Counterterrorism, American Exceptionalism, and Retributive Justice
by Michael Vlahos
Michael Vlahos, PhD teaches in the Global Security Studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Vlahos is the author of Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, The Times Literary Supplement, Foreign Policy, and Rolling Stone. Since 2001 he has been a regular featured guest of the nationally syndicated John Batchelor Show on WABC.
Author: Michael Vlahos
"Michael Vlahos has been remarkable in pointing toward broader connections and deeper historical-cultural roots in the challenges that Western democracies face. He has earned public gratitude for his many books and essays. Fighting Identity is another important and original contribution in helping Americans understand how their conscious and unconscious national beliefs affect their strengths, vulnerabilities, and possibilities in meeting this era’s threats."
—James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly
At the Palmetto Freedom Forum in September 2011, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich—a self-declared seer of American exceptionalism—laid down this oak hewn faith plank:
What makes American exceptionalism different is that we are the only people I know of in history who say: Power comes directly from God to each one of you. You are personally sovereign. So you are always a citizen; you are never a subject. Now the founding fathers wrote this because they said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” This is not a philosophy; it’s not an ideology; it’s not a theory. It’s a set of truths … about the nature of being human [i]
Mitt Romney is also a partisan of exceptionalism. He has issued a rapturous catechism and stern warning of the threat to the American exceptionalist ideal:
God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without the clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.[ii]
For Gingrich, God not only chose America; he also chose each one of its citizens in a way singular among nations: “[Our] guiding ethos has always set America apart” [iii] That we are thus “apart” is divine token of our superiority. For Romney, God made it our destiny to lead the world, and our exceptionalism means the right to rule. Others must accept our world authority—or become enemies we punish.
The definition and tenets of American exceptionalism have shifted over time. Speaking onboard the Arabella in 1630, bound for a New World, John Winthrop charged his people to make a new society wholly obedient to God’s will—and its infinite possibilities:
For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.[iv]
Winthrop spoke to the spiritual enterprise of Puritans, but also perhaps to a yielding kernel of a new universal religious enterprise. His words may have been firmly rooted in a small sectarian community, but here were seeds for a big new religion—an American civil religion. American politicians have long appropriated rhetoric from “church” religion for the political purposes of equally sacred civil religion.
How this civil religion had grown by the 20th century was shown in electric neon in May 1941, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared America the world’s protector. He defined exceptionalism in redemptive terms:
Today the whole world is divided between human slavery and human freedom—between pagan brutality and the Christian ideal. We choose human freedom—which is the Christian ideal. No one of us can waver for a moment in his courage or his faith. We will not accept a Hitler-dominated world.
And we will not accept a world, like the postwar world of the 1920s, in which the seeds of Hitlerism can again be planted and allowed to grow. We will accept only a world consecrated to freedom of speech and expression—freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—freedom from want—and freedom from terror. Is such a world impossible of attainment?[v]
FDR’s declaration: “We will accept only a world consecrated to” American constructions of freedom and democracy represents an indissoluble element of exceptionalism. This is the expectation that the fulfillment of God’s plan, through American agency, represents a modern realization of the Millennium.
Civil-religious and exceptionalist rhetoric, like FDR’s, is today unthinkingly embedded by a nation whose collective faith is so deeply felt as to be almost unselfconscious. Yet the core proposition of my argument is that, when it comes to security policy, American exceptionalism in practice has undergone a disturbing metamorphosis in the last decade.
Put simply, the once-and-future belief that this country is uniquely “set apart” for the greater good of humanity has morphed into a self-referential and self-seeking national shibboleth, manifest most clearly in the nation’s approach to counterterrorism.
This is a radical shift from an uplifting paradigm of redeeming/transforming communities of terrorist sympathy into communities of freedom-loving democrats—and toward a dark paradigm where purging terrorists means continually flaying “the sea in which they swim”[vi] as the poisonous source of threat to the pure American body.
The rhetoric of American exceptionalism is being used to legitimize and institutionalize American militarism, but ironically the substantive policy-direction in counterterrorism is in many ways a betrayal of the traditional faith-linked ethos of exceptionalism. In my view, this approach holds grave risks for America but also tragic consequences for the wider world, especially among Muslim societies.
Blood-evidence of such tragedy to come is almost prefigured in our new style of “war”—the drone-robot strike from above. In this essay, I will trace the historical antecedents of our civil religion, examine how “terrorism” is increasingly being construed as a normative existential threat to American civil-religious identity, and argue that contemporary counterterrorism policy (and the steely mindset that legitimizes it) represents a radically new and troubling brand of “exceptionalism.”
Unexceptional Civil Religion
American exceptionalism should be understood as the core passion of American civil religion. American exceptionalism envisions a nation rooted in a savage yet pure wilderness—“God’s American Israel”[vii]—where the act of taming its own world is in itself an act of purification, and of tempering and strengthening those who might one day redeem a corrupted and oppressed humanity.
A people that speak to itself in these terms is fully a “religious” community. Over 40 years ago, Robert Bellah explained how the American project appropriated sacred symbols and rituals from old church-centric realities as it created a new faith of religious nationalism.[viii] Using the word “civil” in regard to Americanism may make our religion seem “modern” and “rational”—the opposite of “medieval” or “antique” or “superstitious”—but its use cannot obscure the continuity that binds the American religion with its great predecessors in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and “pagan” imperialism.
Modernity’s nation-state appears to us as a supremely rational construct of how things should be, succeeding more primitive paradigms. Yet the nation-state is not necessarily more “rational” than what it replaced. The French Revolution in 1789 at once overthrew feudalism and superstition and raised a new consciousness: the Nation. Now people and state were bound as one. Modernity’s ideology offered a consciousness of belonging that included everyone, where the state served as impresario for the celebration of collective togetherness.
