DionRabouin.com (sort of)

Rashard Mendenhall, Angela Merkel, Osama bin Laden and American exceptionalism

Posted in Opinion by dionrabouin on May 12, 2011

The concept of American exceptionalism is one that I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around for quite some time. For a long time, I never really believed that we Americans were exceptional. It’s something the so-called Right has chided our president about since he began running for president in 2007 and it’s exactly what shapes – for me, at least – the conversation about the death of Osama bin Laden.

I was at a Mexican restaurant in Culver City with a friend and some members of his family, and I was hitting on a cute Mexican waitress in her late 20s with braces when I heard the news. I was trying, with little success, to tell her how pretty I thought she was in Spanish. I’ll never forget that day or that moment, the people I was with or what was happening, just like I’ll never forget where I was on September 11, 2001.

Maybe it’s because I’m not especially fond of New York City, maybe it’s because of my late blooming appreciation for American exceptionalism and America, maybe it’s because I’m just not an emotional guy, but when the towers fell it didn’t hit me. I wasn’t hurt or heartbroken or even particularly saddened. I didn’t feel anger or sorrow or confusion, I just thought, “Wow.” So, it follows that news of Osama bin Laden’s death didn’t fill me with any feelings of great happiness or closure. I just thought, “Wow.”

That said, I can’t understand how our country can revel and celebrate his death. Certainly he was an evil person and he was responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people, but why should death bring happiness in any case? I’ve heard the phrase, “the world is better without him in it,” but how? Is anyone’s day really enriched by the lack of a life force from one evil person? Does your breakfast taste any better than it did the day before? Can you see colors more vividly? Do you appreciate your friends and neighbors more now that the evil of Osama has been vanquished from the planet?

The really interesting thing about American exceptionalism is what a self-fulfilling mockery it’s become. The idea is almost universally reviled among the people for whom it actually applies – thoughtful intellectuals – and embraced almost solely by the people who prove its fallacy – idiotic hypocrites of the highest order, typically Republican politicians and yokels.

At one time we were exceptional. We were exceptionally smart, exceptionally driven, exceptionally empathic and exceptionally welcoming. Now none of those things are true. I’m not even going to bother looking up the statistics that show we’re no longer globally more intelligent or more motivated, partially because I’m a lazy American, and partially because at this point it’s universally accepted fact that we aren’t. But at least we had this American ideal of empathy and acceptance. We were the tossed salad that everyone from every nation wanted to be a part of and could be if they so chose. Once we were that shining city at the top of the hill. But that’s all over now.

As if making entry into this country all but impossible through visas and immigration requirements weren’t enough, we literally constructed a wall between ourselves and our neighbor to the South. And to further make evident our disdain for those born under a different sun, last year we passed a law that would imprison those who had circumvented our vast judicial bureaucracy and then deport them back to where they came from (provided, of course, they aroused suspicion by looking like they were from our neighbor to the South).

At least we had our dignity. We had the idea that among the despots and tyrants and socialists of the world, we were the beacon of justice and good. Despite our bloody and stained past, America stood for liberty and justice for all. (It even says so in the pledge we say to our flag before baseball games.) This image of America has been slowly crumbling for years, but fast forward to May 2. We killed Osama bin Laden. While thousands in our country took to the streets to celebrate an evil war criminal’s death, others around the world looked on in shock. They weren’t in shock that bin Laden was dead, they were in shock that a country that supposes to call itself exceptional was now openly and fantastically celebrating death.

More interesting even than the celebration was the justification of celebration and the quizzical bewilderment those who were celebrating had for those were not. How could you not be happy? How could you not celebrate? A bad man is dead. A man who killed thousands is dead. As if there were some karmic, dodge-ball energy that renewed the lives of those taken once the taker of life had been eradicated. But this isn’t dodge ball. Our friends and loved ones aren’t coming back because Osama’s out of the game. Their souls aren’t at rest now. All we have is another dead human being.

Rashard Mendenhall, a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, posted to Twitter, “What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side…” He then went on to tweet, “We’ll never know what really happened. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style.”

So that no assumptions are made on my part and in the interest of full disclosure, Mendenhall also tweeted these things the night bin Laden was killed:

“I believe in God. I believe we’re ALL his children. And I believe HE is the ONE and ONLY judge.”

“Those who judge others, will also be judged themselves.”

“For those of you who said you want to see Bin Laden burn … I ask how would God feel about your heart?”

“There is not an ignorant bone in my body. I just encourage you to think.”

Apparently those tweets didn’t sit well with a lot of people and two days later Mendenhall lost his sponsorship deal with Champion sports, which satisfied many people. Mendenhall was lambasted and scorned in the media.

On the other side of the world, in Germany, the country’s chancellor Angela Merkel (yes, they have a woman running their country) said the following in a newspaper, “I’m glad that killing bin Laden was successful.” Apparently this didn’t sit well with Merkel’s supporters. She was lambasted and scorned in the media and by other politicians and members of her own party.

“These are revenge fantasies one shouldn’t indulge in. That’s the Middle Ages,” said Siegfried Kauder, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democrats and chairman of the parliament’s legal affairs committee.

Martin Lohmann, in charge of the CDU’s Working Group of Engaged Catholics – a political party in Germany – said killing anyone, even a terrorist, “can never be cause for joy for a Christian.” Which was exactly the point Mendenhall was making.

Certainly, one must concede that it wasn’t the Germans who got hit on 9/11. It wasn’t the Germans who saw their skyscrapers fall, their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and daughters die. It wasn’t the Germans who no longer felt safe to fly or to go to work or out to eat. It wasn’t the Germans who lost their sense of security and their sense of identity when the World Trade Center twin towers fell. But isn’t that what exceptionalism is all about? Isn’t the idea of American exceptionalism that even in the face of a great challenge, of circumstances that we have never seen before, of something so vile words do not suffice to describe it, that even then we remain chained to our ideals of love, freedom, democracy and liberty and justice for all?

Does the doctrine of American exceptionalism not state that even when hit with unconscionable force, we will not stray from our values and our ideals and the things that make us exceptional? That when these things happen we will not abandon what we stand for and resort to the lowest means to ensure retribution. Isn’t the idea that even when faced with grave and stark consequences, that as Americans we will rise above and soldier on? This is American exceptionalism and twice now we have been given the opportunity and twice we have failed and failed miserably.

We failed when we tore apart our constitution and began torturing those we believed had information that would lead us to our attacker. We failed when we began warrantlessly wiretapping our own citizens for fear that they too might be with the enemy. And now the argument has become about whether or not those means helped us get to the ultimate goal of killing the man responsible. In a society where we, as Americans, are exceptional there is so much wrong with that sentence. The argument about torture or “enhanced interrogation” isn’t about whether or not it’s effective. Torture isn’t a question of efficacy. We decided a long time ago that no matter what circumstances faced us, we would not torture our enemies (or those we perceived as enemies) because effective or not, it was wrong. It’s inhumane and we were above it because we were Americans, damn it.

This was what made us exceptional. This was the idea behind American exceptionalism. And now a man is dead and celebration is somehow not only acceptable, but obligatory?

The problem is that these days American exceptionalism doesn’t mean actually being exceptional. It means being hubristic and jingoistic and exhaustively convinced of moral and spiritual superiority despite mounting evidence to the contrary. American exceptionalism, while once a monument of national pride, is now a farce.

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