David Stairs

Amid the controversy over Guantanamo interrogation techniques resurrected by Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty I read Mark Owen’s No Easy Day, the ooh-rah first person Seal Team Six account of the assassination of Osama bin Laden on May 1st, 2011. Suddenly, the notion of watching Jessica Chastain burn up the screen with her focused intensity and sultry good looks somehow seemed to lose its attraction.

Randall Kennedy had an interesting essay in the January 28th issue of Time magazine in which he attacked Obama for being too accepting of American myths. But even Kennedy’s criticism of American exceptionalism doesn’t go far enough. I started to think about how outrageous it was to send heavily armed trained commandos into a man’s house to shoot him right in front of his wives and children. “But he was the world’s top terrorist, a man who funded the killing of thousands of innocent people on 9/11, a sworn enemy of America,” you exclaim. Believe me, I know the drill; I’ve been hearing it ad nausea for more than a decade.

I found myself trying to make a list of the number of times Americans have been apparent victims of aggression. Historically, I came up with seven examples: 1) Early annihilation attacks against the colonial settlements in Virginia and Massachusetts by native peoples, 2) the 1775 British march on Concord and Lexington, 3) the burning of the White House in the War of 1812, 4) Custer’s slaughter, 5) Remember the Maine! 6) Pearl Harbor, and 7) 9/11. Of course, there have been innumerable other atrocities during the many wars we’ve fought, but these are the salient events that became symbolic. In each instance, the American response to aggression was overwhelming, usually a declaration of all-out war, which probably has had something to do with maintaining us as a sovereign nation. But to think of ourselves as God’s chosen people, the bearers of democracy, freedom, and righteousness is to fall victim to our own propaganda. The savagery and thoroughness with which we eliminated “UBN” in the sanctity of his own bedroom, let alone our willingness to disregard the sovereignty of Pakistan, supposedly one of our allies, speaks volumes about our civilization.

After the mass murder in Newton my son sent me a link to a Glen Greenwald column featuring a photo of a group of young men in Pakistan attending a meeting in Islamabad to discuss American drone attacks on civilian Pakistani targets. One of the boys pictured at center, a sixteen year old, was killed by a strike three days later. The question being asked in the article was, “When the world mourns the murders of children in Connecticut, why doesn’t the American media pay any attention to the deaths of children in Yemen and Pakistan, especially those whose deaths are attributable to the U.S. military?” The answer, quite simply, is that the demonization of all Muslims has been so effective, when harnessed in tandem with American patriotism, that we’ve been largely desensitized to the crime. In fact, these casualties are not even given the respect of being called collateral damage. Instead, they are referred to in sociopathic military jargon as “bug splat.”

America has a long history of seeing itself reflected in the mirror of the “other.” Whether its the “redcoats,” or the “niggers,” the “heathen indians” or the “spics,” the muslims be they “Jords,” “Paks,” “Libs,” or “Sauds,” our ability to feel exclusive from and exclusively savage toward these others almost defines what it means to be an American. This is odd, especially if you accept the narrative of America as melting pot, the great cauldron of miscegenation. I thought about this as I watched Zero Dark Thirty, that collective celebration of our victory over the bad guys. I’d done enough background reading to know the history of al Qaeda attacks. The film spends most of its time recreating the cat-and-mouse game the CIA played with terrorists from 1991 through 2011, including the disastrous bombing of a CIA compound at advanced base Chapman in Khost in 2009. Whether it was Bigelow’s intention to create a nationalistic sentiment I can’t say. But I do know that, through an American filter, Muslims seem to live in another world, if not another dimension altogether. I did my best to steel myself against any inclination to feel superior, exceptional, in a word American.

The Kool-Aid we all drink through exposure to American media is an effective brew. Not only does it make us feel real good about being Americans, it’s laced with collective notions that allow us to remain self righteous even as we’re blowing “other” people up. That makes it pretty powerful shit.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project