As citizens, this shared consciousness defines our sense of the civic “sacred.” Old Romans called this religio, and for good reason: Religion is about how we bind ourselves together. Religion is not necessarily only about supernatural beliefs or even church institutions. Religion is a framework of identity made sacred in the presence of the collective divine, made real in congregation.
In a civil religion defined by the nation, identity is vested not in life-rules and lifestyle (as it might be for Christians or Muslims) but by utter allegiance to the civic sacred. Americanism therefore resembles more closely the mature Romanitas of the Greco-Roman imperial era.
In crucial respects, then, America is worth comparing to Rome: in its limits on civil universalism; in its sense of exceptional destiny; in its use of sacred symbols; and—central to understanding today’s counterterrorism—the very idea of sacred militarism.
In the imperial era, Rome made it quite clear who was Roman: Converts adopted Roman ways, engaged in Roman politics, and sacrificed to the God Augustus. Anyone could become Roman, but centuries passed before Gauls and Greeks became equal Senators.
Americanism seeks to unite the world under a vision of freedom and democracy. Yet this universalism does not seek an “American” world per se. The only true Americans remain those who come here and become citizens. Yet, like Rome, the United States acknowledges little “Eaglets”—other places that burn a bit of incense at the altar of the sacred words, democracy and freedom. Despite efforts to spread freedom and democracy abroad, there remains in our ethos an unbridgeable distinction between Americans-in-America and other worthy democrats among humanity.
Romans embraced their destiny. If gods had chosen Rome to rule the world—to bring order to a disordered oikoumene, to gather together the arts and sciences of Hellenism, to underwrite the good life for civilization—then the path of Romanitas was clear.
America chose the same path, yet we ask worriedly: Are we Rome?[x] Are we worthy of the divine charge we claim by anointment? Amid these doubts, the surest response is to again acclaim “Eternal Victory.” American exceptionalism demands victory. An American Virgil might have penned “Of arms and the man I sing.” In our Capitoline, above a grand stairway, is a great fresco in starburst hues describing the passage West of pioneers. Every single man is armed. Mars finds his place in the American ethos, and our national story is a connect-the-dots string of battle victories (at least through 1945).
In Rome, each victory—with divine blessing—was sacredly celebrated. Romans called such events “triumphs,” and celebrations were the core rite of the Roman Senate and the Roman people.[xi] In America, we celebrate through cable television channels devoted to recalling military history and all-military movie “marathons” on Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, and America’s other hallowed saints’ days. This is a cultural phenomenon unequalled in other countries. Romanitas had its staged-sacred triumphs; America broadcasts its liturgy of victory 24⁄7.
If the “sacred” is about summoning the presence of the divine, then American civil religion mirrors ancient Rome. Whether confessed or not, Americans daily reinforce civil identity by communing with their ancestors. Like pilgrimages to Mt. Vernon, the home of Pater Patriae, General and President Washington.
Like the Romans, we adore our temple city. Like Romans, our “deities” are us: Ancestral Americans. We consecrate monuments to our leaders—Washington, Jefferson, and the martyred Lincoln. Our heroes are deities who personify the body of the nation. Their sacred image—imago—sustains the authority of the state, and in public rituals the venerated symbols of our identity are triumphantly paraded, memorialized, and valorized.
In ordinary Roman cohort-forts at the margins of the empire, there was always a building called the Principia. Within was the sacellum: The shrine of the Standards.[xii] Why a shrine? Because the standards of the cohort were sacred to the 500-800 officers and men garrisoned there. The shrine also contained a statue of the emperor, whose image captured the unity of people, army, and state.[xiii] Today, in any American military installation in our web of 700 overseas bases, alongside cherished regalia, is the imago of America’s President.
However, having invested so heavily in a militarized vision of the sacred, Roman civil religion morphed over centuries into a narrow state-leader-military enterprise, divorced from the very citizens who long ago had embodied Romanitas. America has undergone a similar transformation. Our martial society—a nation in arms—has also become a militaristic state-leader-military enterprise. A legionnaire class now fights America’s sacred wars: Professionals who in sacrifice act as guardians of exceptionalism.
Yet America’s Roman-like exceptionalism is peculiarly susceptible, and highly receptive, to terrorist threat. When a people’s very identity is bound to its civil religion—a religion that demands fulfillment of a divine destiny, realized through a hundred victorious battles—terrorism poses an “existential” challenge.
Terrorism Contra Exceptionalism
How can terrorist acts singularly threaten a chosen people of resplendent and undiminished warrior spirit? America’s very language of terrorism provides clues. In our imagination, terrorism is simply “evil.” Yet what makes terrorism so evil? Is it the killing of civilians? (That happens all the time in war.) Is it killing done in the name of politics or religion? (Political ideology is at the very heart of war.) What about those who are labeled “terrorist,” but whose resistance is actually nonviolent, or those who gain authority through democratic election? What about those persecuted by state regimes because of their political views or religious beliefs, those for whom justice through non-violence has not even the dream of hope? And how shall we regard those who historically took up arms against injustice rather than endure its yoke, like Boston rebels celebrating their Tea Party?[xiv]
For increasing numbers of Americans—particularly those who have deeply imbibed the recent militant distortions of a traditional ethos of American exceptionalism—“terrorism” is not primarily about what people do, or whether history celebrates or condemns them. Terrorism is identified as existential threat. For many Americans today, “terrorism” is about much more than any rational calculation of threats; it is about civil-religious identity.[xv]
Americanism may still reign as modernity’s strongest civil religion, yet it is the religion of a people otherwise united by the weakest of tribal bonds. Benedict Anderson might have called America the ultimate “imagined community.”[xvi] A nation that is also an idea must at all costs defend that idea, lest faith and thus identity fail us. American exceptionalism is that idea, and terrorism is our religion’s very antithesis. In American civil-religious thought, terrorism is the Devil himself.
