One of the biggest joys of U.S. elections is the forgetting.
For months, airwaves are dominated by ridiculous rants, preposterous political posturing and candidates who are caricatures of themselves.
But then, come November, all is mercifully, blessedly quiet.
Occasionally, though, statements linger, remaining within our political consciousness. One such statement is Gov. Romney’s criticism of President Obama, in which he accused the president of apologizing for America, and claimed that Obama was undermining the nation’s mission abroad. The phrase stuck because it is such an accurate embodiment of a particular brand of bullheaded American exceptionalism. This is the perception that American actions are somehow different, or exceptional, and that to say anything else is borderline treasonous. We need to be united and strong, not hesitant and questioning.
But frankly, I wish the president would do a heck of a lot more apologizing. In fact, I cannot imagine a single act more patriotic than apologizing for America.
Exceptional or not, one thing truly does make us unique: We were the first country born out of united principles. Other nations united because of ethnicity, language or religion. But what makes somebody “American” is his or her commitment to certain ideals. You’ve heard them many times before—democracy, individualism, hard work and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all.
Principles, in the end, have been all-important, even when—especially when—we haven’t acted in accordance with them. From the abolishment of slavery to the LGBTQ rights movement, we have forced ourselves to live up to the principles adopted during the nation’s inception.
And what is an apology? It is a declaration that we value our principles to such an extent that we say when any action does not coincide with them, even when that action is our own.
We do commit atrocities. Sometimes, we do so because we are faced with impossible situations—we couldn’t allow an invasion of a newborn Israel, for example, nor could we have allowed ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia. Sometimes, we commit atrocities because we value the geostrategic advantage of our nation far above the lives of people in other nations. We often insert dictators around the world who are evil in regards to their own people yet serve U.S. interests—look to the overthrow of Iran’s democratically-elected government in 1953.
To admit that we, even as Americans, are not being “American”—that is true patriotism. That is true commitment to principle.
The reasons we should apologize go beyond principle and into the realm of practicality. We fail to acknowledge that our mistakes breed the very thing that has been declared America’s number one enemy: terrorism. Some say apologizing weakens us, when in reality failing to do so fuels the cause of our enemies.
It is so easy to charicature extremists, to declare that we are hated only because we let people wear bikinis and allow religious freedom. But this is a flawed picture of the world we live in.
Consider Osama bin Laden’s 2004 speech to America, in which he described his rationale for 9/11. It “had never occurred to us to strike the towers,” he said, until the 1982 joint American and Israeli invasion of Lebanon. “Many were killed and injured and others were terrorized and displaced,” he said, noting that he “couldn’t forget those moving scenes, blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere. Houses destroyed along with their occupants and high rises demolished over their residents, rockets raining down on our home without mercy.”
Bin Laden said that what disturbed him was not only the oppressive U.S. action, but the carelessness of the American people, who indirectly endorsed and directly funded such actions. He noted that his goal was to jolt the citizenry awake, make them feel remorse. But, after speaking of the invasion, he said, “The whole world saw and heard but it didn’t respond.” You can almost understand the impulse to lash out in a desperate attempt to get people to acknowledge the pain that they have caused.
We say that one should love a country like a parent loves a child, not like a child loves a parent. Instead of blind obedience, true patriots carefully guide their country and form it in the image of its citizens. True patriots glow with pride at their country’s successes and take responsibility for their country’s failures.
When we are wrong, we must rise up in collective reprimand. We’ve done it before, notably with civil rights and Vietnam. But it doesn’t even have to be a conventional protest. Vocalizing dissent helps too, as we eventually did—though not strongly enough, not before over 100,000 Iraqi citizens were killed—with our most recent war.
This is the single most patriotic thing I am capable of saying, and I desperately want it to reach the ears of every man, woman and child whom we have unjustly harmed: As a citizen of the United States of America, I am deeply sorry.
Ellie Schaack is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Friday.