They are the extremists. If you need proof, look no further than the Afghan capital, Kabul, where the latest wave of suicide bombings has proven devastating. Recently, for instance, a fanatic set off his explosives among a group of citizens lining up outside a government office to register to vote in upcoming elections. At least 57 people died, including 22 women and eight children. ISIS’s branch in Afghanistan proudly took responsibility for that callous act — but one not perhaps quite as callous as the ISIS suicide bomber who, in August 2016, took out a Kurdish wedding in Turkey, missing the bride and groom but killing at least 54 people and wounding another 66. Twenty-two of the dead or injured were children and the bomber may even have been a child himself.
Such acts are extreme, which by definition makes the people who commit them extremists. The same is true of those like the “caliph” of the now-decimated Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who order, encourage, or provide the ideological framework for such acts — a judgment few in this country (or most other places on the planet) would be likely to dispute. In this century, from Kabul to Baghdad, Paris to San Bernardino, such extreme acts of indiscriminate civilian slaughter have only multiplied. Though relatively commonplace, each time such a slaughter occurs, it remains an event of horror and is treated as such in the media. If committed by Islamists against Americans or Europeans, suicide attacks of this sort are given 24/7 coverage here, often for days at a time.
And keep in mind that such extreme acts aren’t just restricted to terror groups, their lone wolf followers, or even white nationalists and other crazed men in this country, armed to the teeth, who, in schools, workplaces, restaurants, and elsewhere, regularly wipe out groups of innocents. Take the recent charges that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad used outlawed chemical weapons in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus, that country’s capital, killing families and causing havoc. Whether that specific act proves to have been as advertised or not, there can be no question that the Assad regime has regularly slaughtered its own citizens with chemical weapons, barrel bombs, artillery barrages, and (sometimes Russian) air strikes, destroying neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, markets, you name it. All of this adds up to a set of extreme acts of the grimmest kind. And such acts could be multiplied across significant parts of the planet, ranging from the Myanmar military’s brutal ethnic-cleansing campaign against that country’s Rohingya minority to acts of state horror in places like South Sudan and the Congo. In this sense, our world certainly doesn’t lack either extreme thinking or the acts that go with it.
We here in the United States are, of course, eternally shocked by their extremism, their willingness to kill the innocent without compunction, particularly in the case of Islamist groups, from the 9/11 attacks to ISIS’s more recent slaughters.
However, one thing is, almost by definition, obvious. We are not a nation of extreme acts or extreme killers. Quite the opposite. Yes, we make mistakes. Yes, we sometimes kill. Yes, we sometimes even kill the innocent, however mistakenly. Yes, we are also exceptional, indispensable, and great (again), as so many politicians and presidents have been telling us for so many years now. And yes, you might even say that in one area we are extreme — in the value we put on American lives, especially military ones. The only thing this country and its leaders are not is extremist in the sense of an al-Qaeda or an ISIS, an Assad regime or a South Sudanese one. That goes without saying, which is why no one here ever thinks to say it.
Brides and Grooms in an Extreme World
Still, just for a moment, as a thought experiment, set aside that self-evident body of knowledge and briefly try to imagine our own particular, indispensable, exceptional version of extremity; that is, try to imagine ourselves as an extreme nation or even, to put it as extremely as possible, the ISIS of superpowers.
This subject came to my mind recently thanks to a story I noticed about another extreme wedding slaughter — this one not by ISIS but thanks to a Saudi “double-tap” airstrike on a wedding in Yemen, first on the groom’s party, then on the bride’s. The bride and possibly the groom died along with 31 other wedding goers (including children). And keep in mind that this wasn’t the first or most devastating Saudi attack on a wedding in the course of its brutal air war in Yemen since 2015.