If a challenged state regime uses anti-terrorism as national theater to shore up political strength, characterizing the threat as primitive and savage to orchestrate popular passion, then success may strengthen political authority. But Americans need no orchestration by a cunning state.
Even small acts of violence against the American idea—including those most driven by injustice—we instantly transform into mortal threats, justifying the most extravagant sanctions and the most unremitting punishment. Our visceral collective hatred toward Osama Bin Laden is culturally noteworthy as an expression once reserved, in medieval times, for demons from Hell.
Heretic, Apostate, Stranger
The militant version of Americanism denominates three kinds of terrorist. The first is the terrorist “against the body,” or the heretic. The distinguishing mark of the heretic is that he claims to be a righteous voice, a speaker of Truth, unafraid. Society may condemn and punish the heretic, yet if he recants there is hope for purification and return to the body politic. After punishment the heretic might be rehabilitated, or—if he has improved the American idea—even enshrined.
The second kind of terrorist is the apostate. In stark contrast to the heretic, the apostate has renounced the American idea wholesale and seeks its overthrow. Hence the apostate is Evil’s minion, serving a dark faith that seeks America’s corruption. The apostate has “left the body.”
The third type of terrorist is the stranger, alien to the sacred body (literally “not of the body”) yet nonetheless still able to manifest itself from within — as the Evil One who may even now be among us. If he is among us then he is seeking out apostates to recruit; even if America is strong without, it might still be brought down from within. The stranger operates deviously: The Other, in his alien guise, cannot proselytize; instead he must suborn alienated proto-apostates to serve his dark purpose.
Such nightmare thoughts of subversion collapse any distinction between external acts of terrorism threatening, say, an American ally, and the rooting fear of subversion within (where even nonviolence, if darkly eloquent, instills existential fear). The belief that the American idea will remake the world and yet at the same time is so fragile that a few individuals can put it at risk dictates that nonviolent groups can be branded as “terrorist,” because of the subversive power they wield.
Ancient Romans, too, were seized with the fear of an idea that could bring down Romanitas. The greatest “terrorist” campaign of antiquity was delivered sub-rosa—Christianity’s one-by-one conversion of Romans. Each conversion represented a blow to Romanitas, to its authority, legitimacy, and its role as interlocutor of sacred identity. “We have the alternative, and true, path to the sacred,” said Christians, modestly, without violence. The Roman state responded with extreme prejudice. Yet proscription through martyrdom failed. Moreover, this “counterterrorism” campaign—rooting out the threat—only reinforced the very centuries-long martyrdom that brought down the Roman state.
Christians threatened all that the Roman civil religion held to be correct and true (pietas). According to Robert Louis Wilken, when Romans branded the Christian vision as superstitio it was not a matter of simple bias or the result of ignorance; it expresses a distinct religious sensibility. When Tacitus wrote that Christianity was the “enemy of mankind,” he did not mean that he did not like Christians and found them a nuisance … but that they were an affront to his social and religious world.[xvii]
Normative existential threat can be shown through a simple story. A Roman aristocrat is fingered as a closet Christian. He is asked (politely of course, given his station) to do the right thing, to crumble laurel leaves over the embered brazier before the God Augustus’ bust. Equally polite, he replies, No. Brought to trial, this patrician accepts the reality of death with such dignity and equanimity that the audience, gathered to affirm the majesty of Romanitas, starts whispering, “He is more like the mythic Romans of old than our own, debased elite. He is a true Roman.”[xviii] So the Church subverted and took over the Roman state.
Why are terrorists not branded simply as criminal — on legal foundations customarily exercised by the state? We continually emphasize the inhuman nature of terrorist acts, yet does inhumanity not also attain for modern serial killers and mass murderers?
Yet we can go further: Terrorism is most notably linked to outsider groups of individuals — not to great criminal syndicates, nor to great communities of insurgency, and certainly not to rebel movements capable of plunging society into civil war. The pathetic physical state of “terrorism” leads to the question of its most remarkable capacity to instill fear in the collective heart of America.
Answers lie in our society’s cultural framing. The United States has defined — at this substrate of its ethos — three kinds of terrorism. The first is the terrorist “of the body.” If they are of the body they are heretics. The distinguishing mark of the heretic is that of righteous rule-breaker. Society may condemn and punish the Heretic, yet if he recants there is hopefully there is hope for purification and return to the body.[xix] After punishment the heretic might be rehabilitated, or if he has led the American idea to a better place, even enshrined.
In dark contrast, the apostate has renounced the American idea wholesale, and seeks its overthrow. Hence the apostate is Evil’s conversion, serving a dark faith seeking America’s destruction. The apostate has left the body, never to return even in death — which shall be righteously imposed.
Terrorists not of the body then they must alien. They are The Stranger: The Evil One who can even now be among us. If he is among us then he is seeking out apostates to recruit, so that even if America is strong without it can still be brought down from within.
This bonding of threat and fear — of an American idea able to remake the world and yet at the same time so fragile that a few individuals can put it at risk — also means that non-violent groups can also be branded as terrorist, because of the subversive power they wield.
Who have been America’s terrorist heretics, apostates, and The Other? Let’s begin with the 19th century, the time of Young America.
19th Century American Terrorism
The great heretic of Young America was John Brown. He was most certainly a terrorist — but to whom? For half of America he was an embodiment of evil, as he was perhaps the greatest threat to a planter aristocracy’s grip on America’s political system. For Abolitionists however, he was the leading edge of resistance to a “Slave Power” fatefully corroding American exceptionalism.
A saint almost before his interment, John Brown represents how heretic-transformation is intrinsic to evolution in the American ethos — and thus a part of us, even when initially apart from us.
Heretics play a distinct double role in an American idea still evolving.
