Confronting Ourselves


excerpted from the book

Citizens of the Empire

The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity

by Robert Jensen

City Lights Books, 2004, paper


... without empathy, without the ability to move outside our own experience, there is no hope of changing the world. Andrea Dworkin, one of the most important feminist thinkers of our time, has written, "The victims of any systematized brutality are discounted because others cannot bear to see, identify, or articulate the pain." It is long past the time for all of us to start to see, to identify; to articulate the pain of systematized brutality. It is time to recognize that much of that pain is the result of a system designed to ensure our pleasures.

Cluster bombs

It is my experience that people can feel empathy for the pain of others in certain situations, such as the pain of a loved one or friend, or in certain cases the suffering of people far away who are hit by a natural disaster or cruel twist of fate. But the key in Dworkin's insight is "systematized brutality?' Empathy seems less forthcoming for those victims, especially when it is one's own government or society or culture that is systematizing the brutality. When the pain is caused by our government, we are channeled away from that empathy. The way we are educated and entertained keeps us from knowing about or understanding the pain of others in other parts of the world, and from understanding how our pleasure is connected to the pain of others. It is a combined intellectual, emotional, and moral failure-a failure to know, to feel, and to act.

Let's take a simple example, the CBU-87, also known as the cluster bomb, which is a part of the U.S. arsenal (along with other cluster munitions that are delivered by surface rocket or artillery).

It is a bomb that U.S. pilots drop from U.S. planes paid for by U.S. tax dollars. Each cluster bomb contains 202 individual submunitions, called bomblets (BLU-97/B). The CBU-87s are formally known as Combined Effects Munitions (CEM) because each bomblet has an antitank and antipersonnel effect, as well as an incendiary capability. The bomblets from each CBU-87 are typically distributed over an area roughly 100 by 50 meters, though the exact landing area of the bomblets is difficult to control.

As the soda can-size bomblets fall, a spring pushes out a nylon "parachute" (called the decelerator), which stabilizes and arms the bomblet. The BLU-97 is packed in a steel case with an incendiary zirconium ring. The case is made of scored steel designed to break into approximately 300 preformed thirty-grain fragments upon detonation of the internal explosive. The fragments then travel at extremely high speeds in all directions. This is the primary antipersonnel effect of the weapon. Antipersonnel means that the steel shards will shred anyone in the vicinity.

The primary anti-armor effect comes from a molten copper slug. If the bomblet has been properly oriented, the downward-firing charge travels at 2,570 feet per second and is able to penetrate most armored vehicles. The zirconium ring spreads small incendiary fragments. The charge has the ability to penetrate 5 inches of armor on contact. The tiny steel case fragments are also powerful enough to damage light armor and trucks at 50 feet, and to cause human injury at 500 feet. The incendiary ring can start fires in any combustible environment.

Human Rights Watch, the source for this description, is one of many groups that has called for a global moratorium on use of cluster bombs because they cause unacceptable civilian casualties. Those casualties come partly in combat, because the munitions have a wide dispersal pattern and cannot be targeted precisely, making them especially dangerous when used near civilian areas. Even more deadly is the way in which cluster bombs don't work. The official initial failure-to-explode rate for the bomblets is 5 to 7 percent, though some de-mining workers estimate that up to 20 percent do not explode. That means in each cluster bomb from ten to forty of the bomblets fail to explode on contact as intended, becoming land mines that can be set off by a simple touch. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 1,600 Kuwaiti and Iraqi civilians have been killed, and another 2,500 injured, by the estimated 1.2 million cluster bomb duds left following the 1991 Persian Gulf War. For decades after the Vietnam War, reports came in of children and farmers setting off bomblets. The weapons were also used in the NATO attack on Serbia and the U.S. attack on Afghanistan.

Both British and U.S. forces in the Iraq War used cluster munitions, including versions fired from artillery. British military officials say their cluster munitions use a different fuse system that cuts the dud rate to 2 percent. U.S. officials said that retrofitting the U.S. arsenal in this fashion would be too expensive. The army officer in charge of the program acknowledged there have been major improvements, but "it's just that they're not fielded yet?' As a result, the cluster dud rate in the 2003 Iraq War was about the same as in the 1991 Gulf War. After the war, a newspaper reported that U.S. military officials were rethinking the widespread use of cluster munitions -not on humanitarian grounds but because the duds "significantly impeded American troops' battlefield maneuverability' rendering "significant swaths of battlefield off limits to advancing U.S. troops?'

