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May 7, 2004

the proximity of evil

Iím still at Wye River, at the end of two long but productive and interesting days discussing education and democracy. Itís a beautiful place. There must be four or five square miles of property, flat farmland surrounded by placid estuaries that drift imperceptibly toward the Chesapeake and buzz with insect life. Long paved avenues, lined by evenly spaced maples, connect the various buildings; in between are pastures with grazing cows, patches of pine woods, and open meadowland. During the break I saw deer, vultures, and schools of small fish. Itís very quiet here, and thereís been little time for following the news. Itís easy to make the evil world seem far away. Yet on the Web I see pictures of a smiling, wholesome, young American woman who has been credibly charged with torture in Iraq, and I reflect that the land that looks so lush and peaceful around me must have been worked by generations of slaves, brutalized by whips, guns, and rape, and I keep thinking that we need to face our own national character squarely. We do have a far better political system and a healthier culture than many countriesí, but we also have a terrible tendency to sentimentalize ourselves. We like to think weíre all Jessica Lynch, the spunky survivor. But some of the alleged American torturers look just like her.

Some Americans think that our national record is basically one of sacrifice and service. We lost thousands of young men in two World Wars, saving our allies from tyranny. Thanks to us, there is democracy and prosperity in Japan and Europe (both east and west of the old Iron Curtain). We fought in Korea and Vietnam with good intentions, to say the least. Unfortunately, foreigners are often ungrateful for our aid and adviceóperhaps jealous or resentful, or perhaps just so different from us that they canít appreciate our help. This is what one group of Americans thinks, while another argues that our record is basically blood-soaked and imperialistic. We vaporized Nagasaki to intimidate the Soviets and to gain control over Asia; we created tyrannies in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Zaire, Chile, and elsewhere; and we support current dictators for financial gain. Which version of recent history you adopt will deeply shape your view of any contemporary American intervention overseas. My own position would fall somewhere between these two caricatures, but right now Iím very conscious of our faults. Americans were victims on 9/11, but that doesnít mean that we are a nation of innocents. Democracy and service may be American traditions, but so is brutality. If we're going to try to improve other people's countries, we'd better remember our own capacity for evil.

May 7, 2004 10:50 PM | category: Iraq and democratic theory | Comments


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