American Exceptionalism and the Torture Debate

Mark Thompson at the League of Ordinary Gentleman has what I think is an excellent post on how torture runs contrary to this idea that America is an exceptional country.

If you think the United States is just another country, or even just another Western country, then the moral issues of whether waterboarding is torture, or whether it was a war crime to drop the atomic bomb, can and perhaps should be either irrelevant or only of minor significance compared to whether those actions saved more lives than they cost. But if you are a true believer in American exceptionalism, then you must accept that maintaining that exceptionalism comes with costs, perhaps sometimes in human lives.

Shining cities don’t just appear and maintain their shine without sacrifice and risk-taking by their citizens. It does no one any good to pretend otherwise; nor does it do any good to secretly and gradually apply a bit of plaster and polish to a monument from which you have taken much gold restores the monument to its previous glow. Instead, that monument must be stripped of its plaster for all to see in its newly grotesque shape. Then, and only then, can the people properly evaluate whether the lost shine was worth the increase in safety.

He goes on to state in the post and in the comments that America is not and has often not been the right country or the most free. Instead, he bases his ideas of American exceptionalism on the founding documents of our nation, which laid out the premise that all men are created equal and endowed with certain natural rights. Since I’m in a historical minded mood (I should be studying instead of writing this…), I wondered about this.

On the one hand, the ideas themselves were not really new. Much of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence was either imported from English common law and/or cribbed from Enlightenment philosophers like Locke and Montesquieu. And, of course, it took us a while to apply them to everyone, not just land-holding white men. But in studying the chaos that is European history, you really do get a sense of how unique America really is. French revolutionaries may have espoused similar or even more liberal ideals than our own, but no French republic has lasted anywhere close to ours. Germany, Spain, Italy, and Russia as countries did not even begin to consider such ideas until relatively recently. From Britain we derive our liberal heritage, but they have never had a written constitution. The European continent has fought two total wars and several other continent-wide wars too since 1776, but except for the Civil War (which was partly fought to resolve some issues with the founding documents), America has remained relatively stable.

This is not to denigrate the rest of the world, where there have been some excellent and enlightened rulers in history. But I think there is a reason why American ideals (not necessarily its particular form of government) have spread so rapidly in the post-WWII era . They aren’t American ideals per se, but universal ideals. And yet the fact that America has been (somewhat) living by them for hundreds of years has an impact.

I am not sure if the history of our founding documents is as clear cut as Thomson makes them out to be, but he’s definitely got a point. It seems to me that if America always acted like the “city on the hill” we hope it to be, it will be liked by most of the world. It is our actions, be they torture, unilateralism (a different interpretation of exceptionalism), drone strikes, or unbalanced support for Israel, that turn people against us. And I think you can see that surrounding the world-wide enthusiasm over Obama. People see him an example of America returning to its finest traditions after the disaster of Bush.

But the idea of Obama is one thing. The reality is another. Obama cannot just be, he must enact policies that move America back towards its place as a leader by example, the city on the hill. He’s done a lot of this, but he must do more, including conducting investigations into the torture policies of the Bush administration. Only by airing these examples of America’s immorality can we truly prove to the world that we are worthy of our place as the leader of the free world. Even America must earn that place.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.


About Nate

Nate is a co-host on the “Arsenal For Democracy” show. He was previously the co-founder of an earlier political blog with Bill in 2008.
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