... during the 2003 war, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (acknowledged that "it's unfortunate that we had to make those ) choices about hitting targets in civilian areas, but as we've said before as well, war is not a tidy affair, it's a very ugly affair."

One of the central concepts in international law, in the law of warfare, is that civilians shall not be targeted. That means not only a prohibition against intentionally killing civilians, but as the Geneva Conventions state, against attacks that are indiscriminate. Article 51's description of indiscriminate attacks is: "those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol; and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction." That's a cluster bomb.

Cluster bombs are made by Alliant Techsystems of Minnesota. I'm from that part of the country. There's a term widely used there about the friendliness of Minnesotans, who are legendary for avoiding conflict (at least open conflict)

"Minnesota nice?' Alliant employs 11,200 people, most of whom are no doubt nice. Many of the military personnel who drop cluster bombs and defend the use of cluster bombs are no doubt nice. Many of the U.S. citizens who don't seem to mind that we drop cluster bombs are no doubt nice. Minnesota nice. United States nice.

Most people in the United States take for granted a standard of living that the vast majority of the world can barely imagine and can never expect to enjoy. Many of us can recite the figure that the United States is about 5 percent of the world's population yet we consume about 25 percent of the world's oil and 30 percent of the gross world product. How is that related to foreign policy and military intervention?

The clearest statement of the connection came in February 1948 in a classified U.S. State Department document, known as Policy Planning Staff memorandum 23. The policy paper had been drafted by George Kennan, the first director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff. In the section on Asia, Kennan wrote:

Furthermore, we have 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of the population. This disparity is particularly great between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.

Kennan argued for restraint in U.S. policy in the Far East, acknowledging the limits on the U.S. ability to dictate policy to nations in the region, particularly China and India. He went on to say:

We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers' keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and for the Far East-unreal objectives, such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

Kennan advocated ditching the idealistic slogans about freedom, but it turned out those slogans were too effective for U.S. policymakers to give up. Still, Kennan's statement embodies the philosophy of a small elite sector of the United States whose goal is subordinating the interests of other peoples to the profit needs of American corporations. Most of us are not part of that sector. But although this nation's foreign policy and wars are designed to benefit an extremely small sector of the country, the general affluence of the culture is an important part of how those elites win support for those policies and wars. That is, people in working- and middle-class America who live comfortably have come to believe that their continued comfort depends on U.S. dominance around the world. Is that why so many working- and middle-class Americans are generally willing to support policies and wars of dominance, to protect that comfort? If leaders can propose a relatively cost-free way (that is, few American casualties and limited expenditures) to continue that dominance and ensure continued material comfort, will most Americans continue to endorse it, especially when the deeply ingrained mythology about how the United States fights for freedom can be tapped?

If that is true, then in addition to being able to face the pain of the world, we also need to reduce our own pleasures. The degree to which people believe they must keep consuming at this level to be happy will tend to distort the ability to see the degree to which our pleasures require others' pain. I believe the level of consumption in this country can only be maintained if people in other places (and increasingly a growing number of people here at home) suffer deprivation. By any standard, the level of poverty in the world is a moral outrage; more than a fifth of the world's people still live in abject poverty (under $1 a day), and about half live below the barely more generous standard of $2 a day; at least half the world cannot meet basic expenditures for food, clothing, shelter, health, and education. More than 840 million people were undernourished in 1999-2001, with world hunger on the rise in the last half of the 1990s. The sources of poverty, like the causes of most social/political phenomena, are complex. But at the heart of worldwide inequality today is the continued economic domination of the underdeveloped world by the developed world with U.S. trade, foreign, and military policy square at the center of that system of domination. We are helping keep the poor of the world poor.

People with power are perfectly happy for the population to be cynical, because that tends to paralyze people and leads to passivity. Those same powerful people also do their best to derail critique-the process of working to understand the nature of things around us and offering judgments about them because that tends to energize people and leads to resistance.

The world we live in is reactionary because it is trying to squeeze ... important human dimensions out of us in the political sphere and constrict the range of discussion so much that politics does seem to many to be useless. To resist that one must be radical, be political, and be radical in public politically.