The early Mormon Church emerged in the book-thumping conclave of American revivalism — The Great Awakening. Yet Joseph Smith was no Hallelujah preacher or circuit rider. He was the truest American prophet — and the truest American apostate. Mormon communities in Missouri and then Illinois were both socially and politically proscribed: Missouri’s governor went so far as to issue an “extermination order” in 1838, after Mormon fighters routed his own state militia in the Battle of Crooked River.[xx] Branded as terrorists even as they were brutally persecuted and their prophet assassinated. Like the first Muslims, Mormons set out on their Hegira to Utah.
In their own emirate of Deseret, the persecuted became terrorists. The Mountain Meadow Massacre — in which Mormon militia slaughtered as many as 140 men, women, and children of a settler party heading West.[xxi] The American state came down, and Deseret soon fell. But Mormons, apart from acknowledging US sovereignty, had only to surrender one little article of faith before being reunited into the body of Americanism.
The Latter Day Saints gave up polygamy in exchange for being forgiven their apostasy. Their terrorism was forgiven as long as they presented themselves as 100% real American. By embracing the American civil religion outwardly they were able to keep building an inner, alternative civil religion of their own, which still rules the same realm as Old Deseret.
So today Mitt Romney, Republican frontrunner, can declare himself wholly of the body, even if his great-grandfather fled to Mexico to practice the pure faith, and plural wives, in an unsullied community. His father, George Romney, was born there. More than 30 of Mitt Romney’s cousins still live there.[xxii]
Clearly, under unique circumstances, apostasy could still reign in America. Neither Mormons nor US Government relished the counterinsurgency that would have been required to pour salt over a prostrate Deseret. Clearly, Salt Lake City was worth a Mass![xxiii]
Anarchists in the later 19th century, however, were an entirely more malign evil. In Czarist Russia high-visibility imperial assassinations were like a symbolic scalpel cutting the very flesh of legitimacy and laying-bare the fragile organs of the Russian state.
Both Czar and privilege-drenched elites responded with a kind of lazy counterterrorism that neither rooted-out the contagion, nor attempted to find out why it had so rooted in the first place. Writers like Lenin were powerful precisely because of elite denial, whose heartless narcissism could not imagine the destructive powers of change. In a mind-climate where all was at play, terrorist enunciation had transformative power.[xxiv]
Hence we can see why native-born anarchists — see the Haymarket bombing [xxv] — so worried Gilded Age elites here. Yet American terrorism only heightened broader anxieties in society, and worked to strengthen ruling class arguments for tougher measures against political protest. As late as the 1920’s, the fear of anarchism as pale horse stalking American exceptionalism was flash powder-lit in the Sacco-Vanzetti trials and execution: A triumph of the American judicial system as counterterrorist tool.
In the end the struggle for democratic expression and social justice was won not by anarchists but by a mix of young renegade elites (the Progressives), great writers, and organized Labor. They transformed America. Perhaps because our Gilded Age succeeded civil war, the “shored-up sacred” in American identity resisted revolution.
In the second half of the 20th century Americans fondly, even wistfully memorialized what we still call the “Indian Wars” in almost endless movie retelling of legend — until very recently. Now perhaps, we might even begin to usefully reconsider what we did to our Indian nations as a brutal, century long (1794 — Fallen Timbers —1890 — Wounded Knee) counterterrorism campaign.
America’s native communities could hardly be described as insurgent — they were after all on the strategic defensive for the entire period: Defending their very homes against an implacable invader. But how could they be construed then as terrorists?
In the 20th century the threat of terrorism grew more intense, as did U.S. efforts at counter-terrorism. First, there was the German-American Bund, but its efforts were rebuffed even by the Fuhrer. Clearly this competing 20th century universalistic faith was not going to push it in the United States. But this made sense. The Nazi cult was only marginally interested in converting humanity — rather, it sought to conquer and reorder humanity under a new racial religious paradigm.
Soviet communism in contrast was a far more eager devil — and with reason. First, their vision was more truly inclined to the universalistic than the Nazi iron dream. They wanted to convert everyone: And in the eyes of communism, everyone was equal. Not so different from American exceptionalism. Not so different, hence, all the more threatening.
20th Century American Terrorism
Bridging 19th and twentieth centuries was the American labor movement and its socialist provenance. In contrast to the anarchists the new Union leaders were situational heretics in a changing American idea. A gilded age establishment, with police and state at its beck-and-call, might sanction this movement, even to forms of local establishment counter-terrorism like the Battle of Matewan and the Johnson County War. But as the zeitgeist shifted, the heretics became, like John Brown, seen as leading the American idea. The movies that mythologize their sacrifice are their testimonial.
Both the martyrs of Victorian Labor and then the AFL were, like John Brown, heretics in a shifting zeitgeist. Hence their deviltry depended on the ownership of American Exceptionalism staying in the archconservative hands of landowners and plutocrats. In did not, and so former “terrorists” were rehabilitated (in good Soviet fashion) in national narrative and myth.
Converts to the dark new competing faiths of Modernity — Nazism and Soviet Communism — were 20th century America’s most dreaded apostates. How quickly Bolshevism became a mortal threat to American exceptionalism! Apostates are more deeply infected than Heretics: Spreading their disease is not simply deviltry but the agency of the Devil. They are the bitten ones. Hence American apostates in the 20th century have their punishment delivered as exorcism: “The Unfriendly Ten” for example (including great novelists and screenwriters like Dalton Trumbo) were brought before the House on Un-American Activities and publicly exorcised in protracted inquisitional rituals of casting-out and cleansing. They became, in Orwell’s chilling lexicon: Unpersons. Those who recanted before camera, like Whittaker Chambers, were embraced, but only if they spent the rest of their lives forever re-enacting their existential, almost-requited acts of contrition.
But it was The Commies who were really behind it all, the dreaded Other who make the HUAC a necessity — as a salvational, exorcising element of American Life. The “long, twilight struggle” against Soviet communism has inked and scarred Americans with an indelible tattoo — but in its heyday literally redefined American exceptionalism itself. In the fullness of History, it may have transformed us forever.
