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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.

(Republished from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History • Tags: Amerindians 
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  1. KA says:

    Dulles’s CIA engaged in beastly brutalities against resistors both at home and abroad.
    Americanswould shrug it off as if it were given a,at the same time kind of rare lapses .

    CIA was revealing the abuse of psychiatry by KGB when CIA itself was conducting mind control research in NY ,Montreal and California !
    CIA didn’t flinch from killing innonects in Iran,Cuba,Guatamalan,Congo and in S France to enjoy desirable political outcome . It killed 2 Kennedy and tied to kill de Gaulle . It has caused enormous damages against the democratic movements in Syria,Iraq, and Spain .
    Only God knows what bargiabs CIA established with Pakistani dictator in 1980 .

    But these activities were not debates about some abstract ideas . They took the dreams away from millions of people . It destroyed societies and homes of innocents .
    Does it really matter if someone dies from a bullet or from beheading? Does it matter whether democracy or Koran or OT were used to justify killings ?

  2. Jim says:

    American whites are no more prone to violence either within their own society or against other societies than are European whites. Differences in homicide rates between the US and Western European countries simply reflect the very high homicide rates of American blacks and to a lesser extent American Hispanics.

    There are substantial racial differences in the level of criminal violence in societies accross the world with East Asians having generally very low rates and blacks tending to have very high rates.

    Violence against other societies or outgroups seems to be a very different phenomenon from violence within a group or society. For example the Japanese have very low rates of internal criminal violence in their own society but commited massive violence against other peoples in past wars.

    As for DNA the most interesting genetic features at present in relation to violence are the low repeat alleles of the MAOA gene. The 2R allele seems particularly important in this regard. This allele is almost completley absent in East Asians, occurs in about .1-.2% of American white males and in about 5% of American black males.

  3. I’m not sure any of those sins characterize American society as uniquely evil- and I don’t just mean comparison with Indians. Rather I mean comparison with the Europeans who typically present this argument that the US is historically and intrinsically more violent than they.

    I can’t see anything in 17th century America that compares as worse than Europe of the same period. Nor is it trivial to point out that the “Americans” of that time were of course Englishmen.

    The Washington case might well be regarded as returning the Iroquois their own favours, but you conceded that already. More interesting is that this mode of frontier warfare had been adapted and encouraged by both New France and Britain before 1775.

    The American frontier wars with the Indians were perhaps unique in overall duration and in the power imbalance between the US and the Indians, even taking all the latter en masse, but the cruelty involved had plenty of analogies in other period societies. The main difference is that to some degree these others were facing stronger and more organized enemies so their cruelties looked more like war by Queensberry rules on the surface. Russian conquest of the Caucasus and Central Asia was an epic of cruelty as good as any.

    Neither the British nor the French nor the Germans nor, certainly, the Russians can have any valid comments criticizing US imperialism for its cruelty.

    All of which may stand as condemnation of the entire West, save that these behaviours are actually pretty universal human norms for any people numerous and strong enough to pursue them. But it certainly does mean that other Western societies cannot characterize the American one as uniquely violent overall. Arguably a little too committed to interpersonal violence, but even that difference is relatively recent.

  4. Rehmat says:

    Historically it were the Americans who introduced ‘sucide culture’ in the Muslim world. It was US Commodore Edward Preble, commanding officer of the Third Mediterranean Squaron, who sent a booby-trapped USS Intrepid into bay at Tripole on September 4, 1804. Lt. Richard Sommers along with other Navy crew volunteered to carry-on that suicidal mission for their country and religion. The 1000-pound gunpowdwer and 150 shell packed vessel failed to do much damage to Ottoman ships – but all the American suicide-bombers were killed in the operation. However, Preble became a hero. A British Navy commander called the failed mission: “A few brave men have been sacrificed, but they could not fallen in a better cause”. Pope Pius VII commented on the suicide mission: “The American commander, with a small force and in a short space of time, has done more for the cause of Christianity than the most powerful nations of Christiandom have done for ages.”

    • Replies: @random observer
  5. Bliss says:

    Soldiers collected penises of the men, sliced off the breasts of the women. One soldier even wore a breast as a cap.

    Ah, the good old days conservatives fondly yearn for…

    • Replies: @Quartermaster
  6. @Rehmat

    1. War going on between the US and Tripoli, an actual state with military and naval forces engaged in war and piracy against US and other vessels in the region.

    2. Military target, certainly by the standards of the time and even today- warships and Tripolitan merchant ships in harbour. As opposed to, say, civilian buildings or market squares just filling up with merchants for the day’s trading.

    3. naval personnel riding a naval vessel onto the target. Not, say, guys in nondescript robes sauntering into a civilian setting looking like civilians to kill civilians.

    3. Not a suicide mission- fireships and bombships were a very old naval tactic dating back many centuries at this point and in widespread use across civilizational boundaries. Neither in this case nor any others of which I am aware was suicide a planned and integral part of the mission. Fantastic risk-taking to be sure, but nobody went into it with the intent of killing themselves. The usual explanation for that incident, as so many other military situations in history, is that the commander detonated when boarded by superior forces and looked about to be overwhelmed.

    At any rate, if this level of disregard for life in a combat situation is regarded as the same as suicide bombing, then it is as old as warfare.

    When you’ve got an American strapping on an explosive vest and walking into the marketplace or driving a VBIED into some other country’s embassy please draw it to my attention.

    Not that I necessarily object to suicide tactics, of course. 10+ years ago the sci-fi subculture was roiled by an absurd debate about whether it was right for a character on Battlestar Galactica to deploy suicide bombers. I remember being a bit unable to grasp any of the positions being taken. It just seems wasteful to make suicide part of the actual objective of the attack. Maybe dude, if he survives, could get away to plant another IED somewhere else. That would make more sense.

  7. @Bliss

    “Ah, the good old days neoconservatives fondly yearn for…”


  8. J1234 says:

    I’ve read Ira Chernus before, and have enjoyed his articles, despite coming from a different political perspective than he does. His most interesting topic for discussion is the nature of mythology in the modern industrialized world, and it would be difficult to find a more perfect example of this than the author’s statement:

    ….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….

    No context for any of the examples, no meaningful comparison with other cultures, and the borrowing of scientific imagery (DNA) to – paradoxically – create an opinion based on emotion rather than reason. (Chernus claims that intertwining mythology with scientific illusion is crucial in creating myth in post-Enlightenment societies.) Merely listing American atrocities is an attempt to create “proof” for the author’s position, but, in fact, it does nothing of the sort. As Oswald Spengler said, “history is neither right or wrong, but rather, deep or shallow.” This is shallow history at it’s worst.

  9. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Yet more asinine drivel from Engelhardt.

    He actually believes that bad things happen because the Demonic White Man Whose Totally Unique Evils Are Woven Into DNA refuses to see the nonexistent “complex nuances” of the Noble Savage, unlike Him, the Sensitive One.

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