Cynicism might be an appropriate reaction to injustice that can't be changed. Hope is an appropriate response to a task that, while difficult, is imaginable. And once I could understand the structural forces that produced injustice, I could imagine what a world without those forces- and hence without the injustice-might look like. And I could imagine what activities and actions and ideas it would take to get us there. And I could look around, and look back into history, and realize that lots of people have understood this and that I hadn't stumbled onto a new idea.

In other words, I finally figured out that I should get to work.

So hope emerged out of cynicism. I began to see the power of radical analysis and the importance of collective action. I began to take the long view, to see that we face a struggle, but that it is not a pointless struggle. The exact choices we should make as we struggle are not always clear, but the framework for making choices is there.

Basically, there are two choices ... articulated by Noam Chomsky: We can either predict the worst that no change is possible -and not act, in which case we guarantee there will be no change. Or we can understand that change always is possible, even in the face of great odds, and act on that assumption, which creates the possibility of progress.

I realize that this struggle doesn't seem appealing to many. I have heard lots of people say that they can't cope with the complexity of politics. It seems too much, too big, too confusing. All they can handle, they say, is to focus on their individual lives and do the best to fix their lives. I have heard many parents say that their contribution to a better world is to raise their children with progressive values. That's all well and good; better to have children with progressive rather than reactionary role models. But I think these folks misunderstand not just their moral obligation but the nature of progress, individual and collective. We don't fix ourselves in isolation. We don't build decent lives by cutting ourselves off from problems just because they are complex. There are no private solutions to public problems. Yes, there are times when difficult situations force us to turn inward and deal with pressing problems in our lives. But I am arguing against the permanent division of our lives into these artificial categories. Our personal problems are never wholly individual, and hence they can't be fixed in individual ways. Part of the solution is always to be found in the bigger struggle, in which we all have a part.

Real hope-the belief in the authentic underpinnings of hope-is radical. A belief that people are not evil and stupid, not consigned merely to live out predetermined roles in illegitimate structures of authority, is radical. The willingness to act publicly on that hope and that belief is radical.

We all live in a society that would prefer that we not be radical, that we not understand any of this. We live in a society that prefers productive but passive people. I work at a university that is part of that society, and has many of the same problems. Many classes at the university are either explicitly or implicitly designed to convince students that everything I have argued here is fundamentally crazy. The same goes for much of what comes to us through the commercial mass media.

In many ways, I am a typical white middle-class American. I have never lived outside the United States. I have traveled little outside North America. I speak only English. For personal and political reasons I expect to live out my life here. This country is, and feels like, my home. And yet I have never felt more alien in the United States. Since childhood I have always felt a bit out of step with the dominant culture of the United States, and that feeling has grown stronger as I have grown older. After 9/11-as my home has become a homeland-the alienation has peaked.

I have never been more distant from my peers. I have never felt so fundamentally alone so often. The community in which I feel comfortable has shrunk dramatically. When in "normal" settings, such as at work, I usually feel as if I live in some parallel universe. I have been less interested in attending routine social gatherings outside of my political cohort. I find myself more frequently communicating over e-mail with like-minded people in other cities rather than chatting with colleagues in the hallway. Instead of looking for ways to expand my social circle, I have let it contract.

There is no reason to pretend I don't feel this way, and from conversations with others around the country I know that many others feel similarly. The United States has taken an ugly turn since 9/11. Decent people should feel alienated; we have a right to feel that way. And at the same time-if we truly believe in creating an alternative to this ugly world-we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of alienation, nor can we wallow in our sense of being different. We must not separate ourselves from the larger world that creates this sense of being alone. If we do that-if those who want to resist the American empire cut ourselves off from the larger society-it will be the ultimate exercise of privilege.

A serious movement must start with this reality: We citizens of the United States are citizens of the empire. One of the people most happy about that fact, Atlantic Monthly correspondent Robert Kaplan, has suggested we move beyond the obvious,, that the United States now possesses a global empire"- and start figuring out how to run it. While many celebrate the empire, the reflections of one of Britain's most eminent historians, Eric Hobsbawm, are relevant here:

The present world situation is unprecedented. The great global empires of the past-such as the Spanish and notably the British-bear little comparison with what we see today in the United States empire. A key novelty of the U.S. imperial project is that all other empires knew that they were not the only ones, and none aimed at global domination. None believed themselves invulnerable, even if they believed themselves to be central to the world-as China did, or the Roman empire. Regional domination was the maximum danger envisaged until the end of the cold war. A global reach, which became possible after 1492, should not be confused with global domination.

