In the muddled midst of last week’s mass killing in San Bernardino, California, a few words skittering across my Twitter feed gave me pause. “On this awful shooting: Is U.S. culture evil? Enemy of our civilization? Must all Americans apologize? Should we bar U.S. tourists as dangerous?” asked Simon Kuper, a columnist with the Financial Times.
As information about the massacre was dribbling out, Kuper was surely making a larger point, but I got stuck on that word “evil” and thoughts about American culture’s long, passionate relationship with violence. This is well-worn territory, of course, addressed in great depth and with much skill by many thinkers over the years. But whether we’re ruminating on all-American mass killings or slaughter by foreign terrorists, it’s worth recalling that America was incubated in a roiling storm of atrocity and birthed in savage cruelty.
Just two years after the first Thanksgiving, in fact, Pilgrim commander Myles Standish was hacking the head off a Native American chief to be displayed on a pike in front of the fort at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Not so long after, in present day Jersey City, New Jersey, settler soldiers fell upon a group of mostly women and children of the Wappinger tribe. Thirty were tortured to death for “public amusement.” About 80 others were decapitated and their heads carried across the river to present-day Manhattan where they were gleefully kicked about the streets of the town.
Fast-forward to 1779 and the father of this country, George Washington, was dispatching troops to devastate Iroquois settlements in New York and Pennsylvania. A couple of infant America’s slain enemies were then skinned and turned into footwear. The better part of a century later, native blood was still being spilled in savage fashion. At Sand Creek, Colorado, U.S. forces massacred hundreds, scalping old women, killing babies, even violating the dead body of a “comely young squaw.” Soldiers collected penises of the men, sliced off the breasts of the women. One soldier even wore a breast as a cap.
This is not to say that Native Americans didn’t commit horrendous atrocities, only that violence is intricately woven into America’s DNA, a winding helix of cruelty that then threaded its way through the Philippines and the Caribbean, through Hiroshima, No Gun Ri, and My Lai, through Haditha and Kunduz. Where this country went, so went implements of bodily destruction, weaponry designed to kill or maim: rifles and landmines, bombs and missiles. So, too, went cruelty and massacre, rape and torture, horrendous acts as bad as or worse than any imaginable depredations by an “evil” terror group. At home, of course, Americans slaughter each other with frightening regularity in schools and movie theaters and, most recently, a center that offers services to people with developmental disabilities. And this is to say nothing of the other lethal and non-lethal horrors we Americans frequently visit upon each other.
Are these acts evil? Are they committed by evil-doers? What about our Islamic State (IS) enemies who are still decapitating people as did our American forebears (and as our current anti-IS Saudi allies do once every few days)? Is their brand of violence especially atrocious? Have they renounced their humanity by committing such depraved acts? Did we? Is IS so evil that we should fight them for that reason alone?
This is precisely the harsh terrain that TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus navigates today. Analyzing their fundamentalism and ours, he delves into essential questions about good and evil, humanity and its loss.
We live in an age in which America has called out an Axis of Evil, killed the most wanted evildoer on the planet, and relentlessly hunted his minions and spiritual descendants. And what do we have to show for it? Before the next American war and the next American massacre — you can surely count on both — join Chernus in considering the startling costs of America’s seemingly endless (and fruitless) battle with evil.