The Cold War conditioned Americans to long-term, institutionalized struggle against an ideological Dark Lord. Naturally the Soviet dark force required not simply the light energy of an America good and true, but also our own institutionalized forces to fight and counter evil every day. The Cold War was not in its fullest sense a struggle against terrorism. Yet 40 years of national vigilance, taking a militant stand, created a comfortable national framework for dealing with existential threats.
Think about it: Whereas with FDR (and Wilson and Lincoln before) America had blown the Ram’s Horn of Deliverance and Redemption for all humanity, now there were two worlds, Manichaean: Us — the U.S.A. — versus the Demiurge — the U.S.S.R. Free World against the Slave, Love versus Hate, Peace versus War. Never was a single literary testament so powerful, and so spot-on, as George Orwell’s 1984. In the 1950s and 1960s we were becoming Oceania — Would Americans and Soviets in the end offer the same redemption? — And we could not even see it.
Gratefully, thankfully, it could not last. American Manichaeanism ebbed and oozed away and slowly disbanded. But it left a foundation for the future: Of an American Exceptionalism rooted not in the promise of redemption but rather in the promise of retributive justice. Of an America sworn and steeled to righteous punishment of the dark side, rather than an America that fights only to save, so that all people might be free.
The Soviet-ChiCom Other — in its 1950s and 1960s climax of faith — embedded within us a Manichaean cast to American Exceptionalism. This did not yet overturn the original heart of American Exceptionalism. We used to talk about how these Cold War times of tribulation were what must inevitably precede the Millennium. We could, we told ourselves, eventually prevail over Soviet and Chinese Communism, and reunite the world in a brotherhood of freedom and democracy — as God had planned. Yes, someday.
Retributive justice however is an assault on American Exceptionalism, coming like an undetected comet to earth from some rogue orbital path. Retributive justice represents the fallback for the failure to bring redemption when we might have done so — meaning, failure of us Americans as the agents of divine plan to fulfill it when we might have.
Arguable it is one thing to have failed to do so when the world (and the U.S.) was patently unready — in 1919 — or to do so when there were secret opponents who would do anything to stop it — Stalin after 1945. Yet it is quite another to have failed twice when the stars were in alignment and we were unopposed and on top: After 1991, when the world was our oyster, and after 2001, when another oyster magically appeared.
In the auspicious year 2013 it is difficult to identify any grand outcome the world efforts of two eight-year administrations (of both religious sects) — to fulfill God’s plan — when they clearly had the power to do so, as endlessly declared in their own political rhetoric.
Failure is critical here. It would be one thing if Americans simply threw up their hands and said: “We are a normal country! We are just another nation, and nations have interests. Get over it: We are just here, like everybody else, for ourselves (and maybe, if we have 5% to spare, and larger human agenda). But only 5%: Tops!”
But no American would ever say this (except for 281 certified “realists”). In the last presidential election cycle, all the candidates, from both sects, relentlessly chatted-up “American Exceptionalism” — and yes, they were all enthusiastic supporters. But their narrative of exceptionalism was profoundly transfigured from the hagiographic rhetoric of Lincoln-Wilson-FDR (even Reagan — who after all pumped Gorbachev for a 0-nuclear world).
After 12 years of fighting the savage heathen — the ultimate Other that Muslim fighters represent in the American imagination — the nation itself has collectively (if also in its collective unconscious) come to a new understanding, verging on a new vision, of American Exceptionalism.
It goes like this: “Kill the Bad Guys. Kill them all. Just kill them. It is them or us. Democrat or Republican, we feel the same way. This is what America is all about. It is a dark world out there. Let’s get them before they get us. [To soldiers:] You fight for our freedom. You sacrifice so that what is out there cannot get here.”
Some of America’s characterization of the Other goes back to the well of the Cold War, the Soviets, and the 1950. The Soviet-ChiCom-Manichaean contribution was to prepare and condition the nation to a future of Manichaean struggle — perpetual and forever — and thus pave the way for a baseline vision of Us versus Them, and a Them that must be killed.
But there is also a yet-deeper source in national ethos, the deepest well from which we replenish our investment today in retributive justice.
The Sources of Retributive Justice
Only in the United States do righteous individuals and groups still feel empowered to exact retributive justice, even if now this is legitimately celebrated only in the orbit of folklore and art. What sets the U.S. political debate apart from that of the rest of the world is that it is only here that citizens are still seen as a source of justice equal to the state.
Rituals of gun-retribution have no working, moderating cultural framework to keep their grisly work noble and clean. Our mythic rituals slide easily into darkness. Perhaps that is why, in myth and in the movies, dark-side killing outside the law is still celebrated.
American myth, over the centuries, can be as dark as any cave painting, and in the enactment of death, just as ritually primitive. Every national ethos has its unique joys and terrors. Americans celebrate the gun as our sacred instrument of liberty. Yet guns undoubtedly bring terror when used against the nation’s very identity.
For fragile early human groups, objects of special power were critical to their very belief in themselves. They were true fetishes, in that their power protected the band in supernatural ways. Later, knives became sacred tools. Theirs was a power even over death. Then the sword became a political fetish for both rulers and their people.
Many ages removed, America’s magical object is the gun. The gun defines us and protects us. It is also the chosen instrument of sacrifice, retribution and justice.
America is a society obsessed with order, and yet a people that also revels in a collective mythic embrace of disorder. Historically, the formation of American identity has relied on a rushing torrent of pirates and freebooters that, with the benefit of glorifying hindsight, we call "pioneers" and "frontiersmen."
Their justice was personal, with group meetings meting out verdicts and punishments laid down by brotherly posse. This was face-to-face justice with a rope and a tree.
Our very myths of origin — of Minutemen and "Tea Party" — are all constructed as acts of virtuous insurgency. Like "traditional societies" — from ancient Scotland to still-ancient Afghanistan — American Liberty in the modern West has roots in the tribal rebellions against the outsider and his tyrannies.
