It was the great English curmudgeon Edward Gibbon who called the Americans’ struggle for independence “a criminal enterprise.” (What more could one expect from the preeminent lamenter of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire?) It would be years, of course, until the world would ratify our little tiff as the premonitory throb of a revolutionary era; and a century or so before our criminal zeal was codified into a human right. But did Gibbon, in all his grumpiness, doom us self-fulfillingly to the criminal specter haunting our short history? Yanqui exceptionalism goes by many names: “vigilantism” is one, and “rogue state” another.
Liberty, we are told, comes at a portly price: and if we loudmouths and dissidents but knew what troubles lurk in the untransparent crosshairs of our unelected watchmen, we would think twice before harping about. Dissent is the luxury of the unknowing; and like a finely ground bratwurst, the recipe is left better to the butchers. I am willing, more than others in my camp, to buy this. But when one steals a glimpse into those bleak and bloodied rooms—as we were treated to this week, against the butchers’ best intentions—that steep purchase of liberty starts to reach a point of diminishing returns. And it looks a bloody awful lot like a front for racketeers and thugs.
There is a little gag I like to play at dinner parties, in the company of leftists, to keep the blood to a healthy simmer. “What’s the most underrated revolution in history?” I ask my interlocutor, preferably in the middle of some anti-imperial rant. Haiti’s slave revolt? The Philippines’ Yellow Revolution? “The American,” I answer for them, to mixed reviews. There are, I find, two types of people: those who think, at the day’s end, that 1776 was a good year, and those who do not think of it at all.
We know by now the reasons for the latter. That it was a power grab for the white and the landed male; that it led to the expulsion and genocide of the native population; that it laid the groundwork for imperial ventures as diverse as Nicaragua and Guam. Against these I rejoin that the severance from royal supremacy, the freedom of speech and press, the codification of rights and the instatement of non-sectarian secularism still seem like good ideas. And to live in a nation founded upon alterable documents is a privilege few may share.
I spent the better part of a summer defending this quaint view in a region bursting at the seams with Yanqui-phobia. (That there exists in that location an exquisite hotel called The American Colony is hysterical, for more reasons than may seem obvious.) Yet a brutally occupied and bombarded territory proved uneventful. It was not till I returned that I was threatened with arrest, for the crime of simply asking why I had been Terry stopped. Earlier that month, an unarmed black teen was shot to death by a policeman, to an inevitably bathetic non-indictment. “But O,” say the voices of law and order, “the boy was a reasonable threat!” Fair enough, I suppose. And the man who was chokeheld to breathless death by New York cops? “Don’t bother about that one, too.” Or what about those leaders who suborned the torture and savaging of detainees in secret black sites? “Pardon all of them,” says Anthony Romero, executive director of the A.C.L.U. Eventually one starts to suspect in these impunities not quite a miscarriage of justice, but rather, as it were, an abortifacient.
Lately, those of us who insist on America’s fundamental goodness have labored pitifully to pass the straight-face test. Our nation’s name is now nearly a byword for institutional impunity. And see how quick the legions of bootlickers are to shame themselves. Suddenly the real problem in Ferguson is the rioting. (And after all we’ve done for them!) Why didn’t Eric Garner just comply? (It was just the officer’s job!) And don’t we know the waterboarders got bin Laden? (You miserable ingrates!) There truly are no depths to which the State’s cheerleaders will not sink—or, to use the jargon, dunk—for the catch-all sakes of “order” and “security.”
One hears incessantly of the call for a “national conversation,” as well as the linguistic horrorshow “enhanced interrogation techniques” (which is really the worst sort of euphemism, for it obscures nothing except our own collective self-disgust). There is no dialectic to be had. Either one abets and absolves institutional brutalization—which, one must recall, means “to make into a brute”; it works, so to speak, both ways—or one does not. After a while it grows tedious to debate the moral merits of anally administered hummus.
(There are in fact only three words to be said: Prosecute the bastards. And a bonus one, for the internationally inclined, since misery loves company: Extradite.)
The perennial task of our generation will be to answer this unanswered question: How did a land of tyrant-topplers become a home of torturers? And of the panty-sifting inspector, of the phone-perusing creep, of the snot-nosed drone assassin, of the militarized and unpunishable police.