Sunlight is the best disinfectant. It’s a cliché, because it’s true.
The massive trove of hidden data about American foreign policy that has been coming out in bunches from WikiLeaks over the last year is one huge application of disinfectant, a vast searing beam spotlighting American cynicism, malfeasance, murder, manipulation and mayhem, once again demolishing our self-righteous stand as a beacon the world over for justice, liberty, and democracy.
America has sold itself so thoroughly on its fictional status as world liberator, both at home and abroad, that it wasn’t really until Vietnam, that an appreciable number of Americans and others alike began to really understand that, far from being a force for liberation and the full flowering of human potential, America has more often than not merely been another empire, coldly, calculatingly intent on extracting as much natural and human capital as possible. But despite the pernicious reality, the fantasy America has created in order to inspire young men to be cannon fodder in unjust wars, and in order to justify wholesale theft and murder, is surprisingly robust. One can only hope that these revelations can do damage to the durable fictions we maintain about our country, because maybe then we can truly start to become what we say we are.
Since at least the 19th century, we’ve expanded our sphere of influence, often undermining democratic institutions by means of covert destabilization and outright invasion and attack.
Some people believe that this is the natural order of things. Like citizens of empires before them, they believe that their empire is preordained, blessed by God, to practice its cruel hegemony. Others are in denial; they swallow the treacle that is most American history whole, believing that all of our wars have been about freedom and democracy. They refuse to acknowledge that America has taught jihadists how to build bombs and shoot down civilian airliners, and itself assassinated democratically elected leaders, practiced torture and wholesale slaughter. Their rejection of the facts is absolute: By definition, America can do no wrong.
And then there are those of us in the middle. Like the former, we see America for what she is – an often brutal, aggressive empire, but we reject the characterization of this behavior as anything other than evil. Like the latter, we’re still inspired by the founding documents of America, the fiery speeches of Tom Paine, the witty, hypocrisy-piercing acumen of Ben Franklin, Jefferson’s stirring aspirations – but we no longer believe them.
As I’m writing this, the US government is in full damage control mode as the unprecedented diplomatic meltdown created by the WikiLeaks revelations metastasizes and reverberates around the world. While I am neither distressed nor particularly pleased about these embarrassments, I do think that their release into the light of day does more good than harm because I think that hypocrisy revealed is almost always a good thing.
However, it’s the things in the cracks that I find so deeply painful. For example, if these cables are to be believed, our Pentagon specifically and purposely targeted refugee camps in Yemen for missile attacks. This revelation harkens back to the earlier release from WikiLeaks a few months ago that revealed our conduct of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to be replete with the same kind of cynical callous brutality.
I want to believe that America is a force for good in the world, but when we purposely rain bombs down on innocent men, women and children to fulfill some arcane geopolitical goal, or merely to maintain a huge empire that gorges on the world’s bounty, I can’t. My dream of America spirals off of the gritty surface of the reality of our foreign policy like sunlit frost sublimes into vapor. One minute it’s there, an apparently hard truth, the next, it’s gone, rising skyward like a vagrant dream, and once again I am left with the sad fact that my country is not the soaring force of Justice, democracy and decency I was taught it was.
My only hope is that if enough sunlight is poured onto America’s behavior, and motives, she will finally recoil in horror at what she has become, stanch the infection of empire, and grow toward the dream of herself that she holds so dear.