To take out a wedding, even in wartime, is — I think you could find general agreement on this — an extreme act. Two weddings? More so. And nowhere near the war’s battle lines? More so yet. Of course, given the nature of the Saudi regime, it could easily be counted as another of the extreme governments on this planet. But remember one thing when it comes to that recent wedding slaughter, another country has backed the Saudi royals to the hilt in their war in Yemen: the United States. Washington has supported the Saudi war effort in just about every way imaginable — from refueling their planes in mid-air to providing targeting intelligence to selling them billions of dollars of weaponry and munitions of every sort (including cluster bombs) used in that war. This was true in the Obama years and is, if anything, doubly so at a moment when President Trump has put so much energy and attention into plying the Saudis with arms. So tell me, given that the staggering suffering of civilians in Yemen is common knowledge, shouldn’t our support for the Saudi air war be considered an extreme policy?
Keep in mind as well that, between December 29, 2001, when U.S. B-52 and B-1B bombers killed more than 100 revelers at a wedding in a village in eastern Afghanistan, and December 2013 when a CIA drone took out a… yep… Yemeni wedding party, U.S. air power wiped out all or parts of at least eight weddings, including brides, grooms, and even musicians, killing and wounding hundreds of participants in three countries (and only apologizing in a single case). The troops of present Secretary of Defense James Mattis, when he was commanding the 1st Marine Division in Iraq in 2004, were responsible for one of those slaughters. It took place in Western Iraq and was the incident in which those musicians died, as reportedly did 14 children. When asked about it at the time, Mattis responded: “How many people go to the middle of the desert… to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?” And that response was no more callous or extreme than the New York Daily News’s front-page headline, so many years later, for that U.S. drone strike in Yemen: “Bride and Boom!”
Imagine, for a moment, that a wedding party in some rural part of the United States had been wiped out by a foreign air strike and an Iraqi insurgent leader had responded as Mattis did or an Iraqi paper had used some version of the News’s headline. I don’t think it’s hard to conjure up what the reaction might have been here. Add another little fact to this: to the best of my knowledge, TomDispatch was the only media outlet that tried to keep a record of those American wedding slaughters; otherwise they were quickly forgotten in this country. So tell me, doesn’t that have a feeling of extremity and of remarkable callousness to it? Certainly, if those massacres had been the acts of al-Qaeda or ISIS and American brides, grooms, musicians, and children had been among the dead, there’s no doubt what we would be saying about them 24/7.
A New Kind of Death Cult?
Now, for a moment, let’s consider the possible extremism of Washington in a more organized way. Here, then, is my six-category rundown of what I would call American extremity on a global scale:
Garrisoning the globe: The U.S. has an estimated 800 or so military bases or garrisons, ranging from the size of American small towns to tiny outposts, across the planet. They exist almost everywhere — Europe, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America — except in countries that are considered American foes (and given the infamous Guantánamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba, there’s even an exception to that). At the moment, Great Britain and France still have small numbers of bases, largely left over from their imperial pasts; that rising great power rival China officially has one global garrison, a naval base in Djibouti in the horn of Africa (near an American base there, one of its growing collection of outposts on that continent), which much worries American war planners, and a naval base, in the process of being built, in Gwadar, Pakistan; that other great power rival, Russia, still has several bases in countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, and a single naval base in Syria (which similarly disturbs American military planners). The United States, as I said, has at least 800 of them, a number that puts in the shade the global garrisons of any other great power in history, and to go with them, more than 450,000 military personnel stationed outside its borders. It shouldn’t be surprising then that, like no other power in history, it has divided the world — every bit of it — as if slicing a pie, into six military commands; that’s six commands for every inch of the globe (and another two for space and cyberspace). Might all of this not be considered just a tad extreme?
Funding the military: The U.S. puts approximately a trillion dollars annually in taxpayer funds into its military, its 17 intelligence agencies, and what’s now called “homeland security.” Its national security budget is larger than those of the next eight countries combined and still rising yearly, though most politicians agree and many regularly insist that the U.S. military has been badly underfunded in these years, left in a state of disrepair, and needs to be “rebuilt.” Now, honestly, don’t you think that qualifies as both exceptional in the most literal sense and kind of extreme?
