Blaming America First

Why are some on the left, who rightly demand sympathy for victims around the world, so quick to dismiss American suffering?

Image: Michael Klein

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As shock and solidarity overflowed on September 11, it seemed for a moment that political differences had melted in the inferno of Lower Manhattan. Plain human sympathy abounded amid a common sense of grief and emergency. Soon enough, however, old reflexes and tones cropped up here and there on the left, both abroad and at home—smugness, acrimony, even schadenfreude, accompanied by the notion that the attacks were, well, not a just dessert, exactly, but…damnable yet understandable payback…rooted in America’s own crimes of commission and omission…reaping what empire had sown. After all, was not America essentially the oil-greedy, Islam-disrespecting oppressor of Iraq, Sudan, Palestine? Were not the ghosts of the Shah’s Iran, of Vietnam, and of the Cold War Afghan jihad rattling their bones? Intermittently grandiose talk from Washington about a righteous “crusade” against “evil” helped inflame the rhetoric of critics who feared—legitimately—that a deepening war in Afghanistan would pile human catastrophe upon human catastrophe. And soon, without pausing to consider why the vast majority of Americans might feel bellicose as well as sorrowful, some on the left were dismissing the idea that the United States had any legitimate recourse to the use of force in self-defense—or indeed any legitimate claim to the status of victim.

I am not speaking of the ardent, and often expressed, hope that September 11’s crimes against humanity might eventually elicit from America a greater respect for the whole of assaulted humanity. A reasoned, vigorous examination of U.S. policies, including collusion in the Israeli occupation, sanctions against Iraq, and support of corrupt regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, is badly needed. So is critical scrutiny of the administration’s actions in Afghanistan and American unilateralism on many fronts. But in the wake of September 11 there erupted something more primal and reflexive than criticism: a kind of left-wing fundamentalism, a negative faith in America the ugly.

In this cartoon view of the world, there is nothing worse than American power—not the woman-enslaving Taliban, not an unrepentant Al Qaeda committed to killing civilians as they please—and America is nothing but a self-seeking bully. It does not face genuine dilemmas. It never has legitimate reason to do what it does. When its rulers’ views command popularity, this can only be because the entire population has been brainwashed, or rendered moronic, or shares in its leaders’ monstrous values.

Of the perils of American ignorance, of our fantasy life of pure and unappreciated goodness, much can be said. The failures of intelligence that made September 11 possible include not only security oversights, but a vast combination of stupefaction and arrogance—not least the all-or-nothing thinking that armed the Islamic jihad in Afghanistan in order to fight our own jihad against Soviet Communism—and a willful ignorance that not so long ago permitted half the citizens of a flabby, self-satisfied democracy to vote for a man unembarrassed by his lack of acquaintanceship with the world.

But myopia in the name of the weak is no more defensible than myopia in the name of the strong. Like jingoists who consider any effort to understand terrorists immoral, on the grounds that to understand is to endorse, these hard-liners disdain complexity. They see no American motives except oil-soaked power lust, but look on the bright side of societies that cultivate fundamentalist ignorance. They point out that the actions of various mass murderers (the Khmer Rouge, bin Laden) must be “contextualized,” yet refuse to consider any context or reason for the actions of Americans.

If we are to understand Islamic fundamentalism, must we not also trouble ourselves to understand America, this freedom-loving, brutal, tolerant, shortsighted, selfish, generous, trigger-happy, dumb, glorious, fat-headed powerhouse?

Not a bad place to start might be the patriotic fervor that arose after the attacks. What’s offensive about affirming that you belong to a people, that your fate is bound up with theirs? Should it be surprising that suffering close-up is felt more urgently, more deeply, than suffering at a distance? After disaster comes a desire to reassemble the shards of a broken community, withstand the loss, strike back at the enemy. The attack stirs, in other words, patriotism—love of one’s people, pride in their endurance, and a desire to keep them from being hurt anymore. And then, too, the wound is inverted, transformed into a badge of honor. It is translated into protest (“We didn’t deserve this”) and indignation (“They can’t do this to us”). Pride can fuel the quest for justice, the rage for punishment, or the pleasures of smugness. The dangers are obvious. But it should not be hard to understand that the American flag sprouted in the days after September 11, for many of us, as a badge of belonging, not a call to shed innocent blood.

This sequence is not a peculiarity of American arrogance, ignorance, and power. It is simply and ordinarily human. It operates as clearly, as humanly, among nonviolent Palestinians attacked by West Bank and Gaza settlers and their Israeli soldier-protectors as among Israelis suicide-bombed at a nightclub or a pizza joint. No government anywhere has the right to neglect the safety of its own citizens—not least against an enemy that swears it will strike again. Yet some who instantly, and rightly, understand that Palestinians may burn to avenge their compatriots killed by American weapons assume that Americans have only interests (at least the elites do) and gullibilities (which are the best the masses are capable of).

