Sunday, March 23, 2008

Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens

Andrew Sullivan has done something that perhaps the rest of us should have done. He looked up the full text of one of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's sermons. (And posted it to his blog.) In this case, it's the one where he talks about the atomic bombings of Japan and their (long term) connection to the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Unlike what we've seen and heard in the press, it's not so much that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki "justified" the destruction of the World Trade Center. It's that military action against civilian targets begets hatred, which, in turn, begets the desire for revenge, which, like it or not, is liable to lead to attacks against civilians.

"America's chickens are coming home, to roost. Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred, and terrorism begets terrorism."

I don't think that it can be argued that the Second World War was violent. It was, after all, one of the major wars of modern human history. Last I looked, that was kind of the definition of violent. And I'm pretty sure that there was hatred. Even if you cast the internment camps as a reasonable precaution (which I don't) I was watching a history of superhero comic books in the United States a couple of weeks ago, and I can still hear Keith David's rich voice intoning: "There were two types of depictions of the Japanese in comic books during World War Two. Buck-toothed, and fanged." (At issue here were the differences between the depictions of the Germans and the Japanese in the hyper-patriotic {jingoistic?} comic books of the time.)

I've always wrestled with the idea that the atomic bombings constituted a form of terrorism against the Japanese. On the one hand, it was pretty clear that the point that the United States was making was "surrender, or we'll keep doing this." The point behind dropping two bombs was, after all, to let the Japanese know that we had more than one, so they'd be under the impression that we could keep it up. I read that President Harry Truman's stated goal in ordering the bombings was to resolve the war in the Pacific quickly by inflicting destruction, and instilling the fear of further destruction, sufficient to cause the Japanese to surrender. While this strikes me as a smart tactic, especially in the face of what would have gone down had the United States actually had to resort to Operation Downfall, which would certain have included the production and use of more atomic weapons, it did smack of making war on civilians in order to lever the Japanese government into surrender. (But then again, so do the Ten Plagues of Egypt, none of which targeted Pharaoh himself. The Tenth killed his firstborn son, who, it seems, was not involved in any of the decision-making processes that would have freed the Israelites. And that was a close as it gets.)

Of course, a chicken and egg argument can be triggered here, with debates over who really started the chain of violence. After all, who says that the atomic bombings were not Japan's chickens, roosting in a particularly spectacular fashion?

But for me, the chickens coming home to roost argument simply casts the al-Quaeda hijackers as agents of a karmic cycle that exists outside of their own desires. I've always been leery of attempts to cast the United States as the dominant moral authority on Earth (take the argument against torture that says that if we do it, others will too), as it implies that we in America are the only people on the planet capable of making independent moral choices. Everyone else is reduced to unthinking, knee-jerk reactioneering to whatever the United States has done this week. If we take the high ground, the world becomes a better place - if we take the low road, the entire planet sinks into a morass. Does no-one think for themselves?

So maybe the problem with Reverend Wright's sermons isn't that they're anti-American. It's that they look down on everyone else.

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