I have a confession to make. Despite all my criticisms of waterboarding, American foreign policy interventionism, and a whole host of other aspects of the modern federal government, not to mention my refusal to consider most of Europe to be a socialist hellhole, I am a proud American exceptionalist. Which is to say that I do believe there is something exemplary about the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and that as a result the United States can and should be a “shining city upon a hill.”
Don’t get me wrong – I fully understand the roots of those documents in European intellectualism. But so far as I know the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Articles of Confederation were the first attempts to implement all these ideas on a truly wide scale, albeit a scale with an unforgivable oversight, allowance of slavery. That these ideals have since taken root to varying degrees throughout the world is a tribute to their power.
The difference between me and other exceptionalists is that I’m serious about it. If the US of A is to be the “shining city upon a hill” rather than merely a mirage in the desert, it must act that way. If it wastes precious resources trying to force other cities to be just as shiny, it will find that it has lost some of its own shine in the process; if it tries to, chameleonlike, change its colors to defend against jealous neighbors, it will likewise lose some of the very shine that made those neighbors so jealous; and if it builds its walls too high, no one will see the glow that lies within.
To be sure, at some point that city has to have walls and archers if it is to protect against those jealous neighbors. Compromises sometimes really must be made if the shining city is to retain any shine whatseover. But the proud citizen will recognize that this tradeoff is being made and will lament it; he will not pretend that the city’s shine will be unaffected, only argue that the shine will lessen more if the tradeoff is not made. He will not begrudge his fellow citizens their opposition to the tradeoff but will instead seek to convince them, as friends and neighbors, that the tradeoff is truly necessary. Perhaps most importantly, the truly proud citizen will not do anything to dull the city’s shine without the approval of his fellow proud citizens.
It is this idealism of mine, this deeply engrained belief in American exceptionalism, that drives me to such anger and sadness over the interrogation and detention programs, amongst many other things, our leaders have implemented – in secret, usually – over the last several decades. Being a shining city takes a lot of work to keep the shine polished – it is not, as Julian Sanchez explains so magnificently, cost-free:
If you refrain from savage acts in wartime only when brutality would gain you nothing, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. Vague talk about “saving lives” obscures a vital question: What kinds of costs are you willing to bear, what risks will you accept, in order to avoid doing evil? If you’re prepared to discard a principle as soon as there’s some significant benefit to be gotten by doing so, then it’s a principle of expediency, not morality. If you’re ready to resort to torture, or to targeting civilians, as soon as there’s some chance it would “save American lives,” then you’re declaring a commitment to abide by moral constraints, so long as observing them is free.
We are required, it seems to me, to choose: We can accept that we’re one more country like any other, guided by pure rational self interest, in which case “if it might save even one American life…” is as much justification as we can ask for any policy, and the only question (though still, of course, a difficult and complex question) is how we go about it. If, on the other hand, we think there’s something exceptional about the United States—that we’re defined by a particular moral vision beyond the universal desire for comfort and safety—we need to accept that hewing to a moral vision sometimes comes with costs, and then ask how much ours is worth to us.
I couldn’t agree more. If you think the United States is just another country, or even just another Western country, then the moral issues of whether waterboarding is torture, or whether it was a war crime to drop the atomic bomb, can and perhaps should be either irrelevant or only of minor significance compared to whether those actions saved more lives than they cost. But if you are a true believer in American exceptionalism, then you must accept that maintaining that exceptionalism comes with costs, perhaps sometimes in human lives.
Shining cities don’t just appear and maintain their shine without sacrifice and risk-taking by their citizens. It does no one any good to pretend otherwise; nor does it do any good to secretly and gradually apply a bit of plaster and polish to a monument from which you have taken much gold restores the monument to its previous glow. Instead, that monument must be stripped of its plaster for all to see in its newly grotesque shape. Then, and only then, can the people properly evaluate whether the lost shine was worth the increase in safety.
Yet this is exactly what far too many exceptionalists do today – they pretend as if that shine is not dulled when we torture or engage in other purely utilitarian calculations. Other exceptionalists, perhaps recognizing this trade-off, simply recast the moral issues, inserting the plaster and polish of altered definitions of torture and waterboarding and “legitimate military targets.”
Like Sanchez, this is not to say that I endorse the concept of “fiat justitia, ruat caelum.” It is, however, to say that if we are to have any attachment whatsoever to the notion of being a “shining city upon the hill,” then we as a populace need to be in a position where we can evaluate whether the certain loss of our shine is worth the theoretical loss of some of our size. We need to know what our government hath wrought on our behalf, whether it be the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the brutality of interrogation methods; and we also need to know how many of us those horrors saved, not just in a worst case scenario, but on average compared to other possible outcomes and methods.
In the end, exceptionalists should remember that buildings and monuments don’t shine because they’re in the shining city, the shining city shines because the buildings and monuments reside within.
UPDATE: In the comments, I’m taking a heat for even suggesting that there is something to the concept of American exceptionalism. I think these commenters are missing my point, which may well be my fault. To clarify, I am NOT arguing that everything the US does is exceptional, nor am I arguing that the US is inherently a better country than anyone else. What I AM arguing is that there is something unique about the US founding documents, and that the US is fairly unique amongst nations in that it is not a nation based on tribe or clan or ethnicity but rather almost entirely on a set of ideals. The more the US fails to live up to those ideals and, when it does fail to do so, further fails to honestly examine the consequence of those failures, the less those ideals serve as the unifying factor for the US as a nation, and the less the US maintains a hold on what it supposed to mean to be an American. This is explicitly NOT an argument that the US should tell other nations what to do, but is instead an argument that the US government needs to live up to higher moral standards if it is to be the US at all rather than a nation defined merely by the makeup of its population in the year 2009. Also – I can’t emphasize enough that one need not believe that the US needs to live up to a higher moral standard to oppose torture as immoral; I’m only arguing that if you do believe that the US system of governance is or ought to be exceptional, then you cannot easily accept waterboarding, the atomic bomb, a high incarceration rate, etc., etc.