In this purist insistence on reducing America and Americans to a wicked stereotype, we encounter a soft anti-Americanism that, whatever takes place in the world, wheels automatically to blame America first. This is not the hard anti-Americanism of bin Laden, the terrorist logic under which, because the United States maintains military bases in the land of the prophet, innocents must be slaughtered and their own temples crushed. Totalitarians like bin Laden treat issues as fodder for the apocalyptic imagination. They want power and call it God. Were Saddam Hussein or the Palestinians to win all their demands, bin Laden would move on, in his next video, to his next issue.

Soft anti-Americans, by contrast, sincerely want U.S. policies to change—though by their lights, such turnabouts are well-nigh unimaginable—but they commit the grave moral error of viewing the mass murderer (if not the mass murder) as nothing more than an outgrowth of U.S. policy. They not only note but gloat that the United States built up Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan as a counterfoil to the Russians. In this thinking, Al Qaeda is an effect, not a cause; a symptom, not a disease. The initiative, the power to cause, is always American.

But here moral reasoning runs off the rails. Who can hold a symptom accountable? To the left-wing fundamentalist, the only interesting or important brutality is at least indirectly the United States’ doing. Thus, sanctions against Iraq are denounced, but the cynical mass murderer Saddam Hussein, who permits his people to die, remains an afterthought. Were America to vanish, so, presumably, would the miseries of Iraq and Egypt.

In the United States, adherents of this kind of reflexive anti-Americanism are a minority (isolated, usually, on campuses and in coastal cities, in circles where reality checks are scarce), but they are vocal and quick to action. Observing flags flying everywhere, they feel embattled and draw on their embattlement for moral credit, thus roping themselves into tight little circles of the pure and the saved.

The United States represents a frozen imperialism that values only unbridled power in the service of untrammeled capital. It is congenitally, genocidally, irremediably racist. Why complicate matters by facing up to America’s self-contradictions, its on-again, off-again interest in extending rights, its clumsy egalitarianism coupled with ignorant arrogance? America is seen as all of a piece, and it is hated because it is hateful—period. One may quarrel with the means used to bring it low, but low is only what it deserves.

So even as the smoke was still rising from the ground of Lower Manhattan, condemnations of mass murder made way in some quarters for a retreat to the old formula and the declaration that the “real question” was America’s victims—as if there were not room in the heart for more than one set of victims. And the seductions of closure were irresistible even to those dedicated, in other circumstances, to intellectual glasnost. Noam Chomsky bent facts to claim that Bill Clinton’s misguided attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant in 1998 was worse by far than the massacres of September 11. Edward Said, the exiled Palestinian author and critic, wrote of “a superpower almost constantly at war, or in some sort of conflict, all over the Islamic domains.” As if the United States always picked the fight; as if U.S. support of the Oslo peace process, whatever its limitations, could be simply brushed aside; as if defending Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo—however dreadful some of the consequences—were the equivalent of practicing gunboat diplomacy in Latin America or dropping megatons of bombs on Vietnam and Cambodia.

From the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, who has admirably criticized her country’s policies on nuclear weapons and development, came the queenly declaration that “American people ought to know that it is not them but their government’s policies that are so hated.” (One reason why Americans were not exactly clear about the difference is that the murderers of September 11 did not trouble themselves with such nice distinctions.) When Roy described bin Laden as “the American president’s dark doppelganger” and claimed that “the twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming interchangeable,” she was in the grip of a prejudice invulnerable to moral distinctions.

Insofar as we who criticize U.S. policy seriously want Americans to wake up to the world—to overcome what essayist Anne Taylor Fleming has called our serial innocence, ever renewed, ever absurd—we must speak to, not at, Americans, in recognition of our common perplexity and vulnerability. We must abstain from the fairy-tale pleasures of oversimplification. We must propose what is practical—the stakes are too great for the luxury of any fundamentalism. We must not content ourselves with seeing what Washington says and rejecting that. We must forgo the luxury of assuming that we are not obligated to imagine ourselves in the seats of power.

Generals, it’s said, are always planning to fight the last war. But they’re not alone in suffering from sentimentality, blindness, and mental laziness disguised as resolve. The one-eyed left helps no one when it mires itself in its own mirror-image myths. Breaking habits is desperately hard, but those who evade the difficulties in their purist positions and refuse to face all the mess and danger of reality only guarantee their bitter inconsequence.


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