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America today lives with a cultivated sense of victimhood. That is the legacy of 9/11. It fills us with anxieties. It warps our self-image. It distorts our foreign relations. It is self-perpetuating. Yet we need it. Too many benefit – politically or materially or psychologically. Too many are emotionally dependent on it. Too few have the courage to confront the culture that has grown around the idea of America the victim. The price we pay – in all currencies – mounts.
The trauma exposed America’s vulnerability to attack. That is obvious. More profound was its exposure of how fragile is the nation’s psyche when America’s exceptional security and freedom from the events that bedevil ordinary countries is called into question. We couldn’t handle it. So we have absorbed it and made it part of our collective consciousness. The consequences are pernicious.
Above all, Americans have found a renewed purpose in our dealings with the world that is unhealthy. Summed up in the catch phrase “global war on terror,” it is a convenient ordering principle. Convenient intellectually since we are spared the bother of figuring out who exactly out there wants to do us harm – and why. It conjures a suitably stereotypical image of the “threat” – an Islamic jihadist, bearded & turbaned – who hates us for being who we are. His methods are diabolical, lending an aura of alien malice to our free floating dread. That gives emotions the upper hand over thinking.
The “global war on terror” is politically convenient, too. Our masters have used it effectively for more than a decade to justify whatever they find it expedient to do abroad – and at home. We are cowed by our own fears which are systematically stoked and manipulated. The GWOT has impelled us into a series of military and political adventures that range from the useless to the catastrophic to the absurd. The pointless invasion and occupation of Iraq is the most tragic-comic of these adventures. A failure on every count that leaves us more endangered by would-be terrorists, deprived of respect throughout the Muslim world – and elsewhere, poorer by a trillion or so dollars, facing a strengthened Iran, the abject Iraq project has yet to be pronounced a failure by either our leaders or their courtiers in the press and think tanks. ‘It remains for history to decide” is the refrain. An inability to admit error, to hold the guilty accountable, to call falsity by its name, is a symptom of the victimization syndrome – and a signal trait of an America wedded to living in the grip of virtual realities.
Afghanistan is in the same vein – even though we did have a legitimate purpose when in 2001 we ousted the Taliban and broke up the al-Qaeda network then extant (as it is not now). No one dare pronounce failure even as every single stated objective eludes our fumbling hands. That is inescapable as we never defined success. One foot out the door – only one, we bluff and fulminate. The only people we delude are ourselves. Certainly not the Afghans – of all stripes, nor the Pakistanis, nor the Iranians, nor anybody else who has a stake in the future of that star-crossed country or is just paying skeptical attention. As the sun sets on another costly defeat, we are obsessed with looking tough rather than acting soberly and realistically. ‘All hat and no cattle” as they say on the prairie. Of course, we in fact do have cattle – as many fine heads as an outsized defense budget can buy. What’s under the hat is another matter.
Elsewhere, we insist on seeing ourselves as the victims of the worldwide jihadist campaign to undo us. So we chase terrorist phantoms. In 24 countries Special Forces and other under the radar operatives are combating any and all Muslims who might bear us ill-will. Since the threat is omnipresent, since the GWOT has no time-frame, that means that we must worry about the future too. So not just tangible present dangers but prospective intangible ones are our targets. That means taking on the job of doing a triage among Muslims, among sects, among political formations, among would-be leaders from Morocco to Mindanao in a futile, vain effort to eliminate the bad guys now and forevermore. Elimination as literal as our President routinely checking names on an official ‘kill list’. As we relentlessly apply this full court press, we never image that all this interference in the affairs of other people might be counter productive – that it might generate more bad guys than otherwise would be the case. This already has happened in Iraq, in Pakistan and in Yemen. If you travel 8,000 miles to kill people in their own country, they – or friends, relatives, fellow countrymen – may in turn try to kill you over there. That makes them terrorists – by current Washington definitions. A perfect recipe for self perpetuating war and self reproducing kill lists. Moreover, the broader audience out there that you are trying to impress may not have the same outlook as Sunday morning talk show hosts. This simple point, though, never gets debated seriously.
One reason for this feckless conduct is that the pronounced sense of American victimhood has powerfully strengthened American self-righteousness. We are as sure as we ever have been that we have a Providential mission on this earth, that we were born as a nation in a condition of “original virtue,” that 9/11 was an offense against the natural order of things. That order must be restored – in our hearts, in our minds, in our spirit – by acting our there, not by looking inward. After all, Americans are a pro-active, can-do people.
Americans, more than most other peoples, live by their collective myths. American ‘exceptionalism’ in particular holds a key place in their make-up. That places an exceptional burden on preserving our foundation fables. The impulse to pursue real and imagined enemies across much of Eurasia and Africa is propelled in part by the fearful quest for absolute security that is taken as an American birthright. That impulse is reinforced by the imperative to validate the nation’s mythical self-image. Atavistic beliefs that Americans are winners, that they act selflessly in the world, that this goodness should be recognized by others, that Truth is on their side – together form the keystone of American being and meaning. Individuals’ sense of worth is tied to this mythologized collective identity. This makes it exceedingly difficult, psychologically, to cut loose from actions that failed the test of utility in meeting national interests years ago. For the dread of facing a reality bereft of the moral and ideational sustenance those myths provide is stronger than is the fear of costly wars without end and corrupted ideals.
A mind shaped by feelings of dread, ingrained superiority and resentment is totally self absorbed. It suffers from a lack of interest in the attitude of foreign parties – much less an ability to understand them.. We launch ourselves into one audacious venture after another whose success supposedly depends on reorienting the thinking of others, of winning a battle for hearts and minds, for instilling new norms of behavior – all overlaid with respect for the United states.. Yet we show little concern for finding out who these people are – much less adjusting our own actions accordingly. They are just ‘they.’ So we scold, we instruct, we insist – and we bribe. They resist, they fume, they ignore – and they pocket, sometimes. This is what Washington calls “smart power.”
They suffer accordingly. We suffer their reaction – and from our failure to rethink what we are doing and why.
A companion reason is that we all are implicated in the deeds we have done since 9/11. We have made torture a national policy, we have besmirched our good name in the eyes of the world, we have been passive accessories in repealing some of our most cherished liberties, we lie with impunity and we accept lies from our rulers as natural and necessary. Along the way, we have lost our self respect in a manner that we cannot acknowledge. For to do so is make an admission that we have done things as a nation that run counter to what we believe is the very soul and essence of our collective being. In some, the resulting frustration turns into anger and gets expressed in bitter tirades against all the ‘others’ and other ideas in our midst – a lashing out that has become a feature of our public life. For some, it means sublimating feelings of guilt while finding excuses for those who have abused their authority.
The vague feeling of self betrayal hardly breaks the surface because we are accomplices in all of our misdeeds – through our own acts of non-commission as well as of commission. We have permitted ourselves to indulge in the exaggerated privileges of victimhood too long and too often. Our leaders have encouraged that. When George Bush told Americans to go shopping as per normal while a few carried on the active ‘war on terrorism, he made them passive accessories to the iniquities committed in their name. Barack Obama has been just as calculating in stilling dissent and avoiding candor. Even the story of his ‘kill lists’ is artfully massaged by White House public relations specialists. The implications are profound. For it draws a line of shame between ignominy and virtue – and nearly all of us find that we are on the wrong side of it. Crossing that line, sadly, is proving a near impossibility.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.