Fighting wars: The United States has been fighting wars nonstop since its military invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. That’s almost 17 years of invasions, occupations, air campaigns, drone strikes, special operations raids, naval air and missile attacks, and so much else, from the Philippines to Pakistan, Afghanistan to Syria, Libya to Niger. And in none of those places is such war making truly over. It goes without saying that there’s no other country on the planet making war in such a fashion or over anything like such a period of time. Americans were, for instance, deeply disturbed and ready to condemn Russia for sending its troops into neighboring Ukraine and occupying Crimea. That was considered an extreme act worthy of denunciations of the strongest sort. In this country, though, American-style war, despite invasions of countries thousands of miles away and the presidentially directed targeting of individuals across the globe for assassination by drone with next to no regard for national sovereignty is not considered extreme. Most of the time, in fact, it’s seldom thought about at all or even seriously debated. And yet, isn’t fighting unending wars across thousands of miles of the planet for almost 17 years without end, while making the president into a global assassin, just a tad extreme?
Destroying cities: Can there be any question that, in the American mind, the most extreme act of this century was the destruction of those towers in New York City and part of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, with the deaths of almost 3,000 unsuspecting, innocent civilians? That became the definition of an extreme act by a set of extremists. Consider, however, the American response. Across significant parts of the Middle East in the years since, the U.S. has had a major hand in destroying not just tower after tower, but city after city — Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa in Syria, Sirte in Libya. One after another, parts or all of them were turned into literal rubble. A reported 20,000 munitions were dropped on Raqqa, the “capital” of the brief Islamic State, by U.S. and allied air power, leaving at least 1,400 civilians dead, and barely a building untouched or even standing (with the Trump administration intent on not providing funds for any kind of reconstruction). In these years, in response to the destruction in whole or part of a handful of buildings, the U.S. has destroyed (often with a helping hand from the Islamic State) whole cities, while filling the equivalent of tower after tower with dead and wounded civilians. Is there nothing extreme about that?
Displacing people: In the course of its wars, the U.S. has helped displace a record number of human beings since the last days of World War II. In Iraq alone, from the years of conflict that Washington set off with its invasion and occupation of 2003, vast numbers of people have been displaced, including in the ISIS era, 1.3 million children. In response to that reality, in “the homeland,” the man who became president in 2017 and the officials he appointed went to work to transform the very refugees we had such a hand in creating into terrifying bogeymen, potentially the most dangerous and extreme people on the planet, and then turned to the task of ensuring that none of them would ever arrive in this country. Doesn’t that seem like an extreme set of acts and responses?
Arming the planet (and its own citizens as well): In these years, as with defense spending, so with the selling of weaponry of almost every imaginable sort to other countries. U.S. weapons makers, aided and abetted by the government, have outpaced all possible competitors in global arms sales. In 2016, for instance, the U.S. took 58% of those sales, while between 2002-2016, Washington transferred weaponry to 167 countries, or more than 85% of the nations on the planet. Many of those arms, including cluster bombs, missiles, advanced jet planes, tanks, and munitions of almost every sort, went into planetary hot spots, especially the Middle East. At the same time, the citizens of the U.S. themselves have more arms per capita (often of a particularly lethal military sort) than the citizens of any other country on Earth. And appropriately enough under the circumstances, they commit more mass killings. When it comes to weaponry, then, wouldn’t you call that extreme on both a global and a domestic scale?
And that’s only to begin to plunge into the topic of American extremity. After all, we now have a president whose administration considers it perfectly normal, in fact a form of “deterrence policy,” to separate parents from even tiny children crossing our southern border or to cut food aid and raise the rent on poor Americans. We’re talking about a president with a cult-like following whose government is ideologically committed to wiping out environmental protections of every sort and pushing the further fossil fuelization of the country and the planet, even if it means the long-term destruction of the very environment that has nurtured humanity these last thousands of years.
Think of this perhaps as a new kind of death cult, which means that Donald Trump might be considered the superpower version of an Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. As with all such things, this particular cult did not come from nowhere, but from a land of growing extremity, a country that now, it seems, may be willing to preside over not just cities in ruin but a planet in ruin, too. Doesn’t that seem just a little extreme to you?
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World. His next book, A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books), will be published later this month.