“Alabama’s got me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
and everybody knows about Mississippi Goddamn.”
In the past two weeks, we’ve been privy to a public morality play of dizzying proportions. Just as the prison abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib gathered momentum, threatening to bury a newly contrite but still crotchety Donald Rumsfeld, news broke that an al Queda-connected website was displaying footage of a young American getting beheaded by his captors.
Meanwhile, outside the war zone, the US Justice Department announced that it had reopened the case of Emmett Till, the 14 year old African-American murdered by a gang of white Mississippians in 1955. These events, disparate though they may seem, say a lot about America’s collective self-perception_its urge to simultaneously view the other with compassion and disgust, all the while avoiding serious discussion of its own sins.
Immediately following the publication of photos of American military personnel posing enthusiastically with their Iraqi victims at Abu Ghraib, reaction from the US media intelligentsia was swift and_in important respects_unequivocal: we’d been shamed as a nation by these soldiers, whose acts_by virtue of their departure from our sense of shared morality_had undermined our standing in the world and our sense of ourselves.
Thomas Friedman, in a May 6th Op-Ed piece in The New York Times titled ‘Restoring our Honor,’ wrote, “We are in danger of losing something much more important than just the war in Iraq. We are in danger of losing America as an instrument of moral authority and inspiration in the world.” CNN’s Lou Dobbs opined that we need to apologize to the world for Abu Ghraib “because those few soldiers … offended American values of decency, fairness and propriety.”
In perhaps the richest comment of all, New York Times columnist David Brooks, speaking on the PBS NewsHour, summed up why the Abu Ghraib incident so shocked America’s collective conscience: “We assign ourselves higher standards and we portray ourselves and think of ourselves as higher. We are not a people that’s well versed in the dark side of human nature.”
From statements like these, one can only infer that the only sentiment more powerful than American contrition is American arrogance: we’re genuinely sorry for what happened, but the real reason we’re so sorry is that we’re better than that_and better than you in fact.
As if on cue, this sentiment was given grist by the ghoulish image of 26 year old American Nicholas Berg being beheaded by men who claimed to be acting out of revenge for Abu Ghraib. The responses from shapers of public opinion in the US were prompt. On news shows and in columns across the country, commentators spoke in terms borrowed from 19th century orientalism.
In an Op-Ed piece in TheLA Times, Charles Paul Freund wrote about the alleged perpetrator of Berg’s murder, Abu Musab Zarqawi: “[He] has reminded his enemies that, unlike him, they are at least capable of shame.” Senator John McCain said, “It’s terrible. It’s tragic. It also shows the stark difference between America and these barbarians.”
Ah, the difference between America and the barbarians. This purported difference is at the heart of the reportage of recent events, whether it be the prison abuse/turture scandal at Abu Ghraib or the horrific murder of Nicholas Berg. In fact, it’s at the heart of our sense of national belonging in the US. But what about this difference? Or, more to the point, what do popular representations of it tend to say about the way we look_or choose to look away from_ourselves?
Now, lest anyone get the wrong idea, I’m not saying that what was done to Nicholas Berg shouldn’t be classified as an act of barbarism. Slicing someone’s neck and literally ripping his head off pretty much speaks for itself as an act of sheer depravity. What I am saying is that it’s utter hypocrisy for US commentators to use this as occasion to take the moral high ground.
In that light, another recent news story is illuminating. The US Justice Department announced on May 10th that it was reopening the case of Emmett Till. Till is of course the black teenager who was brutally murdered for committing the cardinal sin of whistling at a white woman in Jim Crow Mississippi.
Emmett Till’s murderers abducted him, beat him to a pulp, gouged his eyes out, shot him in the head, and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. Adding insult to injury, there was no justice for Emmett Till, as the two men tried for his murder were acquitted in what can only be described as a kangaroo court proceeding. Till’s case, though notable for the impact it had on the Civil Rights Movement, is but one of many examples of ‘unsolved’ murders of blacks in the American South.
Meanwhile, in today’s America, black men are incarcerated at a rate that exceeds even that of apartheid South Africa (7150 per 100,000 compared to 851 per 100,000).
I wonder if Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, et al. are aware of those numbers or the story of Emmett Till, or some of the other barbarous commonplaces of American life. I’m sure they are. After all, they’re smart, well-educated men. So why the easy pronouncements of America’s intrinsic moral superiority and authority, the declarations of our collective innocence when it comes to ‘the dark side of human nature?’
The answer, I suppose, has nothing to do with education or erudition; rather it comes from an ideological framework in which the rules the West applies to the other have little to no applicability when it comes to the West itself. How else to explain the combination of shame, haughtiness, and forgetfulness on display the past two weeks.