Like a lot of Americans, each morning in elementary and high school, I had to stand up before the U.S. flag, put my hand on my heart, and pledge allegiance to the United States of America.
While it was a mindless routine for most of us, the meaning behind the ritual was clear: that the U.S. was exceptional, a beacon of liberty and justice in the world. But after considering the trail of blood, coups and bombs that continue to follow the U.S. flag wherever it flies, it’s safe to say that the U.S. is exceptional in many things; liberty and justice are not among them.
Take the following statistics: Roughly 405,000 people have been killed as a result of the violence and infrastructure damage of the U.S.-led War in Iraq. The U.S. is number two, behind Russia, in its nuclear weapons stockpile, with 7,400 warheads (Third is France, with 300.) The U.S. leads the world in military spending, with more than US$7.6 trillion spent on the military and homeland security since 9/11. Washington is also a major threat to its own citizens: the U.S. is the world’s largest incarcerator of people, both in numbers and in proportion to its population, with 2.3 million in prison, 1 million of whom are African American.
Much of the violence around the world today can be linked back to U.S. imperial adventures abroad. The rise of ISIS in Iraq has been traced to the U.S. war in the country. In an article on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the New York Times explained, “At every turn, Mr. Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq — most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action.” As far as the recent terrorist attack in France, University of Michigan History Professor Juan Cole writes that one of the attackers was pushed toward “fundamentalist vigilanteism” by the war in Iraq and by Abu Ghraib torture. The wave of drug war-related violence sweeping Latin America is also directly tied to the U.S. role in militarizing the region in the name of the war on drugs, a conflict which since 2006 has taken over 100,000 lives in Mexico alone.
Of course, this is all nothing new. In an interview in 2013, Noam Chomsky critiqued President Obama’s claim that the U.S. has been "the anchor of global security" for seven decades. Chomsky said,
“Really? Seven decades? That includes, for example, just 40 years ago today, when the United States played a major role in overthrowing the parliamentary democracy of Chile and imposing a brutal dictatorship, called ‘the first 9/11’ in Latin America. Go back earlier years, overthrowing the parliamentary system in Iran, imposing a dictatorship; same in Guatemala a year later; attacking Indochina, the worst crime in the postwar period, killing millions of people; attacking Central America; killing – involved in killing – in imposing a dictatorship in the Congo; and invading Iraq – on and on. That’s stability? I mean, that a Harvard Law School graduate can pronounce those words is pretty amazing, as is the fact that they’re accepted without comment.”
This imperial legacy was put into focus once more by the U.S. Senate’s torture report released last December. Mother Jones summarized the findings of the 600-page document in this way: “The torture was far more brutal than we thought, and the CIA lied about that. It didn't work, and they lied about that too. It produced so much bad intel that it most likely impaired our national security, and of course they lied about that as well. They lied to Congress, they lied to the president, and they lied to the media. Despite this, they are still defending their actions.”
In the wake of the report’s release, President Obama said that "no nation is perfect" but that "one of the strengths that make America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better." Obama implied that because of U.S. exceptionalism those who orchestrated the horrific torture will not be prosecuted.
Washington’s torture, war crimes and military industrial complex are consistently propped up by the concept of U.S. exceptionalism. These bullets and beliefs make the U.S. the biggest threat to world peace. An empire relies on mindless patriotism and uncritical support, from students pledging allegiance to the U.S. flag to presidents evoking U.S. exceptionalism to defend torture. Understanding this web of complicity is a key part of disassembling the empire from the inside out.
Benjamin Dangl has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America, covering social movements and politics in the region for over a decade. He is the author of the books "Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America," and "The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia."