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American Amnesia: We Forget Our Atrocities Almost As Soon as We Commit Them

Historical amnesia is a dangerous social phenomenon because it lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead.

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The 9/11 attack was doubtless unique in many respects. One is where the guns were pointing: typically it is in the opposite direction. In fact, it was the first attack of any consequence on the national territory of the United States since the British burned down Washington in 1814.

Another unique feature was the scale of terror perpetrated by a non-state actor.

Horrifying as it was, however, it could have been worse. Suppose that the perpetrators had bombed the White House, killed the president, and established a vicious military dictatorship that killed 50,000 to 100,000 people and tortured 700,000, set up a huge international terror center that carried out assassinations and helped impose comparable military dictatorships elsewhere, and implemented economic doctrines that so radically dismantled the economy that the state had to virtually take it over a few years later.

That would indeed have been far worse than September 11, 2001. And it happened in Salvador Allende's Chile in what Latin Americans often call "the first 9/11" in 1973. (The numbers above were changed to per-capita U.S. equivalents, a realistic way of measuring crimes.) Responsibility for the military coup against Allende can be traced straight back to Washington. Accordingly, the otherwise quite appropriate analogy is out of consciousness here in the U.S., while the facts are consigned to the "abuse of reality" that the naïve call "history."

It should also be recalled that Bush did not declare the "war on terror," he re-declared it. Twenty years earlier, President Reagan's administration came into office declaring that a centerpiece of its foreign policy would be a war on terror, "the plague of the modern age" and "a return to barbarism in our time" -- to sample the fevered rhetoric of the day.

That first U.S. war on terror has also been deleted from historical consciousness, because the outcome cannot readily be incorporated into the canon: hundreds of thousands slaughtered in the ruined countries of Central America and many more elsewhere, among them an estimated 1.5 million dead in the terrorist wars sponsored in neighboring countries by Reagan's favored ally, apartheid South Africa, which had to defend itself from Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), one of the world's "more notorious terrorist groups," as Washington determined in 1988. In fairness, it should be added that, 20 years later, Congress voted to remove the ANC from the list of terrorist organizations, so that Mandela is now, at last, able to enter the U.S. without obtaining a waiver from the government.

The reigning doctrine of the country is sometimes called "American exceptionalism." It is nothing of the sort. It is probably close to a universal habit among imperial powers. France was hailing its "civilizing mission" in its colonies, while the French Minister of War called for "exterminating the indigenous population" of Algeria. Britain's nobility was a "novelty in the world," John Stuart Mill declared, while urging that this angelic power delay no longer in completing its liberation of India.

Similarly, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Japanese militarists in the 1930s, who were bringing an "earthly paradise" to China under benign Japanese tutelage, as they carried out the rape of Nanking and their "burn all, loot all, kill all" campaigns in rural North China. History is replete with similar glorious episodes.

As long as such "exceptionalist" theses remain firmly implanted, however, the occasional revelations of the "abuse of history" often backfire, serving only to efface terrible crimes. The My Lai massacre was a mere footnote to the vastly greater atrocities of the post-Tet pacification programs, ignored while indignation in this country was largely focused on this single crime.

 
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