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Official U.S. support for bands of killers dates back to the nation’s inception, likely one reason H. Rap Brown called violence “as American as cherry pie.” The country’s founding father helped start the trend when he sent General John Sullivan to Iroquois territory in 1779, giving him explicit instructions “that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.” “It will be essential to ruin their crops,” the Town Destroyer—as Washington became known—emphasized. Sullivan and his men brought their adventure to a close when they “skinned the bodies of Indians from the hips downward, to make boot tops or leggings,” historian Ernest Cruikshank wrote in the late 1800s, prompting a contemporary, John Watts de Peyster, to wonder “which were the savages, the Continental troops or the Indians,” in the situation just described.
Scholars today tend to remark only that Washington seems “more a monument than a man,” as Gordon Wood never tires of pointing out; Wood spoke a month ago at an event celebrating Washington’s birthday, beginning with the premise that the first U.S. president was great, and proceeding from there. Bertrand Russell once criticized medieval philosophy for assuming in advance it knew the truth, thereby avoiding genuine inquiry—still apparently a prerequisite for academic success, given Wood’s reputation.
The belief that indigenous groups wasted the opportunities the land provided drove policies of dispossession and extermination, the latter being the term Jefferson, Jackson, and other luminaries favored. Little wonder Hitler admired this facet of U.S. history. During the California Gold Rush, whites murdered and raped the region’s native inhabitants, some of whom had known there was gold in the area, without valuing it as an exploitable resource. What could the land’s rightful owners do with such people? “Why not annihilation?” Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum asked in an 1890 editorial, capturing the zeitgeist.
These assumptions about the right to control territories, and the obstacles blocking enlightened developers from achieving their aims, grew more expansive after the Native American genocide. As WWII drew to a close, U.S. planners outlined a system of “foreign missions throughout the world” in conformity with corporate aims. “We are colonizing to some extent,” Representative Eugene Worley (D-TX) affirmed, not quite doing justice to Washington’s plans to copy the British imperial model—“a good goal to shoot at, because they are the masters,” the American Maritime Council’s John E. Otterson argued, voicing views his audience, a House subcommittee, received well. After listening to Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle’s 1943 discussion of U.S. intentions to govern the planet’s skies, Representative Charles A. Eaton (R-NJ) asked him to “define for us the difference in principle between Mr. Hitler’s program to obtain control of all land and all peoples and all oceans and seas, and the proposed program now for America to obtain control of all the air on earth[.]”
One of Eaton’s colleagues clarified the distinction: the U.S. sought “world power as trustee for civilization,” while Hitler wanted it merely “for the benefit of a bunch of Nazi gangsters.” Any student of U.S. history should have been able to recognize the country’s pure intentions—and if, for some reason, the examples of Town Destroyer and the Gold Rush proved unpersuasive, the coming decades would further testify to its benevolence. In 1976, we see that Secretary of State Kissinger encouraged the Argentine government to carry on with its dirty war, in which the military “disappeared” as many as 30,000 people. “The quicker you succeed the better,” the Nobel Peace Laureate stressed, and by the late ’70s the CIA was bringing Argentine officers into Honduras, so they could teach their Central American counterparts what they had mastered.
Doris Rosibel Benavides Tarrius, a young psychologist, experienced first-hand the Honduran students’ aptitude. Security forces abducted her in March 1987, taking her to a facility where they raped her, and strung her up on a metal bar to shock her feet and breasts, in what was called an “airplane position.” A decade earlier, an Argentine mechanic named Marcos Queipo watched as military planes passed over the Paraná Delta, dropping mysterious packages that plummeted to the riverbanks far below. Horacio Verbitsky, an investigative journalist, learned about these flights years later, when a stranger approached him in the Buenos Aires subway. “I want to talk to you,” the man said, explaining he had helped prosecute the dirty war. “You’ll see that we did things worse than the Nazis,” Adolfo Scilingo continued, subsequently telling of how he pushed several thousand suspected subversives, each drugged into a stupor but still alive, out of airplanes. Queipo saw some of their bodies in the packages he opened, though most of the murdered have never been found.
The killings continue in Honduras, where violence targeting lawyers, human rights defenders, LGBT people, women and others has intensified since the June 2009 coup. Two School of the Americas graduates helped topple the democratically-elected leader that month, and Obama supported the ensuing presidential election, a farce the mainstream media would have ridiculed had it taken place in, say, Venezuela. Last fall, the Honduran Commission of Truth identified several patterns of repression endangering the public, which the World Bank never mentions in the summary of its “Safe Municipalities Project,” ostensibly aimed at promoting “citizen security.” One of the Bank’s real goals seems to be expanding the Honduran police’s reach into areas like Choloma—“a dustbin industrial mecca for maquiladoras,” as scholar-activist Adrienne Pine described it. Juan Carlos Bonilla, accused of extrajudicial killings, oversees the entire Honduran National Police, even though the State Department tried to claim otherwise, saying it directed U.S. funds only to vetted units outside his purview.
Allegations of death squad-style murders have been leveled at Bonilla’s men in recent years, indicating the Bank’s “security” aims apply less to human beings then they do to the current economic model, in which agribusinesses thrive, while displaced peasants are forced into manufacturing work. The situation brings to mind the Bank’s steady lending to Guatemala in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the genocidal government was slaughtering Mayans to free up the areas designated for the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam.
As in the past, only an enlightened few seem to grasp the land’s enormous potential as a profit source. The rest pay for their ignorance, often with their lives. It’s an old story, but no less infuriating for that—and the trend’s deep roots in the past indicate a combination of radical thinking and enormous effort is required to end the system enabling it.