A Comic Apology

“There’s a lot of people in the world who don’t believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly. I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern. I believe that people whose skins aren’t necessarily — are a different color than white can self-govern.”

George Bush, April 30, 2004 [1]

This happens rarely–very rarely. An apology from the President of the United States, not for personal lapses, but for the rare slippage in the workings of America’s virtuous, divinely blessed, civilizing mission to the benighted world.

Most Americans truly believe–take this to be self-evident–that the United States is not only the world’s greatest country, but it has always been the last great hope of earth, that Americans have always been willing, more than any other Western power, to take on the White Man’s burden, to bring life, liberty and happiness to the rest of mankind. This is a testament to the power of American media: that it can claim to be the world’s freest media and yet control–like no other ‘free’ media–what an overwhelming majority of Americans know and believe about their country. And what they know and believe is America the free, pure and virtuous.

Day after day, the mandarins and media in this country work tirelessly, cleverly, to project an image of an America that protects freedoms at home and abroad; an America that has time and again shed its blood to rid foreign lands of murderous tyrannies; an America that cares, that responds with alacrity to famines and calamities abroad; an American that contributes men, money and ideas to bring prosperity to the backward races; an America that has patiently served as an honest broker in the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.

As a result, year after year, most Americans are kept in the dark, unaware of the actual, the real America–the only kind seen by much of the rest of the world. This is the America that daily employs its might to mangle the lives of hundreds of millions, that pushes a globalization that devastates the economies of the Third World, that instructs and arms foreign tyrannies to terrorize their own people, that aids and abets an Israeli machine that is determined to extirpate the Palestinians. This America acts in the name of freedom, in any way that it sees fit and necessary, to keep the world safe for American capital. However, this dark side of America is nearly completely, nearly always, whitewashed by the myth-making powers of America’s elites.
Occasionally, this myth-making machine will let slip a few snapshots of the real, the actual America. In fact, such slippages are functional; they serve to validate the trust of the duped and faithful in our ‘free’ media. Generally, these revelations appear long after the fact. They are also quickly explained away. Americans are told that this is for their own good: they serve higher American values. When they cannot be explained away, they are described as unavoidable lapses, human failings of a few. These lapses remind the faithful to be thankful that the system works well nearly all the time. No apology is tendered. None is demanded.

Yet the matter of the torture of Iraqi prisoners has quickly produced a storm of indignation from the mandarins and the media. It has led to calls for investigations, demands for the resignation of the Secretary of Defense, two television appearances by the President before Arab audiences, and, incredibly, even a feeble Presidential apology. In the words of Scott McClellan, the White House Press Secretary, “The President is sorry for what occurred and the pain it has caused.”

I am assuming that the “pain” in question is the one inflicted by Americans on the Iraqis, as well as anyone who can feel the pain of the Iraqi victims. Or is the President talking of America’s pain over the actual, the real America, now irrevocably, unforgettably, caught on camera? For the history books. For posterity.

In any case, that’s quite decent for starters. Incredibly, the name of a sitting American President has been linked to the subject of Arab pain, a pain that has an acknowledged American provenance. It must be a first, for any American President–perhaps, any Western leader. We are speaking of the pain of the “natives”–inferior sand niggers, in this case–the pain of whose miserable lives could never earn our sympathy. We do not share in the pain of the natives.

Has the President undergone another conversion? If he has, and now, he, truly and sincerely, feels the pain inflicted by a few Americans on their Iraqi victims, will he follow up by acknowledging the Iraqis who were killed and maimed to advance the interests of Zionists and Oil Corporations? Will he also set up museums to commemorate the deaths of a million and a half Iraqi civilians killed in a previous American war that targeted their civilian infrastructure and followed it up with death-dealing sanctions? Is it just possible that at last the President will begin to recognize the Palestinians as humans, and atone for the pain that he and his predecessors have inflicted upon them for more than fifty years?

Apart from the faithful, no one believes that the President’s apology is sincere. In fact, it looks comical–comical because it is based on false premises. We are behaving as if the sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners is the first outrage inflicted by the United States on the Muslims. It is unlikely that the Muslims have forgotten, or will soon forget, the hundred lacerations inflicted upon them by America’s conjugal embrace of the Israeli Occupation, by its support for corrupt monarchies and dictatorships in the Islamicate world, by the genocidal first Gulf War, by the strangulating sanctions against Iraq that took the lives of three-quarters of a million Iraqi children, and by the routine demonization of Islam by preachers close to this White House. It is comical when a tormentor inflicts a hundred wounds on his victim and then starts apologizing for stepping on his toes.

The apology is comical because the United States has hitherto acted on the premise that the Arabs only respect a stout stick. This is the advice that the Zionists have regularly dished out to their American pupils. In part, this was the advice on which President Bush launched his invasion of Iraq. Topple Saddam, the Arab strongman, and all the Arabs will instantly acknowledge US-Israeli hegemony as the greatest gift to them since the descent of the Qur’an. So, isn’t it a bit comical so soon after the invasion to come apologizing to the Arabs? Actually, it is worse than comical. It has to be stupid. It will surely be read by many Muslims–not least, those who are in the Islamist resistance–as a sign of weakness, an admission that America’s belligerent approach isn’t paying off, that the world’s only super power is afraid of Arab outrage.

The President’s apology is also targeted at domestic audiences. The pictures of American liberators sexually torturing Iraqis do not make the best commercials for America’s high civilizing mission. They might just undermine America’s faith in its civilizing mission, the principal ideological prop for its formidable military machine. Some quick action was necessary. Americans were assured that the cases of torture were local, not systemic, and their perpetrators are being punished. There was nothing to worry. America’s civilizing mission could not be derailed by the actions of a few rogue elements. It must continue to march forward through the jungles, swamps and deserts of the Third World, bringing freedom, hope and prosperity to the inferior breeds who cannot yet manage their own affairs. The civilizing mission is the sacred trust of the White Man.

Still, we must ask, if there isn’t an element of panic in the White House response to the scandal of Iraqi prison torture. The whole administration is apologizing, and doing so repeatedly, promptly and with little urging from anyone. The sight of the United States–swaggering, contemptuous of others, unilateralist–apologizing, somehow, makes an eerie sight. Does this suggest that after all the damned lies to cover for the war, after all the blustering as these lies were exposed, this Administration is finally losing its nerve, losing its cool? Could it be that they too know better than what they put out? Could it be that they too fear that the game they started in Iraq–at the cost of American and Iraqi lives–is over?


[1] George Will, “Time for Bush to See The Realities of Iraq,” Washington Post, May 4, 2004).

M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. His last book, Poverty from the Wealth of Nations, was published by Palgrave in 2000. Visit his webpage at http://msalam.net. © M. SHAHID ALAM


M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.