Over the last few months, the U.S. has witnessed repeated calls for vengeance, for revenge, punishment, retribution … for blood. These calls express one of the most disturbing facets of the American “character,” the Old Testament call for an eye-for-an-eye, a tooth-for-a-tooth. Vengeance haunts 21st century America like a ghost of times long dead.
The call for vengeance is rooted in the nation’s very founding, in the way English settlers treated the native people and each other. Over the last four centuries, it has repeatedly been expressed as violence acted upon the most defenseless people, scapegoats of social tyranny. Vengeance is the Achilles heel of what it means to an American, negating the hope that inspires each generation and continues to draw immigrants.
The most gruesome recent examples of social vengeance were the state murders of Troy Anthony Davis in Georgia and Lawrence Russell Brewer in Texas. For many supporters of the death penalty, these killings illustrate the blindness of justice: death was inflicted fairly on an obviously wrongly-convicted black man and an unrepentant racist white man. For anyone who believes in a humane sense of justice, one that has a moral or ethical (as opposed to a vindictive or punitive) lesson at its heart, these acts illustrate how barbarity is accepted as a normal part of American life.
Both men were executed by lethal injection. This procedure exhibits the rationality of a mad science-fiction movie come to life as public policy. Two centuries ago, ancient Israelites experienced vengeance witnessing crucifixions on the Roman cross. It was explicit, brutal and painfully drawn-out, death often taking days. Over the last two centuries, America has progressed to a more refined use of social terror, the lethal injection. Vengeance is now clean, rational and nearly immediate. Both the cross and the injection share an equally compelling object lesson.
While these state murders were the most shocking episodes of vengeance, the most revealing incidences were the outbursts by the audience at the Republic presidential candidates debate held on September 7th at the Reagan Library. These outbursts point to a deeper disturbance of America’s body politic, the apparent desire for blood vengeance gleefully expressed by a significant number of “ordinary” Americans.
Those in the audience represent a new political current, one recalling the Know Nothing, Klan, McCarthyite and Southern white racist tendencies that long deformed the American character. The roots of this tendency run deep, it is the mean-spirited, unforgiving strain of American politics.
The heavily conservative, Tea Party-oriented audience at the Republican blab-fest cheered (some shouting “Let ‘em die!”) when Rep. Ron Paul stumbled answering whether he’d let a person die who didn’t have health insurance; clearly caught off-guard, Paul took no stand, mumbling something incoherent and essentially unheard. Again, the audience cheered when the moderator asked Rich Perry if he was troubled by the 235 executions he’s overseen as Texas’ governor. The good Christian governor, with blood dripping from his fangs, puffed up to the audience’s cheer for blood lust.
These incidents of vengeance take on their full, grotesque meaning when placed in context to what must surely be the most disturbing act of terror conducted in postmodern American history, the murder of Osama bin Laden.
State-sanctioned assassination is not foreign to the U.S. government; how many failed CIA execution attempts were made against Fidel Castro? Today, the drone strike is the latest weapon in the never-ending arsenal amassed to fight the war on terror. It is increasingly relied upon as the cutting-edge tool of both U.S. foreign and military policy.
The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the quintessential examples of 20th century modernity, scientific rationality imposing mass vengeance. The drone strike is ostensibly precise, targeted, epitomizing the high-tech, “clean” wars of the 21st century military-industrial complex. It is the quintessential representation of the postmodern military state, the “virtual” videogame as advanced combat.
The drone signifies postmodern corporate capitalism, the unity of the state, science and academia, technology and finance, and, of course, the media that cultivates false consciousness. Like so much pork-barrel waste that makes-up the Dept. of Defense’s budget, no one really knows if drones work. However, knowing the drone’s limits, a special-ops assassination squad was deployed to inflict President Obama’s vengeance: to seize, kill and dispose of bin Laden.
How is one to assess the moral significance of the bin Laden assassination? It must be compared to another example of state-sanctioned “justice,” one that embodies an equally historical-illuminating lesson, one that embodies a define feature of Western values. No better example is that of the fate of Adolf Eichmann.
Eichmann’s name is interchangeably with the Holocaust. He was the Nazi bureaucrat responsible for executing the “Final Solution,” the extinction of the Jewish people. An estimated 5 million Jews perished during World War II as a result of his actions and those of other Nazis.
Its 1960, the war against fascism is long over and Eichmann is living under an assumed name in Argentina. He is captured by the Israeli secret service in Buenos Aires on May 11, 1960; he goes on trial in Jerusalem on April 11, 1961; and he is executed on May 31, 1962.
For two short years, the world served as the jury for the gravest trial in modern history. The Eichmann trial signified an era’s commitment to justice. Justice meant something for those who had lived through the Great War and the Great Depression, who survived Dachau, Stalingrad and Hiroshima, and who judged at Nuremberg. Eichmann faced the world, his crime clear to everyone, the verdict nearly-universally accepted as just.
