Dana E. Abizaid
November 2, 2006

"We the people of the United States…"

Americans traveling abroad are often confronted with the ironic statement that locals “love Americans but despise the US government.” Many Americans, of course, are soothed by such talk and slip further into the myth that it is only a few aggressive and unscrupulous government officials who have tarnished America’s once proud image abroad. However calming and satisfying such talk is the reality remains that the U.S. government, for good or ill, acts in the name of all Americans, not just those making policy in Washington.

As the United States sinks further into two deadly conflicts pundits and regular citizens alike cast wicked judgment on the Bush Administration. Although much of this criticism is justified, Bush and his cohorts are certainly not alone in their guilt. For a dangerous myth has clouded our historical memories and continues to inhibit our ability to detect lies, right wrongs, and recognize US brutality.

The myth of the innocent American emanates from our schools, our government institutions, and the US media. Our education system treats the horrors of our past as just that: the past. It is as if terrible decisions are exclusively part of history, not the present. Whereas it is right and honorable to condemn the institution of African-American slavery and the destruction of Native Americans, it is unthinkable to state that these tragedies were necessary for the development of the US as a regional and global power. It is even rarer for Americans to take responsibility for these wrongs. By selectively remembering only the positive aspects of our history, we unconsciously make it more difficult to recognize repeated wrongs.

In official proclamations, oft repeated mantras, and flowery speeches, US officials have done a tremendous job of perpetuating the myth of the innocent American. From the beginning, a master politician and slaveholder was able to pen the greatest document outlining the steps a free people must take to rid themselves of tyranny. But lost in the language of the Declaration and the rhetoric of our revolution is the fact that American revolutionaries were struggling to separate from the most enlightened government of the 18th century. King George III was no Ghengis Khan, though Jefferson succeeded in portraying him as such. Thus, US history presents American revolutionaries not as leading aristocrats trying to extract themselves from mountains of ruinous debt owed their creditors in England, but as ideal philosophers struggling for the freedom of mankind. This despite the fact a large segment of the population was held in chains and many colonists shunned talk of independence.

Moreover, since its inception America’s professed battles for peace have, more often than not, led to war. What Gore Vidal has called “perpetual war for perpetual peace” has been a salient hallmark of our history. However, it is seldom asked if peace is what we really strive for. As Martin Luther King stated, one can not simultaneously prepare for and prevent war. With the US war machine currently running on full throttle and the defense budget exceeding $400 billion (sustained by working Americans’ taxes), we must ask ourselves if peace is what we seek.

Furthermore, since it is made abundantly clear to us that the world is full of evildoers who would like nothing more than to destroy us, we also must ask a basic question: amidst so much evil, how did the US become so powerful? History teaches us that dangerous tyrants have wrecked havoc and will continue to do so; in short, that the world is full of ravenous packs of wolves lurking in the shadows and waiting to strike. In such a world of wolves, is it possible that an innocent sheep, the US, could rise so high? Might we be wolves ourselves, perhaps the fiercest wolf in the pack?

Presently we are again faced with the question of US innocence and morality, this time in the form of two devastating wars and the accompanying torture implicit in “smoking out” a shadowy enemy. Though the media has reported on abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and the president, with Congressional approval, has made torture legal, the American populace seems to still believe in the myth of our innocence. Accordingly, we readily accept the isolated blame apportioned to a Lyndie England or to a William Cally for that matter. But might the blame spread further? After all, as James Madison et al so eloquently wrote it is we the people of the United States who make up our government. If we have passively ceded power to a cabal of war-hawks, might we be responsible? Sure, we can say the elections were rigged, we can complain about the wars, and we can agree with those overseas who love the American people but despise our government. But until we again realize that we are the government and take responsibility for past, present, and future actions, the myth of the innocent American will continue to empower those among us who seek destruction and domination. The rest of us will put ourselves to sleep with false thoughts about how benevolent we are.