We should not wonder that our legends of America’s chaotic birth and building are jammed with stories of retribution exacted and wrongs righted through the gun. That so much was personal, or the united conviction of stern and aroused communities, speaks to American notions of political liberty interwoven with primitive tribal threads.
It is our canon and lore. We have seen it shot through our cinema-eye — from the Johnson County War ("Heaven’s Gate") to the Battle of Matewan ("Matewan"). People are fighting The Man (read: the Establishment) or they are fighting for pure survival against the primitive. Witness John Ford’s sweeping "Drums Along the Mohawk," which righteously celebrates the slaughter of Indian nations allied to our British enemy.
But these are not simply righteous community narratives. As communities and bands and families took up the gun, so too did individual men.
That is why the American ethos is packed with personal, individual retribution and revenge. The wronged man, the husband whose wife and children have been murdered on the prairie — whether by Indians, renegades, former bunkmates, Union soldiers or robber baron minions — must now exact full and fair revenge, and maybe a bit more, just to leave a righteous maker behind.
How many American Westerns, from the recent ones such as "Defiance," "The Quick and the Dead," "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" and "Dawn Rider" to vintage ones such as "Hannie Caulder," "True Grit," and "Heaven’s Gate" — movies in which women seek retribution as much as men — are our granite rock of violent identity?
This retribution-taking man is iconic in a cycle of films by Clint Eastwood. "The Outlaw Josey Wales" reveals the wronged man fighting the whole of the unjust new Union order, one loaded Colt Army and Navy revolver after another, until his glorious death, in a personal rebellion against the state.
Even more remarkably, American retributive justice is often taken, and in a literary setting also justified, against injustice — even if that means going up against constitutionally legal authority.
But Eastwood also establishes levels of righteous retribution where a single man may justly destroy (and slaughter) an entire, wayward community. In "High Plains Drifter," he does exactly that. A bad town must be punished, and a single man — judge, jury and executioner — somehow has authority from American scripture to use the fetish stone to kill everyone in a sinner community. In "Unforgiven," he kills The Law himself.
Righteousness as retributive justice has its evil, sinning and gone-to-Hell side. For every colonial community fighting for its life against savage assault, there was much more sacrificial burning of Indian towns by us as "settlers." Witness the wholesale immolation of the Pequot nation — men, women and children — by a Puritan theocracy that had found the Pequot’s continued existence inconvenient.
Yet perhaps more was going on. Perhaps the wholesale immolation would be a beacon-as-collective-funerary-pyre that God would acknowledge to guide the Bay Theocracy. Perhaps this savage retribution against and entire people would show God that his people were still worthy.
Equally, the group massacred by a Mormon band at Mountain Meadows also represents the extinction of an entire little human community — except that they are wagon-train Americans — a disposable band of about 150 innocents. It is no easy thing to kill women and little children face-to-face. It does not take guts, rather it takes faith: The sure knowledge that these are not really human beings you are killing. That same, sure process is at the heart of contemporary American constructions of retributive justice, just as it was in the “Bloodlands” of Hitler and Stalin in World War II.
This terrible truth surfaces in highest popular relief in the current AMC series, The Walking Dead. This is of course a peerless Zombie-fest, but also a cultural testament of retribution by the gun, and an extended rite of blood-sacrifice purification, only thinly disguised as entertainment. Zombies, after all, are former people, they look like people, they “walk” like people, and yet above all, they need to be shot in the head: Man or woman or little child. They are the UR virus, the infection, the end of humanity if they kill us, so the gun and its sacrificial retribution is not merely righteous but existentially required.
The Walking Dead is thus an American dispensationalist example of classic apocalyptic literature, which speaks directly to the surging incarnation of American Exceptionalism today as retributive justice. “Killing Bad Guys” looks a lot like killing Zombies in the national imagination.
Transfigured Exceptionalism: From Redemption to Retributive Justice
“Terrorism” inhabits America’s civil-religious consciousness just as it did for Tacitus, representing “the enemy of mankind:” as an affront to light and truth. Terrorism, in the American experience, issues a divine test: Is America still beloved of the Almighty, and still his agent to redeem humankind? If not, then what shall be America’s path? Or is God showing us another way, where both the models of open sanctuary and redeemer nation are left behind for a third path. Are the failure of the 9⁄11 War and the rise of counterterrorism signs that America is moving toward a fortress of virtue, a Helm’s Deep of Humanity? We should understand three underlying dynamics.
First, Americanism is a faith as demanding as any world religion, and yet our society is too close to its belief system to be able to see how it operates as religion and thus take into account how it shapes our thinking and decision-making. We publicly invoke American exceptionalism normatively, in the same manner as medieval enunciations of Papal infallibility.
Second, Americanism fulfills its divine mission through war. It is our instrument of destiny. America demands eternal victory as much as Rome once did; defeat is unthinkable. Our shameful defeat in Vietnam forced an existential identity choice. Another loss would compromise the American identity, so we invoked the wizardry of “military transformation” to recreate ourselves as Gods of War, [xxvi] whose chosen campus was just battle.
Banners like “Shock and Awe!” highlighted the nation’s extreme confidence in the divine invincibility of American arms. By 2001 we were sure that America could no longer be defeated by force of arms. Victory in battle, rather than victory in war, became the triumphant yardstick of American exceptionalism.
Third, paradoxically, terrorism became more threatening after 9⁄11 precisely because it could not be defeated in battle. By exposing the impotence of our chosen instrument of divine will, terrorism has undermined exceptionalism by stripping away our collective belief and commitment.
Terrorism tells us we cannot fulfill the divine mission, that The City itself is vulnerable to strike, that we have lost the anointment of eternal victory. In the face of terrorist acts, our extravagantly advertised invincibility in battle did not buy us anything. In Iraq and Afghanistan, victory in battle—as opposed to victory in war—was almost valueless.
