What is American?

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange has heard the assertion that the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse was un-American. He wonders: What is American?

(Lange) I can only imagine the dread the Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib must have felt when they heard the night crew coming on. They knew that some of them would be taken from their cells, stripped, and terrorized by jailers young enough to be their children. None who experienced that, and survived, will ever forget it. Nor will any of their friends in the Arab world.

Both Secretary Rumsfeld and the President have indignantly termed the abuses “un-American.” I dare say most Americans agree with that. We consider ourselves the moral superiors of other cultures, and call such acts aberrations. But what does it mean to be American?

Many of us recall the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate hearings chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Those proceedings blacklisted perfectly patriotic Americans who rightly would admit to nothing and would incriminate no others. Fifty years later, do we care that the lives of a few fellow travelers were ruined by a government witch hunt? We ought to.

Because most of us are in denial. We’re not anyone else’s moral superior, and never have been. When Colonial agitators were fomenting rebellion against the Crown, a large minority dissented. The disagreement was cured not by debate, but by vigilante justice – murdering or driving away the dissenters and taking over their property.

After the Revolution, a group of idealistic former British subjects adopted a Constitution. They shortly added to it a bill of rights. Subsequent expansion of those rights have included, among others, African Americans and women. Most have further secured the rights of individuals. They’re all that separate us from tyranny.

But living under the Constitution’s protection has obligations: most important, that we protest any erosion of any individual rights; second, that we defend for others the same rights that we enjoy; and third, that we not assume our citizenship protects us from error. We broke virtually every treaty we ever signed with native Americans. The 1839 Trail of Tears and the 1890 massacre of the Lakota at Wounded Knee should remind us of our potential for dishonor. The estimated 5000 lynchings of black Americans between 1850 and 1950 ought to make us question the innate superiority of American morals.

In 1968 about 500 residents of the Vietnamese village of My Lai were massacred by American soldiers. The Pentagon tried to suppress the news; the President characterized it as “an unfortunate aberration, an isolated incident.”

We are no better or worse than any other nations. What makes us dangerous is our denial of that fact: our assumed right to dominate and mistreat others. Somebody in the long, inscrutable chain of command created the notion that torture of helpless prisoners is justified in the battle between good and evil. We may never know who he is, but his friends probably consider him a patriotic American.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke to us from our studio in Norwich.

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