So Then Who the Hell are We?


“This is not a reflection of who we are or what we stand for.”

— Jeff Gearhart, Wall-Mart general counsel, on the firm’s Mexico bribery

[Torture] “is not the norm.”

— Mike Pannek, Abu Ghraib prison warden.

“This is not who we are.”

— Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the US massacre of 16 Afghan villagers.

“This is not who we are.”

— General John Allen, commander of forces in Afghanistan, on Koran burning

“This is not who we are.”

— Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on troops posing with enemy body parts

“This is not who we are.”

— Secretary of State Clinton, also on troops posing with enemy body parts

Spying by the New York Police on Muslims in Newark, NJ, which the Newark Police Chief was alerted to, is “not who we are”

— Newark Mayor Cory Booker

“I can tell you something all of you know already – that using pepper spray on peaceful protesters runs counter to our values. It does not reflect well on this university and it absolutely is not who we are.”

— UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, who ordered campus police to use force to clear peaceful student occupiers from the campus, leading to pepper spraying of students

Ripping families apart by deporting the undocumented parents of American-born children is “not who we are.”

— President Barack Obama

“This larger notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everybody’s money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they’re on their own — that’s not who we are.”

— President Barack Obama

“You can’t say, well, we developed trade and the economic relations first and the disregard of human rights. That’s not who we are. We are the United States of America.”

— Sasha Gong, director of the China branch of  Voice of America

The latest PR catch phrase from business, administration, military, state and local officials after some atrocity or other is that whatever happened, it is certainly “not who we are,” a phrase initially uttered by the Vietnam War commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, with reference to the My Lai slaughter of 400 women, children and old men, all civilians, by a group of US soldiers.

Yet if all these abominations are not “who we are,” then why do our business, police and military and government institutions generate so many examples of obscene, horrific or criminal behavior?

If we examine the culture that guides our young men and women in battle, our public safety employees in their duties, or our business class in its pursuit of profit, it’s easy to see how shameful and reprehensible episodes such as these have become as routine as they have.

Take the military. The Pentagon achieves its ends by through war. Troops must be obedient and willing to kill. This doesn’t come naturally, so the military branches have to reprogram civilian recruits raised to believe killing is wrong so that they can be part of a murderous enterprise. After breaking down an enlistee’s individuality, trainers then teach them to despise “the other,” whomever it may be — kraut, gook, rag-head depending on the generation and the particular war. Only after sufficiently dehumanizing both the recruit and the future enemy can they mold a soldier who will do the dirty work demanded by an imperial nation. Then they build these soldiers into super-fit, adrenaline-charged fighters, surround them with propaganda that demonizes the enemy of the moment, and set them loose to “get the job done.”

The troops who are sent to Afghanistan find themselves in a conflict with no clear objective, let alone an achievable one. They face an able and motivated foe with a very simple objective: to drive the occupier out of their country. As U.S. losses mount, frustrations grow and pressure increases. It is an unfortunate commonplace that armed troops vent their anger with lethal force upon local civilian populations. Their ability to do that is part and parcel of their training that worked so hard to dehumanize these same people.

It is a sick hypocrisy for Obama, Clinton, Panetta, or Allen to claim that these actions are not a direct result of U.S. military and foreign policy. If Dick Cheney and John Yoo were torturing language and logic to advocate the torture of humans, why wouldn’t guards at Abu Ghraib fall into the same debased state of mind? (For example, years after he had claimed it was “not who we are,” documents proved that, ahead of the My Lai massacre, Westmoreland himself had issued rules-of-engagement orders that any civilians found in Communist-held territory like My Lai, a “free-fire” zone, were to be considered enemy combatants, and treated the same as Viet Cong.)

Those in power attempt to frame the issue within the “one bad apple in the barrel” rubric. As long as they can pretend that war crimes and atrocities aren’t a logical outcome of official policy, they can shift blame to those without power and keep the odious policies in place. The cabinet secretary sanctimoniously intones platitudes about morality at the same time as one of his underlings are screaming “KILL!” into a fresh recruit’s trembling face.

The same kind of thing happens in the case of police and federal law enforcement officials. Increasingly militarized themselves, they are trained to believe not that their duty is to “protect and serve” or to uphold the nation’s freedoms and liberty, but rather that they are centurions tasked with enforcing “order” and protecting property–generally government property and the property of the wealthy. The general public then becomes a kind of “enemy” to be subdued with whatever force is necessary. Those who stand up for their rights under the law are perceived as threats to the authority of the enforcers, and are dealt with as enemies, to be beaten, pepper-sprayed in the face, spied upon and locked up.

Meanwhile, a farce of morals plays itself out in an endless cycle in the business world. Siemens, Boeing, Wall-Mart are just three prominent recent examples of corporations which have been exposed for using bribery as a standard business practice. Sam Walton may have started his company with some notion of honest (if ruthless) business practices, but the current business culture promotes success at any cost. Coming in second is for losers, and bribery of foreign (and domestic) officials is just another tool in the toolbox, as they like to say.

Just because these shameful acts may indeed indicate who or what our Empire’s institutions are, it does not mean that it is who we are as well. Most Americans, as well as most Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians etc., would not commit the types of acts that have made our nation infamous over the years. But if we are truly better than that, if this is not who we are, then we had better do something about the fact we are being represented to the world by the very actions that we find so heinous.

Even as countries are being abused by U.S. foreign policy, their people are often slow to blame or hate the American people. They often show a remarkable understanding that governments rarely represent their peoples’ wishes.

But we are the nation that is burdened by an impassioned rhetoric that asserts that we are the beacon of democracy, that we are captains of our own destiny. Our supposed innocence of the crimes of Empire and rapacious capitalism can be accepted for only so long. Eventually, we too must share the blame for the actions of our government and our economic culture. It is essential that we to hold every level of business and government accountable for every action that betrays America’s promise, both at home and abroad.

It is time to stop pretending that we are not also accountable. It is time to end militarism at home and abroad and to put people before profits. It won’t be the militarists and the profiteers who make such changes, though. It can only be us.

Otherwise, maybe former Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells had it right when he said, “You are what your record says you are.”

DAN DeWALT is an activist and journalist based in Newfane, Vermont. He wrote this article for ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper.

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