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The (sometimes) Beautiful American

 Americans see themselves as hard-working, honest people, dedicated to family and community, and they're right. As a nation, Americans are religious, generous, and tolerant of others.

But there is a darker side to the American character, as evidenced by the enslavement of Africans and the abuses of American Indians and expropriation of their lands. Since the end of World War II, the US government has systematically used force and coercion overseas to maintain access to energy and raw materials. In doing so, it has supported brutal dictatorships and the harsh treatment of many peoples in countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Nicaragua, Iran, and Iraq. The US has been willing to use its power to insure not only that the oil keeps flowing but also that American and other G-7 companies control production and pipelines. In recent years, the United States has become the primary advocate of economic globalization, a policy that takes advantage of international debt to privatize assets and dismantle local economies, thus impoverishing small farmers and exacerbating world hunger. Yet most Americans know little about the destructive practices carried out in their name.

But there are also examples of positive projections of American power and influence that exemplify a less self-centered and more generous side of America, ranging from flood and earthquake relief efforts to interventions intended to avert genocide and ethnic cleansing. Throughout its history the United States has shown two faces: one that's peaceful, promoting justice and self-determination, and one that's selfish, defining its national interests in ways that promote suffering and brutality abroad.

A culture of grievance

Those who bombed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon committed criminal acts that are condemned by the world. But their apologists say they were motivated in part by US-led sanctions against Iraq that have resulted in the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children. Those who support the sanctions argue that they are necessary because of the potential for further terrorism by Iraq's Saddam Hussein. America's detractors in the Islamic world point to the injustices that resulted from our history of intervention in Middle Eastern countries. This version of history has become part of a Culture of Grievance, which has supplied the energy for movements such as Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

The result has been a feeling not only of domination but of humiliation in many parts of the Islamic world, a feeling anthropologist Anthony A.W. Wallace describes as “stress.” When a society cannot manage stress, when feelings of injustice and oppression lead to desperation, people will create movements to relieve the stress. Wallace designated these as “revitalization movements.”

Sometimes the movement adopts highly ethical strategies that reject injustice, oppression, and violence, as did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi. But unfortunately, cultures that experience difficulty coping with stress often rationalize the use of violence, even genocide or ethnocide, as necessary to create the kind of “better” world they envision. When they take this path, extreme enthusiasm for the imagined outcome and belief in the righteousness of their cause can take them, and others, into great danger. The First Crusade at the end of the eleventh century, for example, resulted in the deaths of an estimated two-thirds of the knights who crossed Anatolia on foot and ended up massacring the non-Christian population of Jerusalem. Such movements often continue to inspire violence and destruction long after their authors are dead and the institutions that carried them forward have been destroyed.

The power of fairness

On at least two occasions the United States managed such movements positively and successfully, in ways that suggest strategies to restore justice to everyone involved. On these occasions, the US turned away from using its economic and military might to achieve dominance and adopted strategies with a win-win agenda.

The first occurred shortly after the American Revolution, when American settlers in Shawnee country in Ohio were engaged in continued armed conflict with the Western Confederacy, a military alliance of Indian nations that included the Delaware, Shawnee, Miami, Potowatomi, and other nations. In 1790, President George Washington, hoping to keep Seneca warriors from joining the Western Confederacy forces, initiated conversations with Cornplanter, a Seneca war chief. Cornplanter explained that the Seneca were deeply distrustful of the Americans, especially New York State, because of shady land deals and the fact that murders of Indians by whites were not prosecuted. In response, Washington secured passage of the 1790 Non-Intercourse Act, in which the United States guaranteed that Indian nations would not be cheated by the states in land transactions.

In 1791, the United States suffered a serious defeat at the hands of Miami war chief Little Turtle. Responding to public dismay at this defeat, President George Washington proposed something never tried with Indians: fair treatment. Under the Fair Treatment Policy, Indians would be offered a fair market price for land and guarantees against being swindled by the states. George Washington and the American government asked the Seneca to act as intermediary with the Western Confederacy in spreading word of this policy. War chief Cornplanter and other Seneca leaders, motivated by a belief in the United States' offer of fair treatment to the Western confederacy, decided to help. At considerable danger to themselves, Seneca delegates carried the offer of fair treatment to the Western Confederacy.

But the promise of a rational end to the violence was short-lived. Great Britain had not yet withdrawn from seven military posts in the Northwest Territories (as promised in the treaty of Paris). British intelligence operatives had old scores to settle and little interest in peace on the frontier, so they worked to frustrate negotiations.

The Western Confederacy, emboldened by success on the battlefield, rejected the offers and replaced Little Turtle, who had argued for peace, with Turkey Foot, who was prepared for war. The United States Army under Mad Anthony Wayne, in its first successful campaign, defeated a Western Confederacy force at the battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. This phase of the war ended with the Treaty of Greenville the following year.

Nevertheless, the Fair Treatment Policy had a powerful effect on the Seneca Nation. Shortly after the battle at Fallen Timbers, the Seneca and other member nations of the Six Nations Confederacy signed a peace treaty at Canandaigua. Conditions of change and a sense of loss of a way of life engulfed the Seneca in the years that followed.

In 1799, Handsome Lake, a prophet, led a revitalization movement that ultimately led the Seneca to agriculture and away from the warpath. The Fair Treatment Policy inspired those who wanted peace. Handsome Lake found a special place for George Washington on the road to heaven, and the Six Nations never went to war with the United States. Some years later, during the War of 1812, the Seneca living in New York fought alongside the Americans against the British invaders.

