Once upon a time we were the “good guys.” That is what we were taught, and that is what we believed. This country stood for “truth, justice and the American way.” I suppose we saw ourselves as Superman, standing on a mountain top, hands on hips, chest inflated, scanning the horizon for wrongs to right.
The lines between morality and wickedness were broadly, and naively, drawn. Evil had a face; and that was Hitler, or Mussolini, or anyone who fought against us and our allies.
We knew that Americans did not torture. We welcomed “huddled masses” from foreign shores. This was a country founded on principles of religious freedom. Everyone was welcome.
But, somehow, we grew up, and we hardened. Now, America is an instigator of war crimes, something that seemed impossible only 50 years ago. We build fences to keep out immigrants, and judge non-Christians as pariahs. Our own fellow citizens’ lack of health care is regarded as a deserved death sentence. We are laughing at the pain of those we deem our lessers. (That is, if audience reaction at the Republican debates can be considered representative of “us.”) When did we become so callous?
Just when we thought Abu Ghraib was behind us, we have been bombarded by photos of American soldiers urinating on corpses. The argument can be made that they were the bodies of defeated terrorists, although many Afghans dispute that, claiming that they were ordinary citizens who were killed by mistake. (“Collateral damage” is the politically correct term.) No matter, the desecration of bodies is considered depraved in almost all cultures.
These days, it seems that America’s super self-image is a bit ragged and stained, whether or not we see it like that. We have been blinded by our own PR. (You may want to find out what other countries think of us. It would probably shock you.)
Certainly, it is not just the lowly foot soldiers, or even national leaders, who are guilty of poor judgment. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour left office bestowing some lovely parting gifts on rapists, armed robbers, drunken drivers (who had killed with their cars) and murderers. He “believes in second chances.” Of course it helps if the criminal is an erstwhile friend, having once worked in the Governor’s Mansion.
I am confused about the meaning of justice (as are the families of those released criminals’ victims), and the real value of truth. It appears that power, even a tiny bit, overrides laws, both those of the U.S. and those of decency. Soldiers have guns. That gives them power. Governors, elected officials, CEOs, all have authority and influence. Unfortunately, too often they wield it with ego rather than intellect.
Ethics and integrity are not a red cape to be donned only sporadically, the costume of photo ops. Those in command should remember this, and keep that cape spotless. Unquestionably, honor and nobility take work, a great deal of it. If you asked for the job, campaigned for it, then handle it with decency and wisdom.
Unscrupulous choices are often explained away with a creative spin, justified with a clever sound bite. Why is it so easy? Perhaps because Americans are too eager to accept, too gullible to really question. Many of us are still stuck in that mid-20th century innocence, when good and bad were as simple as the black and white images on tiny TV screens. But we have color television now. The blood we see is deep red.
In some ways, I long for our simplistic “Superman” self-image of not so many years ago. But those days are gone. The earth is whirling beneath our feet, and at a velocity that is much too fast. Our country is part of this planet and part of humanity. We cannot isolate ourselves with fences, and with attitudes that divide us from every other inhabitant.
It is time to face truth, acknowledge our flaws and faulty decisions. Admitting mistakes may the first step to repairing our damaged cape. Maybe, someday, “the American way” will again inspire respect.
Adele Elliott, a New Orleans native, moved to Columbus after Hurricane Katrina.
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