The widespread disparity in opinions between people in the United States and people in Muslim-majority countries about the appropriate ways to conduct the war on terror could be lessened if Americans tried to see things from the Muslim perspective.
The act of putting oneself in someone else’s shoes always is difficult — especially when that person isn’t from one’s own tribe. From childhood, we are, in overt and subtle ways, taught to internalize certain cultural assumptions and beliefs that tend to portray our country — or religion, tribe, gender or race — as superior to all others. So, without knowing it, we see our group’s superiority — and by extension other group’s second-rate status — to be the objective truth. This internalized view of the greatness of one’s own tribe has hindered the way Americans, and most of the press that covers this country’s foreign policy decisions, view U.S. foreign policy.
The word used — by both its proponents and detractors — to describe American’s internalized belief in our country’s innate goodness is “American exceptionalism.” American exceptionalism, at its core, is the idea that the U.S. has always been — and will always be — a force for good. So when U.S. air strikes kill dozens of people in an Afghan village or when there is a catastrophic rise in birth defects and abnormalities in Fallujah, Iraq, that is possibly connected to a U.S. bombing campaign in 2004, Americans can rest easy in knowing these incidents were for the greater good.
The fact that members of the media rarely tell us the names of the victims of U.S. violence only amplifies Americans’ indifference to these deaths. This is why, if reporters are going to be embedded with U.S. soldiers, reporters also should be embedded in Iraqi hospitals or Yemeni villages. Because when the media, through lack of coverage, renders victims of U.S. violence invisible — their names aren’t mentioned, their family and friends aren’t interviewed, Muslims from drone-targeted villages aren’t given time to share their opinions of U.S. policies — it prevents Americans from understanding why some Muslims are so hostile to the United States. Of course, U.S. violence doesn’t provide justification for terrorism — causation and justification are two different animals. Any violent act that knowingly targets innocent people — or is carried out with the knowledge that the crux of the victims might not be terrorists — is inexcusable.
Furthermore, examining the perspective of those who have suffered because of U.S. policies doesn’t have to lead to a condemnation of the U.S. or an urge to repent for one’s sins. A person can support the basic framework of the war on terror while simultaneously having sympathy for those who died because of this framework. It just has to serve as a reminder that those outside our own tribe are people too, with emotions, dreams and fears not so different from our own.
Obviously, the put-yourself-in-someone-else’s-shoes strategy isn’t going to ease all the tensions between America, the Middle East and other Muslim-majority countries. Moderate Muslims also must do their part by condemning the illogical hatred of Jews and Christians that is prevalent in certain Islamist circles. While some Muslim anger toward America is based on U.S. actions, our country isn’t to blame for the toxic religious intolerance being espoused by radical Islamists who seem determined to force everyone to live according to the dictates of their own medieval world views.
I firmly believe, for all its contradictions, the U.S. is a morally sound country. But American exceptionalism is an albatross that shields citizens from the pain suffered by those outside their cultural bubble.
Andy Heintz is a political commentator. He previously was a Herald staff writer, now a sports reporter at the Ottumwa Courier, Ottumwa, Iowa. Read his blog at http://www.orble.com/just-one-mans-vision/ and follow
@heintz23 on Twitter.