[Tithe U.S., like revolutionary France and revolutionary Russia, is a great power based on a universalist revolution and therefore on the belief that the rest of the world should follow its example, or even that it should help liberate the rest of the world. Few things are more dangerous than empires pursuing their own interest in the belief that they are doing humanity a favour.

U.S. policymakers routinely take exception to that claim. Near the end of the Iraq War, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated flatly: "We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic, we've never been. But imperialism does not require the direct imposition of colonial relations. Again, quoting Hobsbawm: "Of course the Americans theoretically do not aim to occupy the whole world. What they aim to do is to go to war, leave friendly governments behind them and go home again."

It matters little that we do not directly take ownership of territory and install colonial governors as did empires of the past; the modalities of control have changed, but not the goal of control. Although many still recoil at thinking of the United States as an imperial power, the facts are clear. The United States today has:

* global reach, in military, political, economic, and cultural terms;

* a social structure and value system oriented toward the accumulation of power and rationalization of vast disparities in consumption of resources;

* the technological means to subdue other societies to achieve those ends;

* at elite levels, a culture of barbarism in which leaders are willing to act outside of basic moral considerations; and

* a general population that, with the exception of a dissenting minority, either actively endorses or does nothing to stop the imperial project.

The empire works through military and economic power through the use of the national military force to dictate the composition of governments (most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq) and binational or multinational organizations it dominates to dictate the terms of trade and investment (regional trade agreements, the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank).

If one doubts the imperial intentions of the current government, consider this clear statement of the U.S. goal from the 2002 National Security Strategy document: "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States?' To do that, "the United States will require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia, as well as temporary access arrangements for the long-distance deployment of U.S. forces." Once deployed, the United States can accept no constraints on these forces: "We will take the actions necessary to ensure that our efforts to meet our global security commitments and protect Americans are not impaired by the potential for investigations, inquiry, or prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose jurisdiction does not extend to Americans and which we do not accept."

This plan requires what the military calls "full spectrum dominance' defined as "the ability of U.S. forces, operating unilaterally or in combination with multinational and interagency partners, to defeat any adversary and control any situation across the full range of military operations." In the military's terms, full spectrum dominance allows the United States to be "persuasive in peace' "decisive in war' and "preeminent in any form of conflict. In other words, the goal is to be able to run the world, without significant challenge.

The consequences of this imperial project have been grim for many around the world-those who have been the targets of U.S. military power; those who have lived under repressive regimes backed by the United States; and those who toil in economies that are increasingly subordinated to the United States and multinational corporations. Scratch the surface of U.S. rhetoric about its quest to bring freedom and democracy to the world, and one finds the suffering of the people who must live with the reality of U.S. foreign policy. Like most empires, the United States claims to be pursuing noble goals abroad: peace, freedom, democracy. But U.S. actions show the real goal is to consolidate power and control resources. This is hardly surprising: Empires are inherently immoral, never designed to benefit the people in targeted countries (outside of an elite who cooperate with the imperial power to their own advantage). The material gains from the empire are concentrated at the top of the imperial country, with some benefits to a larger segment of society.

This message of resistance to the empire is not an easy sell in the United States these days.

To one segment of the American public, these claims appear lunatic. Deeply invested in the political mythology ... many people are reveling in triumphalism: "Yes, the United States has emerged as an empire, and it's a good thing, too?' From this view, the United States is the only force in the world capable of imposing order. Hence, imperialism is not only acceptable but morally required.

That imperial project is also widely considered to be the best way to make Americans more secure. Rather than examine the reasons the United States is targeted and address those reasons, many people endorse the response of brute force-as much as necessary. And in many circles, there is little interest in questioning the high-energy use, high-consumption lifestyle. As George W. Bush's press secretary put it when was asked in May 2001 whether Americans should "correct our lifestyles" to reduce energy consumption: "That's a big no. The President believes that it's an American way of life, and that it should be the goal of policymakers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one. "

The way out of that alienation is faith that a country protected by its power can relinquish some of that power; that a society insulated by its privilege from many of the consequences of the unjust use of power can renounce that privilege; that a people comfortable in their affluence can collectively work to change the system that makes them comfortable. It is a tall order. It requires j not just a change in policies but in worldview. And, perhaps even

C. Douglas Lummis

... When many people, filled with hope, take part in public action, hope is transformed from near-groundless faith ... to plain common sense.

