish to see, we rationalize. If matters progress still further such that everything we once believed is proven wrong, we simply change course, expunge the history of our wrongheadedness from our memories, then pretend it never happened.
Consider how tenaciously so many Americans defended segregation and opposed civil rights for all. There was never a logical argument for it, not in a nation whose founding document plainly asserts that ''all men are created equal.'' But some folks strenuously denied the truth and heralded their righteousness, even as dogs attacked peace marchers, as freedom riders were murdered, as leaders were gunned down for speaking out -- until the American mainstream could no longer deny the ugliness of racism.
Then, as swiftly as ice melts on a hot sidewalk, the racists all vanished without a public reckoning. The people who jeered the Little Rock Nine and voted for George Wallace for president -- many of whom are still alive -- have disappeared from history. The opponents of civil rights simply denied themselves out of existence. It wasn't long before those who taught that we must never forget the era of American apartheid were themselves accused of being divisive and racist for recalling it.
The mainstream, meanwhile, detached itself from the violent perpetrators of the day: King and Evers were killed by lone gunmen, it retroactively concluded, not by the popular hostility of the day that spawned and nurtured the killers. Such is the wonder of denial: We cheer on the mob, then when someone rides the mob's emotion to an unforgiveable excess, we silently skulk away with an unstained conscience.
The same reflex is occurring as the present Iraq prison scandal expands. Now that our denial has been punctured by photographs we can't ignore, we're on a pious hunt for those responsible, so we can detach ourselves from them and punish them, thereby cleansing ourselves of complicity. Then we will assure ourselves, ``We're not like that. We're good, noble people. We condemn such acts.''
To a shocking extreme
Yet a continuum must be acknowledged here, connecting the arrogance of a nation that chose to invade a sovereign country and kill 10,000 of its people with flimsy justification, and the arrogance shown by the soldiers who saw nothing wrong with humiliating prisoners of the invaded nation. So many Americans lusted for this irrational, unnecessary war -- and now that some hapless U.S. soldiers have carried those emotions to a shocking extreme, we claim to be mystified as to where in the world they got such instincts.
What, in the predominant popular discourse of Americans since Sept. 11, 2001, has encouraged respect for Muslims in general or Iraqis in particular? War hawks didn't care that none of the 9/11 hijackers was Iraqi, that no compelling link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had been uncovered or that weapons inspectors could find no evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
But the occupation has gone sour. The ostensible justifications for war have all fallen apart. The Iraqis who want America there are conspicuously silent; those who don't want us there are murderously efficient. The promises of a smooth transition to democracy in Iraq have unraveled.
Can't admit war is wrong
Still, we won't -- we can't -- admit that this whole invasion idea was a costly, ghastly mistake. That's not the American way -- we don't make mistakes. We deny, then rewrite history and embrace anyone who gives us license to do so. That, incidentally, likely explains why President Bush's popularity remains high despite the Iraqi debacle -- turning against him would mean admitting the error of supporting the war. A vast number of Americans -- including Bush himself -- simply aren't about to countenance that.
But then came the photographs -- American soldiers and contractors happily creating evidence of abuse and humiliation of prisoners, unconcerned or unaware that their actions would be seen as outrageous, if not criminal, deeds.
And now we wail that we're appalled that any fellow American could do such a thing. Where on Earth did they get the idea that disregarding the humanity of these strange, foreign people could be in any way acceptable?
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