Post-Osama, America’s Blind Spot Persists

Isn't the beauty of freedom that we can tell the truth and get away with it?

I get nervous. Those chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” at the Phillies game, well, I was happy that Osama was dead too. I thought the SEALs showing up in his compound amazingly daring and bold. Then I stopped feeling good. Just after 9/11, the New Yorker asked a few famous writers to weigh in on their reaction to the Twin Towers going down. Susan Sontag wrote, in part:

“The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word ‘cowardly’ is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.”

I sent the Sontag piece around to people I know, because I think she had it right.

A few friends parted company with my thinking. Sontag was writing at cross-purposes to the national moment, when reality of how we conduct ourselves in the world was not a palatable point. More than anything, it was the “attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?”—that’s what got Sontag in trouble, and me for attaching myself to it.

It has always driven me nuts, this willful blind spot we’ve got. Back in the ’70s, when I was cutting my political consciousness and the Shah of Iran was biting the dust, the rhetoric of the moment seemed to leave out the fact that the CIA played a pretty significant role in installing him in 1953, for purposes that seem to coalesce, when we do acknowledge them, as being “in our national interest.” Case closed. But as a friend of mine put it then: “Can’t we simply admit that we had some role in this?” In the Shah holding power for two decades, at the expense of a few things like openness and a free press and civil liberties. And in—surprise!—the eventual bubbling up of grotesque-sounding hatred for all things American.

Our around-the-world corporate footholds decide what political role we’ll play hither and yon, and we all know that’s the way it’s been for a good century or so, and if I don’t understand that my sweet little American lifestyle is quite directly related to our internationally propelled GNP, then I’m a fool. I get it: Whether we like it or not, Americans are capitalists. Built in to that is, bottom line, that we’re not interested in democracy around the world, and it’s only silly ignorance of geopolitics to wish that we were. Fine. That’s the American reality. But how about if we tell the truth about it? That’s the beauty of freedom, no? That we can tell the truth and get away with it.

In that same little New Yorker collective on 9/11, John Updike wrote: “Risk is a price of freedom, and walking around Brooklyn Heights that afternoon, as ash drifted in the air and cars were few and open-air lunches continued as usual on Montague Street, renewed the impression that, with all its failings, this is a country worth fighting for. Freedom, reflected in the street’s diversity and daily ease, felt palpable. It is mankind’s elixir, even if a few turn it to poison.”

Freedom. We’re all able to come up with our own definition. I get that, too. U.S.A.!