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Now I Understand Why They Hate Us

How a middle-class white guy came to accept the evil embedded in American political and military might.

Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, many American voices raised the question, "Why do they hate us?" The "they," in this case, was Muslim fundamentalists, but the same question could have been asked of South American peasants, of the people of Iraq or Iran, of the poor of India or Indonesia, or, indeed, of the poor anywhere.

In fact, "they" don't only hate us; the feelings of people around the world toward the United States are a complex mixture of positive and negative. On the one hand, for instance, much of the rest of the world is excited by the election of Barack Obama. Almost six years ago, visiting Iraq just before the American invasion, I listened to Iraqis who professed their admiration for much of America and how American democracy has been a "beacon" to the rest of the world. On the other hand, those same Iraqis felt betrayed by the United States that would attack a country that did not threaten it. And by 2008, multiple polls of people around the world revealed a deep anger toward our country: Clear majorities believe us to be the "greatest danger to world peace." My own coming to understand why they hate us has been a painful process, but one I consider important to share with any American who still does not understand.

My Own Conditioning: The City Upon a Hill

I grew up in the 1950s. Americans were still celebrating our critical role in defeating Germany and Japan and, we thought, protecting the world from fascism. Our economy was as big as the combined economies of the rest of the world put together, and we had used some of that economic power through the Marshall Plan to successfully rebuild the economies of war-shattered Europe. We were the rising empire, and we saw ourselves as the world's savior. It seemed to us (middle-class whites) a time of prosperity and suburbanization, an era of magnanimity and cooperation, a period of confidence that our national path would be continuously upward. I remember predictions that our increasing economic productivity would enable us to halve the work week within a generation while still raising our standard of living.

As a society, however, we generally chose not to see the more ominous realities. Few of us reflected upon the wanton destruction of innocent life in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The CIA-instigated overthrow of democratically elected leaders in Iran, Guatemala and elsewhere and, a little later, the assassination attempts on Fidel Castro were only outlandish rumors (that only "the paranoid" believed). The white majority could still ignore segregation. I did not find out about the bizarre, anti-communist antics of Sen. Joe McCarthy until I was in college, a decade later.

Little of our dark side entered my consciousness in the 1950s and early 1960s. Rather, I grew up with the unarticulated sense that our nation was nearing the perfect society; we were "almost there," not so distant from the Kingdom of God. In Puritan Christian terminology, we were the "city upon a hill," "the light of the world" that should not be hidden. God had blessed us; we saw ourselves as exceptional people  and exceptionally righteous. In 1963, I hitchhiked from London through Europe to Finland to visit my future wife, and I do not remember feeling surprised that the American flag on my luggage made it easier to get rides. Of course foreigners loved Americans; who wouldn't?

Paradoxically, even the moral and political disaster of the Vietnam War reinforced my sense that America would continue to move toward its ideal. I came of age during the war and joined in active opposition to it, ultimately refusing induction into the Army. While still in college, I became a speaker for the War Resisters League, touring campuses and lecturing against the war. I learned about some of the disturbing realities of American imperialism in Southeast Asia, of course, but -- again without articulating it to myself -- I judged it a momentary anomaly of, rather than a continuation of, our history.

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