The American Empire has Damaged Us All
The reactions of many to recent death of President George H.W. Bush has exposed a deep rot at the core of American culture. As I watched scenes from his funeral, I could not help but think of the countless dead in Panama and Iraq, as a result of his decisions and lies while in the White House. As pundits and politicians from both parties lined up to shower H.W. Bush with praise, there was almost no mention of atrocities committed on his watch. Because the coverage was so one-sided, others media outlets, outside the “mainstream,” felt the need to compensate by exposing the dark side of America’s 41st president. I saw numerous conflicts erupt on social media, mainly when some liberals argued that “George H.W. Bush was a great man who served his country, even if many of us disagreed with his politics,” and others, further to the left, responded angrily at that framing.
Most liberal pundits, politicians, and social media commentators have been silent on the crimes of the American Empire under Bush I (and other presidents, as well). Reflecting upon all this, I could not help but come to the conclusion that American Imperialism has deeply damaged us. On the global scale, America is a oppressive empire, enforcing its geopolitical will out of the the barrel of gun. Countries that refuse to serve U.S. interests, put themselves and their people in grave danger. Oppression, such as this, mars both the oppressor and the oppressed. This is not meant to equate the two: the oppressed are victims, the oppressors are perpetrators. But neither side walks away undamaged. In 2016, Nelson Mandela wrote that, “When [he] walked out of prison, that was [his] mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both.” He went on to say that:
“A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”
What Mandela knew all too well was that people who are perfectly lovely in many ways are also capable of atrocities, oppression, or at the very least, willing to look away and ignore oppression happening in their own name. Systemic oppression exists in many different forms, but it always dehumanizes the oppressed, and as Mandela said, locks the oppressor behind bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness, robbing him of his humanity, as well.
Thus, some brave, well-meaning servicemen and women who signed up to defend their country, cane torture Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Someone who is otherwise perfectly kind and pleasant, may be a tyrant to his employees while at work. A police officer who is dedicated to protecting and serving the citizenry can choke out a black man for selling loose cigarettes. A church-going Christian that gives to charity and volunteers at a soup kitchen, can support building a wall and firing tear gas at poor refugees seeking asylum.
The American Empire, and its horrific actions around the world (invasions, assassinations, regime change interventions, drone killings, sanction-induced starvation, etc.), must be viewed in that same light. We can sit idly by as America wreaks havoc around the world and we can collectively mourn the loss of a president that committed war crimes because, in that compartment of our lives, we suffer from a kind of collective sociopathy. Through the eyes of Empire, those “others” being killed aren’t fully human or real: their lives have less value or none at all. And in feeling that way, whether we are doing so consciously or not, we are also losing our humanity — the Empire has stripped us of it. If we have any hope of restoring our own collective humanity, we must acknowledge that America is, indeed, an empire and begin to organize against imperialism to save countless lives around the world and restore our own humanity.
Ron Widelec is a high school history teacher in New York City and progressive, anti-war activist on Long Island, NY.