At first, in Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom (just as it was written before in Desert Storm) American Olympians swept all before them. Yet in the coming years of fruitless, Iliadic battle, even our Gods of War were in flush strength, ineffective; in wholesale killing, counterproductive. Thus terrorism led our citizens to lose faith. Here is how it played out.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 scarred and transfigured American exceptionalism. They rammed home, through biblical metaphor (the crashing walls of Jericho), a vision that stung our heart: The Fall of the City (America itself). Incapable of voicing the scriptural implications of 9/11—that we might not be able to fulfill God’s plan for America—we plunged headlong as a nation into apocalyptic war. The metaphorical power of 9⁄11 demanded transcendental response—namely, the charge from God to finish what lay incomplete since 1919 and 1945 and even 1991—the final redemption of humankind, the liberal democratic end to history.
This exceptionalist ideal of global redemption was reflected in the president’s battle plan, which promised that we would “transform the greater Middle East,” that “the road to Jerusalem lay through Baghdad,”[xxvii] that we would over time “integrate the non-integrated Gap” into the “Functioning Core,”[xxviii] and that the dominoes falling this time would be the dictators.[xxix]
Yet within five years this vision was wreckage. The United States stared at defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan. After March 2006, piece-by-piece, the entire enterprise was scrapped, replaced by an interim fallback called counterinsurgency.
Counterinsurgency (COIN) briefly dazzled a frightened Washington establishment like The Rainmaker. COIN was the fetish stone, the secret recipe, the magic formula. If America could no longer transform the world, it would at least hoist to the pole stable, working, parliamentary, pro-American regimes in Kabul and Baghdad.
But COIN gave us less than four years of war-fighting credibility before being wholly emptied of hope. In fact our war-fighting credibility was exposed as marketing oversold. COIN had no impact on events in Iraq, while in Afghanistan its failure became a fig leaf no courtier general—whether Stanley McChrystal or David Petreus—could hold in place.
In the wake of counterinsurgency’s collapse, America had yet another fallback, a strategic escape-hatch: persistent, unmanned, global strikes—the jewel-in the-crown of a strategy called counterterrorism. Counterterrorism tells us it is not Fortress America; it is not hopeless isolationism. Counterterrorism says it upholds the global stature of America, but it does so through elaborate geographical fiction.
Counterterrorism presents us with a magical vehicle: The magnificent, unblinking, always obedient robot-hoplites that range the world freely. They kill without regard to national borders or international law.[xxx] In reality, counterterrorism is as much a transformation of doctrine as if it were a return to 1930s-style isolationism.
In the 1930s—in the fleeting moment of the neutrality acts—America was burdened and afraid. The world system was falling apart, and US society was inwardly focused just to survive. For a moment the nation became a walled city on a hill, a fearful entrenchment wholly at odds with actual American power (we were then one-third of the world economy).
Similarly, global counterterrorism represents an alternative, if recessional packaging of American exceptionalism. Yet unlike isolationism, it is not framed as a strategic breather, a momentary hunkering-down. It is a new vision of America’s relationship to the world, distinct both from John Winthrop’s vision of a sanctuary serving as an example to outsiders and from FDR’s vision of active global engagement.
No longer is the world to be redeemed; instead much of humanity is now considered irredeemable, or at best an enduring threat to Americanism. America may still be God’s chosen nation, but it can no longer pretend that battle-altruism—“We come in peace,” “We are here to help”—can save lost societies. Instead only those “nations that want to live in peace and liberty” are worthy.[xxxi] The new canon describes those peoples we once sought to redeem as breeding grounds of terrorism. Why might this new narrative represent new “scripture”? — Because it marks such a complete break from the prior evolution of Americanism.
This new take on American exceptionalism seeks to keep a savage and primitive world at bay. That this same world was long ago the focus of U.S. altruism—the redeemer—is of zero importance now, as America seeks perfect security. American exceptionalism is now based almost wholly on punishment rather than redemption.
Should it be surprising that American leaders and citizens so readily abandoned its traditional notion of exceptionalism after just ten years of disappointment and frustration? Perhaps this last great national project was doomed by its transparent selfishness; it was cast as a government-only enterprise that sidelined the American people as passive actors, asked only to “go shopping.”[xxxii]
Perhaps it could not survive the shock of passionate Muslim resistance against our benevolent tutelage (and against the tyrants we supplicated for 30 years). This war severed the pure-of-heart liberator narrative of America, the stainless knight.[xxxiii]
In light of this disappointment, maybe it is easy now for Americans to shrug and say, “Whosoever moves against us, kill them.” Eighty-three percent of Americans support the Obama administration’s use of drones—with enthusiasm—including 77 percent of Democrats.[xxxiv] This suggests that Americans do not question the collateral killing of family members, even in weddings and funerals, or the global disregard of sovereignty, or the execution of American citizens without due process.[xxxv]
On The Daily Show a liberal New York audience broke into cheers when Jon Stewart rebutted Rep. Steve King’s (R, Iowa) 2008 assertion that if Obama were elected, “radical Islamists and their supporters would be dancing in the streets,” with, “talk about hitting the nail on the head, if you were to replace the word ‘dancing’ with ‘dodging unmanned drone missiles raining hell from the sky.”[xxxvi]
Liberal New Yorkers were actually cheerleading the current US counterterrorism campaign. They were not applauding how archly Stewart eviscerated various GOP flacks. Rather, they were giving “props” to their president’s “chops”—as manly a killer as his predecessor. This TV affirmation over a year ago perhaps represents the informal plebiscite on which the current presidential administration bases its drone-policy legitimacy. As of yet there is no grassroots outcry, no mass demonstrations against it.