Before 9/11, many Americans thought they could live in pampered isolation, draining the world's resources without having to be part of, or accountable to, the rest of the world. Many Americans felt beyond the reach of the pain of the rest of the world. After 9/11, such self-indulgence is no longer possible; we now know how vulnerable we all are. If in the past we were unmoved by moral arguments about how our comfort was built on so much suffering around the world, now there is a heightened measure of self-interest to be considered. It is difficult to ignore the fact that U.S. economic, military, and foreign policy must change. Our choices are fairly stark.

Where shall we put our faith? In the reactionary program of the Republican Party and George W. Bush's perverse "with us or with the terrorists" logic? Or in the kinder-and-gentler imperialism of the mainstream Democratic Party and its fake multilateralism? Or shall we put our faith in each other to find a way to stop living on top of the world and start living as part of the world?

Can we face the task of being citizens of the empire? Do we have the courage to stop being Americans and become human beings? Do we care enough about ourselves and the world to struggle to claim our humanity?

The rest of the world is waiting for our answer.

September 11 was a day of sadness, anger, and fear.

Like everyone in the United States and around the world, I shared the deep sadness at the deaths of thousands.

But as I listened to people around me talk, I realized the anger and fear I felt were very different, for my primary anger is directed at the leaders of this country and my fear is not only for the safety of Americans but for innocents civilians in other countries.

It should need not be said, but I will say it: The acts of terrorism that killed civilians in New York and Washington were reprehensible and indefensible; to try to defend them would be to abandon one's humanity. No matter what the motivation of the attackers, the method is beyond discussion.

But this act was no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism-the deliberate killing of civilians for political purposes-that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime. For more than five decades throughout the Third World, the United States has deliberately targeted civilians or engaged in violence so indiscriminate that there is no other way to understand it except as terrorism. And it has supported similar acts of terrorism by client states.

If that statement seems outrageous, ask the people of Vietnam. Or Cambodia and Laos. Or Indonesia and East Timor. Or Chile. Or Central America. Or Iraq, or Palestine. The list of countries and peoples who have felt the violence of this country is long. Vietnamese civilians bombed by the United States. Timorese civilians killed by a U.S. ally with U.S.-supplied weapons. Nicaraguan civilians killed by a U.S. proxy army of terrorists. Iraqi civilians killed by the deliberate bombing of an entire country's infrastructure.

So, my anger on this day is directed not only at individuals who engineered the September 11 tragedy but at those who have held power in the United States and have engineered attacks on civilians every bit as tragic. That anger is compounded by hypocritical U.S. officials' talk of their commitment to higher ideals, as President Bush proclaimed "our resolve for justice and Peace?'

To the president, I can only say: The stilled voices of the millions killed in Southeast Asia, in Central America, in the Middle East as a direct result of U.S. policy are the evidence of our resolve for justice and peace.

Though that anger stayed with me off and on all day, it quickly gave way to fear, but not the fear of "where will the terrorists strike next' which I heard voiced all around me. Instead, I almost immediately had to face the question: "When will the United States, without regard for civilian casualties, retaliate?" I wish the question were, "Will the United States retaliate?" But if history is a guide, it is a question only of when and where.

So, the question is which civilians will be unlucky enough to be in the way of the U.S. bombs and missiles that might be unleashed. The last time the U.S. responded to terrorism, the attack on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, it was innocents in the Sudan and Afghanistan who were in the way. We were told that time around they hit only military targets, though the target in the Sudan turned out to be a pharmaceutical factory.

As I monitored television during the day, the talk of retaliation was in the air; in the voices of some of the national-security "experts" there was a hunger for retaliation. Even the journalists couldn't resist; speculating on a military strike that might come, Peter Jennings of ABC News said that "the response is going to have to be massive" if it is to be effective.

Let us not forget that a "massive response" will kill people, and if the pattern of past U.S. actions holds, it will kill innocents. Innocent people, just like the ones in the towers in New York and the ones on the airplanes that were hijacked. To borrow from President Bush, "mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors" will surely die in a massive response.

If we are truly going to claim to be decent people, our tears must flow not only for those of our own country. People are people, and grief that is limited to those within a specific political boundary denies the humanity of others.

And if we are to be decent people, we all must demand of our government-the government that a great man of peace, Martin Luther King Jr., once described as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world"- that the insanity stop here.

Citizens of the Empire

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