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Current Affairs - April 6, 2022

If you are a person who is sensitive to the pain of others, and who does not discriminate morally between Americans and non-Americans, the U.S. can seem a downright perverse place. Donald Trump might be elected president again, even though his climate policy (which can be summarized as burn as many fossil fuels as possible) will result in the spread of death and mayhem around the world. The architects of the Iraq War, from public intellectual Bill Kristol to George W. Bush himself, are seen as respectable and even moderate. Ronald Reagan, routinely voted the greatest American president, “turned Central America into a killing field.”

When I talked recently to Noam Chomsky for the Current Affairs podcast, I didn’t expect him to begin an answer by saying: “Let me recount one of the most horrible experiences of my life…” The subject of the conversation was nuclear weapons, and I had mentioned the strange indifference Americans often show to the suffering of non-Americans. The “horrible experience” Chomsky proceeded to recount was something that might seem quite ordinary: a time he and his wife went to see a movie in Boston in the early 1950s. The film was about the Hiroshima bombing, and what made the experience so disturbing for Chomsky, to the point where he recounts it with a shudder even today at 93 years old, is that he realized when he got to the cinema that the film was being presented as an exploitation film, playing in a theater that usually showed porn. (There is a whole genre of lurid real-world footage of atrocities presented for entertainment.) As footage of Japanese civilians with their skin peeling off played on the screen, the audience of Americans was laughing hysterically as if they were watching Charlie Chaplin or the Marx Brothers.

For Chomsky, the experience was so disturbing because it showed that his fellow Americans could become so unmoved by the suffering of others that they could watch footage of the worst atrocity imaginable and enjoy themselves.1 To see this total lack of empathy in perfectly normal, “freedom-loving” people was frightening. It is one thing for people to not realize what it means for their country to have dropped nuclear weapons on civilian populations. It is a whole other level of depravity to be able to see the results and laugh.

In our interview, I also asked Chomsky if he remembered where he was when he found out about the Hiroshima bombing itself. He said he recalled the moment vividly: he was a junior counselor at a summer camp, and an announcement was made that the United States had just destroyed a Japanese city with an atomic bomb. Chomsky says that he experienced a “double terror”: first from the realization that we were now in the age where cities could be destroyed with nuclear weapons, and second from the response of those around him at the camp: they barely reacted, and quickly went back to playing games.

Chomsky has published over 100 books, and one of the themes that comes up again and again is the tragic apathy that people in the U.S. show toward the consequences of our actions for non-Americans. The invasion and occupation of South Vietnam killed millions of Vietnamese people, but it’s still treated in this country as a kind of noble mistake. The Biden administration is currently starving the people of Afghanistan to death. It’s hardly discussed in the media, and as a result, nobody seems to care.

If you are a person who is sensitive to the pain of others, and who does not discriminate morally between Americans and non-Americans, the U.S. can seem a downright perverse place. Donald Trump might be elected president again, even though his climate policy (which can be summarized as burn as many fossil fuels as possible) will result in the spread of death and mayhem around the world. The architects of the Iraq War, from public intellectual Bill Kristol to George W. Bush himself, are seen as respectable and even moderate. Ronald Reagan, routinely voted the greatest American president, “turned Central America into a killing field.”

Part of the problem is that the U.S. is geographically isolated from most countries that fall on the receiving end of its foreign policy decisions, a kind of cocoon, where most people have never had to see the aftermath of a city being bombed. Despite the undercurrent of violence in American life domestically—the police killings, the prisons, the shootings—the country has not had its cities ravaged by war like so many others. This may be why we do not really grasp the full extent of the horror signified by phrases like “children killed by a drone strike.” Even when foreign policy consequences are covered by the media, pictures on the news are carefully censored so as not to be too disturbing, and Central Americans, Iraqis, Afghans, Yemenis, etc. become a distant abstract Other whose pain doesn’t register. In the press, there is a straightforward hierarchy of lives, in which European and U.S. victims of crimes and natural disasters are given far more attention than African, Asian, and Latin American lives. U.S. policy and drug consumption has fueled monstrous violence just over the border in Mexico, but things that happen on the other side of the border might as well be happening on a distant planet for all the attention they get in the U.S. press.

One of the most important facts to understand about atrocities is that to the people perpetrating them, they often don’t seem like atrocities at all. Chomsky quoted a passage from John Stuart Mill, who condemned other countries’ violent interventions in global affairs, but thought the British empire was a shining exception, and the British were an angelic people whose colonial conquests were conducted for the benefit of the colonized. Chomsky commented that if even John Stuart Mill, the most morally sophisticated intellectual of his era, could not see through the dehumanizing racist myths used to rationalize imperial conquest, we can see why those contemporary American intellectuals Chomsky calls “not fit to shine Mill’s shoes” are similarly oblivious.

In fact, if you are not a member of the group on the receiving end of particular acts of subjugation and oppression, it can very difficult indeed to see through the stories that are told to justify that subjugation and oppression, or to find the ugly facts that are kept out of the mainstream. Americans still do not really understand the truth about what our country did in Vietnam and Central America, let alone Afghanistan and Iraq, just as Brits generally still think their empire was something noble to be proud of. Most of us in our everyday lives don’t run into people like, say, the maimed victims of the U.S. bombing campaign in Laos, so nobody thinks about it. ...
Read full interview commentary at Current Affairs