Retributive Justice Supreme
Can so deeply-rooted a civil religion simply discard its core affirmation of faith, substituting an atavistic Biblical-retributive doctrine, and still keep both integrity and coherence? Yes. Republican presidential candidates are the best illustration of how it can be done. Instead of uniting the world through American divine agency, a new ringing rhetoric calls for the dividing of humanity.
Newt Gingrich quotes FDR’s wartime speech. But Roosevelt was calling for urgent destruction of the Demiurge and the world’s rescue, in the name of all people. By contrast, America’s new mission, tub-thumped through 2012 by GOP candidates, affirms our otherness—America is “set apart from other nations.” Mitt Romney avows that we will not permit a world without American domination. But through drone strikes as our national MO, the other, Democratic Sect, has essentially affirmed Romney’s charge.
America’s new affirmation of faith has abandoned universal deliverance in exchange for a state of permanent struggle against an entire swathe of humankind. The origins of this may go back to the Cold War and our acceptance, contra FDR, of living with the Demiurge. But more critically, the agency of counterterrorism is at once the signal, vessel, and icon of a very new and transformed conception of American identity.
Informed deeply by a substrate of retributive justice, the new exceptionalism is all about affirming commitment to only a limited compass of good humans against a polluted sea spawning bad humans. Hence it asserts an altered framework of the sacred for the American civil religion. No longer animated by a millennial vision of redemption, the new national credo speaks more forcefully for preservation of those virtuous bastions, even Helm’s Deep sanctuaries that represent other loan words for Americanism as “Civilization.”
Pathos watches how we let go of American universalism.
While Americanism may still reign as modernity’s strongest civil religion, yet it has become the religion of a people united by the weakest of tribal bonds. Moving American exceptionalism away from Universalist visions of redemption and back to retributive justice is itself an admission of weakness and fear — and the impending end of its own Universalist claim.
Benedict Anderson might have called America the ultimate “imagined community.” A nation that is fundamentally an idea must at all costs defend this idea, lest faith and thus identity fail us. Yet such an idea—full of universal calling—must also be confident that it can overcome any assault.
American exceptionalism is this idea, yet it has lost its confidence entirely, and lives now only to survive. So terrorism has come to dominate our religion in unconquerable antithesis. In today’s American civil-religious thought, terrorism is the Devil himself—and the Devil drives. Yet the Devil is within us.
[i] Gingrich, Opening Statement on American Exceptionalism.
[ii] Romney, Remarks on Foreign Policy at The Citadel.
[iii] Gingrich, A Nation Like No Other, 6.
[iv] Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity.”
[v] Roosevelt, Radio Address, 27 May 1941.
[vi] Zedong, On Guerilla Warfare, 93.
[vii] Stiles, “The United States Elevated.”
[viii] See Bellah, “Religion in America.”
[ix] When I last visited U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Headquarters, the most popular—and ever addictive—video game played by elite “First Cohort” legionnaires was far and away “Halo.” Visit “Halo Nation” to discover the mythic roots of this dreamscape of eternal combat: http://halo.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page.
[x] Isaacson, “Empire.”
[xi] Michael McCormick, Eternal Victory.
[xii] “Carnuntum.” In this short, animated reconstruction, we go inside the buildings of a standard frontier cohort fort, this one near Bad Deutsch Altenberg, and we get to actually see the sacellum. See http://www.carnuntum.co.at/park/ihr-besuch-in-carnuntum for the archaeology and excavation.
[xiii] Clausewitz, On War, 89.
[xiv] Schlesinger, “Political Mobs.”
[xv] See Vlahos, Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change.
[xvi] See Anderson, Imagined Communities.
[xvii] Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 66.
[xviii] See Wilken, Christians; Brown, Late Antiquity.
[xix] George Orwell, 1984: “He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
[xx] William G. Hartley, Missouri’s 1838 Extermination Order and the Mormon’s Forced Removal to Illinois, Mormon Historical Studies, Spring, 2001.
[xxi] Ronald W. Walker and Richard. E. Turley, Jr., Mountain Meadows Massacre: The Andrew Jensen and David H. Morris Collections, BYU Studies, 2009: A major compilation of key original source material.
[xxii] Thomas Cottam Romney, The Mormon Colonies in Mexico, University of Utah Press, 1938;
[xxiii] “Paris is worth a Mass” is what Henri IV, as the putative savior of the French nation, made the way forward for French national identity a single declaration. For him, however brilliant, it failed, because a Jesuit assassin still got to his heart. But in sympathy, for Mormons, it has been their brilliant way ahead: To be in true bi-polarity, both of the Body and yet forever separate and pure, at once and the same time. The third (stealth) sect in the American religious firmament?
[xxiv] Voline, The Unknown Revolution, Paris, 1947,
[xxv] Michael J. Schaack, Anarchy and Anarchists: A History of the Red Terror, and the Social Revolution in America and Europe, F.J. Schulte and Co., 1889, http://homicide.northwestern.edu/pubs/anarchy/
[xxvi] Vlahos, “Defeating the Gods of War.”
[xxvii] Packer, “Dreaming of Democracy.”
[xxviii] Barnett, “The Pentagon’s New Map.”
[xxix] Carothers, “Democracy Promotion.”
[xxx] Miller, “Under Obama, “An Emerging Apparatus for Drone-killing.”
[xxxi] Gingrich, A Nation Like No Other, 231.
[xxxii] Bush, 20 December 2006 Remarks.
[xxxiii] Wasserman, World’s Illusion. The title of Wasserman’s magisterial interwar novel, wrestling with the individual’s commitment to humanity, as American exceptionalism has struggled with this nation’s oath and charge to Humankind, begins with a deeply ironical first chapter: “Crammon, the Stainless Knight.”
[xxxiv] Greenwald, “Repulsive Progressive Hypocrisy.”
[xxxv] Wilson and Cohen, “Poll Finds Broad Support for Obama’s Counterterrorism Policies.”
[xxxvi] Comedy Central, “The Daily Show,” 22 February 2012.