President Obama had the option to capture, try and execute bin Laden; he chose, instead, to kill him on site, seize his body and dump it into the high seas. This mass murderer was responsible for the death of some 3,000 innocent people on September 11, 2001. With bin Laden’s assassination, 20th century justice was replaced by 21st century vengeance. Is this the new make-up of the America character?
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Blood vengeance runs deep in American history. A handful of examples illustrate just how close to the surface this passion resides.
Mary Johnson, of the Wethersfield colony in Connecticut, was one of ten Puritan women executed for having sex with Satan. In 1648, Johnson allegedly admitted to minister Samuel Stone (and reported by Cotton Mather): “She said her first Familiarity with the Devils came by Discontent” with her role as a servant and that “she was guilty of the Murder of a Child and that she had been guilty of Uncleanness with Men and Devils.” Two years earlier, she had been accused of thievery and was publicly whipped. However, for her truly unholy deed of consorting with the devil, she was convicted of witchcraft and executed.
Having sex with the devil was the most horrendous crime committed by early Puritan settlers, bringing down merciless vengeance on the sinner. This vindictive clan of militant Calvinists fled from England following the Civil War and took their vengeance out of the soul of new America. Johnson’s execution took place a half-century before the Salem witch trials. Over the subsequent four centuries, Native people and African Americans as well as Quakers, Mormons, Catholics, Jews and, most recently, Muslims have been victims of American vengeance.
The Know-Nothing movement of the pre-Civil War era drew together Protestants who felt threatened by the rapid increase in European immigrants, most especially Catholics flooding the cities. They felt that Catholics, as followers of the Pope, were not loyal Americans and were going to take over the country. The movement found strong support in the North that witnessed large-scale Irish immigration following the 1848 Irish potato famine. Religious intolerance led to numerous anti-Catholic attacks, including the burning of churches, random beatings and killings in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Louisville where 22 people were killed.
The Mormon religion was born of vengeance. On June 27, 1844, a mob of anti-Mormon vigilantes stormed the Carthage, IL, jail where Mormon founder Joseph Smith was being kept on charges of treason. The jail was set afire to force him out; Smith was ultimately shot and killed. Thirteen years later, Mormon leaders conspired in one of the greatest mass murders in American history, the Mountain Meadows massacre. On September 11, 1857, they oversaw the killing of 120 men, women, and children who were part of a wagon train passing through southern Utah from Arkansas to California.
A half-century later, between May and September 1919, as the U.S. was demobilizing from the Great War, race riots broke out in New York and more then two-dozen other cities. James Weldon Johnson, the noted Harlem Renaissance writer, dubbed it the “Red Summer of 1919.” Demobilization fueled racial tensions culminating in vindictive riots from New London, CT, to Bisbee, AZ, and from Hobson City, AL, to Omaha, NB, as well as in Washington, DC, Baltimore, Knoxville, New Orleans, Chicago and New York. Many of the riots bore the same familiar character: whites men attacking blacks based on a false claim of a sexual assault on a white woman by a black man.
Jump ahead another quarter-century. The U.S. is mobilizing for war. In Los Angeles, cultural differences fuel mounting social tension. In ’41, clashes between Mexican-American zoot suiters and white servicemen, many from the South, broke out in movie theatres, ballrooms and other venues. In ’42, the Sleepy Lagoon murder case intensified cultural differences and brought zoot suiters front-page news coverage. Things came to a boil in June ‘43 when the “zoot suit riot” erupts and vengeance inflicted.
Over five days, white soldiers and sailors attacked zoot-suit-wearing Mexican-Americans — called pachucos — and more than 110 civilians and servicemen were injured. The riot broke out on the night of June 3rd when some 200 uniformed sailors commandeered a caravan of taxis and invaded East Los Angeles, a Mexican-Americans stronghold.
The white rioters went after any zoot suiter they could find and did so with military vengeance. They broke into bars and theaters, beating whomever they could, even stripping some male victims of their clothes. Time reported that, “The police practice was to accompany the caravans of soldiers and sailors in police cars, watch the beatings and jail the victims.”
The zoot suit riot signified old-world vengeance, the intimately personal exercise of punishment. Two years later, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagosaki became the quintessential examples of new-world vengeance, signifying 20th century modernity: Scientific rationality imposing mass retribution.
The hundreds-of-thousand of people who perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were victims of a nuclear holocaust. Their deaths served two, reinforcing, ends. First, they were victims of a military campaign that helped end the Second World War, facilitating the reorganization of a new world order. Second, their deaths imposed a new moral order; victims were guinea pigs in the nascent war on terror, the war to impose the mass psychology of fear.
Three-quarters of a century later, World War II vengeance has become the daily moral life of 21st century America. Our continuing use of death-penalty executions, our cheering crowds celebrating letting uninsured people die and our state-sanctioned assassination of war criminals testifies to the moral crisis that now besieges America. What has become of American character?
David Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.