In 1984, the World Court found the U.S. in violation of international
law in a case involving U.S. mining of Nicaraguan ports in an effort to
overthrow the democratically elected Sandinista government. The U.S.
refused to acknowledge the judgment or talk with the Nicaraguan
government about reparations.
In 1992, at the United Nations Earth Summit, then-president George H.W.
Bush brushed away demands by the global south that the U.S. do something
about its five percent of the world's population commandeering of a
gargantuan 25 percent to 30 percent of the world's resources. Bush
responded that the U.S. 'lifestyle' is non-negotiable.
During the first few years of his term in office, George W. Bush
repudiated international treaty after international treaty, signed by
the U.S. government in previous administrations, dealing with issues
ranging from global environmental concerns to child labor.
This week, we learned that lawyers in the Pentagon are asserting that
U.S. personnel can't be held criminally liable for torturing prisoners
captured by the U.S. in the war on terror, and that the strong
prohibition in the Geneva Convention against torturing prisoners of war
doesn't apply if 'national security' is involved.
The justification for all these decisions is that America is special and
doesn't have to abide by the rule of law, signed treaties, even basic
just or humane behavior if doing so would in any way interfere with our
leaders' judgment about what is best for us. Of course, what is best for
us is always, by definition, what is best for the world. This is the
mythology under which we live.
The United States has had, as a society, a sense of being 'special' ever
since people began coming to these shores looking for a place to
practice their religion without oppression. The sense of America being a
'promised land' has created a way of thinking about this nation that
extends far beyond religious definitions.
Since World War I and especially since World War II, this sense of
specialness has focused on American democracy as the highest form of
democracy, something we are taught to believe it is our duty and our
purpose to teach to other nations. We also view our way of life as the
highest form of society and culture yet developed, characterized by
individual freedom and affluence, and it is also something we believe is
to be shared with the rest of the world.
My fellow Americans, it's time we got over ourselves. We aren't God's
gift to the world.
The longer we walk around, both as individual citizens and as a nation,
pretending that our government's worst actions are justified because of
our 'specialness,' the more horrifying and destructive those actions
become. The more we convince ourselves that our way of life, with
affluence and freedom side-by-side with alienation, ill health and the
spiritual emptiness of consumerism, is superior to the way people in
other countries live, the more devastating our continued consumption
becomes to the world and also to ourselves.
As global climate change brews an unimaginable ecological crisis in the
next generation, our nation is continuing to produce 25 percent of the
world's global warming gases, while our leaders insist our lifestyle is
'non-negotiable' and invade other nations to secure the last of the
world's oil supply. Our nation continues to topple and attempt to topple
democratically elected leaders because we don't like their politics,
justifying these actions by characterizing those democratic governments
as a danger to our nation. Just in the past year, our government has
invaded Iraq on the pretext of bringing 'democracy,' while handing out
billion-dollar contracts of taxpayer money to giant oil corporations like
And now, our leaders are justifying their decision to ignore what is
possibly the most significant single international treaty ever created
and agreed to by the community of nations, the Geneva Convention,
because torturing people captured in the war on terror may yield
information that can prevent another attack on U.S. soil like Sept. 11,
I think we need to ask ourselves some hard questions about our
government's justification of torture.
Do we really think we are so special that our lives are worth more than
other human lives on the planet? Do we find it acceptable that prisoners
in Iraq and Guantanamo can be sexually humiliated, raped, beaten,
psychologically tortured and murdered during interrogation on the
extremely unlikely chance that one of them might reveal plans for
another attack? How can we pretend that our society and political system
are 'the best' when torture of prisoners is presented as a way to defend
democracy and freedom?
Our own way of life also needs to be examined critically.
Are we so much more important than other people that we can continue to
grab five to six times our share of the world's resources, contribute
five times our share of global warming pollution, and pretend to
ourselves that we are not responsible for the worsening global
ecological crisis? Can we really sit by while both we and our leaders
refuse to acknowledge that the way we live is a significant factor in
both ecological destruction and world terrorism aimed at our shores?
The way our leaders portray America to the world and also to us would
have us believing that 'anything goes' in the effort to protect us from
ever having to face up to the ecological and social justice consequences
of our way of life. Everything they say reinforces our beliefs about our
specialness, our goodness, and denies the threat posed to the future of
all life on the planet by our excessive consumption of resources and
production of waste, as well as our pretences about American democracy
being the principled reason for everything our government does around
America is special. We are special in our apparent willingness to allow
our government to start wars, repudiate treaties, ignore international
justice and torture prisoners in the name of protecting us and our
special way of life.
But we're also special in truly believing in the principles of democracy
and freedom, and wanting a better world. We've been a nation of hope and
possibility since the beginning. Our ancestors fought tirelessly for
full rights and dignity for all of us, for the vote, for the protections
of the Constitution. We have individual freedom because of those
struggles, and we sincerely want to extend that freedom to others around
We're also special in being, as Robert Jensen has said, 'citizens of the
empire.' Our nation is building empire around the world with a
horrendous level of death and destruction, and doing it in the name of
protecting us from terrorism. Our corporate-devised culture is exporting
consumerism and a materialist approach to happiness around the world,
destroying indigenous cultures and the ecological life support system of
the planet in the process. One of the main messages justifying both
these efforts is 'America is special.'
My fellow Americans, we are special - we're special in that the whole
thing hinges on our willingness to let it happen. That means we have in
our hands the lever by which to put a stop to it, and reset the course
of our nation's relations with the world and our relations with the
people of the world.
We are special because only we can do what needs to be done.
We Americans need to shake ourselves awake from the dream that our
specialness justifies anything our leaders say it justifies. We need to
stop believing that we or our system are better than any other, and
rejoin the community of nations, and the global community of human
beings whose present and future well-being depends on finding ways to
peace, cooperation and mutual problem-solving. We need to do this for
ourselves as individuals, and demand that our government do it for our
This is the challenge of our specialness, and the occasion to which we
must rise. We have to stop acquiescing in our government's atrocities.
We have to stop justifying our consumerism. We have to stand up,
question authority, examine our way of life and demand that our leaders
stop the wars, the killing and the torture in our name and in the name
of democracy and freedom.
The prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are waiting for us. The
indigenous communities resisting corporate globalization in southern
Mexico are waiting for us. The starving children and the refugees and
the teenagers in sweatshops, the ancient forests and the wildlife and
the future generations are all waiting for us.
Betsy Barnum is founder and director of the Great
River Earth Institute, encouraging people to examine their values and
choose to live simply and in harmony with the Earth, as well as to
strengthen local democracy and seek creative, participatory solutions on
the individual, community and national levels.