But again, the peace did not last long. In 1823, the US Supreme Court, unable to find a basis for a claim that the United States owned Piankeshaw land, invented the “political question doctrine.” This doctrine promised that the Court would not interfere in what amounted to a land theft perpetrated by the US government. It was the beginning of a very dark chapter in American history. From that time on, raw exercise of power became the primary theme of US–Indian relations.

The power of rebuilding

A second time the United States took positive steps to defuse a revitalization movement came at the end of World War II, the most destructive event in human history.

Hitler came into power during the years following World War I when Germany, under pressure to pay war reparations, felt oppressed by its enemies and betrayed from within, allegedly by the Jews. The Nazis offered a way of dealing with these stresses.

At the end of World War II, the United States "enjoyed a moment of unprecedented popularity. And, with an unusual generosity of spirit and enlightened self-interest, the US launched the Marshall Plan, which offered grants, not loans, to rebuild the industrial countries whose economic base had been devastated during the war. At about the same time, the US championed the principle of decolonization, under which European nations were encouraged to emancipate their overseas possessions. Much of the leadership displayed during the post-war years consisted of attempts to avoid past mistakes like the war reparations that had played a prominent role in the collapse of German banks at the beginning of the Great Depression. The Allies created international banking and monetary institutions that could intervene to halt devastating economic downturns. They also created the United Nations, an institution dedicated, in principle, to peace.

America, defender of justice?

The modern radical Islamic movement can be traced to the discontent of the 1930s over how the European nations had divided up the Ottoman Empire. But its sense of endangerment first surfaced in the 1950s, when some clerics began to write and preach about the immorality rampant in the West and the corrupting effects of western ways on Islamic lands. The West, with its technology and cultural globalism, promised a material utopia on earth; the clerics, by contrast, preached that virtue and morality and devotion to Allah must come first, not hedonism and crass materialism. Their utopian vision centered on the creation of an Islamic state.

Islamic fundamentalism is hostile to sexual liberation, western forms of entertainment, and women's rights. Islamic fundamentalists blame the West for their problems, including the corrupt and repressive regimes in some Islamic countries, and embrace a long list of grievances, real and perceived, from western support of the state of Israel to American troops based in the Middle East. Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda movement is but one of a number of radical groups dedicated to the violent expulsion of the West from the lands of Islam and the creation of an Islamic state or states.

The massive US retaliation against Afghanistan destroyed bin Laden's base of operation and his network, but it gave permission to other states, including India, Russia, and Israel, to escalate violence against their enemies, now universally dubbed “terrorists.” The destruction of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan does not ultimately address the future of terrorism because it has not addressed the root causes.

Root causes

US intervention in the internal political affairs of countries over the course of recent decades can't be undone with good intentions. But a number of things can be done. We have already seen how policies like the Marshall Plan and the Fair Treatment Policy decreased stress and promoted self-realization in positive ways. These kinds of actions enabled people to sustain or regain their dignity, embrace hope, and make practical improvements in their lives while avoiding undue cultural coercion. The kind of self-sufficiency that can work must be built on peoples' own cultures, religions, and values under a policy that is an honest effort to help.

No country should be left to the kind of hopelessness and chaos that was and is Afghanistan following more than 20 years of war. Left to a state of anarchy, such countries become breeding grounds for corruption and hate and, as we have seen, traffic in social evils from drugs to weapons of mass destruction. The US and other G-7 countries should take steps to help countries like Afghanistan regain self-sufficiency, especially food self-sufficiency, as quickly as possible. But they should do it in a way that preserves the small farmers that comprise most of the population and builds the strength of the local economy rather than creating dependency on outside loans and corporations. International peacekeepers should be deployed to make roads safe and to intervene in drug trafficking. Emergency food relief must be provided until there are signs of local success. This effort should be international in scope and should involve Moslem and other countries in a demonstration of America's desire to work with other peoples. That demonstration is as important as the humanitarian aid.

Next, there needs to be a sustained effort to de-militarize the country and clean up the land mines, without waiting for a gas or oil pipeline as the incentive. That kind of development can wait until Afghanistan has enough political integrity to make its own decisions.

Most important, the United States must lead a worldwide effort to promote justice and fairness, and to discourage oppression and prejudice. The sense of humiliation and oppression that gives rise to regressive revitalization movements should be replaced by humanitarian aid and honest efforts to promote justice and equality. We might think of it as a kind of worldwide Fair Treatment Policy—something that has not been tried energetically since the Marshall Plan. It would involve increased use of international legal standards that could move toward universal human rights for tribal groups, religious and racial minorities, women, and others, and opportunities for all to create economic foundations that meet their needs.

Americans must urge these principles upon our friends as well as our enemies or they will be meaningless. The United States, as a signal of its role as a responsible member of the world community, should sign international treaties such as the Kyoto Accords, the land mines treaty, and the Treaty on the Rights of the Child, and become a champion not only of democracy but also of justice. Fairness is one of the hardest principles to follow, but an honest effort to treat people justly and fairly would go a long way toward regaining the trust of the world community. If the United States can regain its status as defender of the high-minded principles that gave rise to the United Nations, repressive states, symbolized by Afghanistan under the Taliban, will decline in popularity. Then we might find that peace is not so elusive after all.


John C. Mohawk, a Turtle Clan member of the Seneca Nation, is associate professor of American Studies and a co-director of the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is author of Utopian Legacies: A History of Conquest and Oppression in the Western World. Email Signup
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