One Week, Three Lessons on the Exclusivity of Exceptionalism in America

04/27/2015 01:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015
JIM WATSON via Getty Images

Three events in the week beginning April 20, 2015, show convincingly that the American promise of national and global societal justice is a lie. They specifically show that in this new American century, one's economic status, access to power, and place of birth determine one's access to human rights and equal protection under the law. Any illusions to the contrary are just that.

The separating of people into groups in which the privileged few look at the disadvantaged other is a byproduct of the extreme nationalism of the modern nation state. The United States has the unique status of being able to apply this "othering" to not only the underclass in its own society but also around the globe is due to its position as the world's only superpower.

This week has been particularly noxious in terms of showing the intrinsic injustice in the American system, both on a foreign and domestic scale. In truth, any week of the past few decades could. To show the scope and scale of this week's object lessons, we'll forgo chronological order and instead focus on the events broadly to narrowly, from global to local.


This week the president took the unprecedented step of confirming publicly that his administration's drone program was responsible for the deaths of two Al Qaeda hostages. One, Warren Weinstein, was a U.S. national, and the other, Giovanni Lo Porto, was Italian. The president expressed great sorrow at the loss of innocent life and gave his personal condolences to the men's families. A visibly distraught Obama went a step further and took direct responsibility for the loss of innocent life.

Contrast that attitude with the administration's words on innocent civilians who are not western nationals and you'll find a very different take. When the administration acknowledges that its attacks kill innocent civilians, those victims are not given the courtesy of being named or even counted. They are, instead, referred to abstractly and their deaths are seen as at most a "regrettable" cost of the war on terror. No public official holds a press conference to admit culpability in their deaths. No public official expresses personal, individualized regret, when they express regret at all.


David Petraeus was sentenced for his role in leaking sensitive documents to his lover for her laudatory biography of him. Given the sentences handed down to such leakers as Chelsea Manning and John Kiriakou, one might expect Petraeus to face some jail time and sever curtailment of his movement. Instead, of course, Petraeus was sentenced to two years of probation and a fine of 100,000 dollars. The probation will not stop his freedom to travel across the country to give speeches, where he will earn more than the cost of his fine and then some for one such stop.

This isn't surprising to anyone who has paid any attention to the politicization of the prosecutions of Manning and Kiriakou versus the prosecution of Petraeus. For the former, their actions are seen as "treason" and their prosecutions are met with at best a stony silence. For the latter, after being publicly outed as a philandering leaker of documents for self-aggrandizement, his prosecution is deemed "suffered enough" and he is welcomed back to the White House in an advisory role less than two years after resigning in disgrace from the CIA, and while his trial was ongoing.


It seems that being the son of a prominent Washington politician gives you a license to abuse the police arresting you in ways that have demonstrably led to death for young men of color in similar situations. Rand Paul's son William discovered this on Sunday morning, April 19, when he was cited -- not arrested -- for DUI. The younger Paul's behavior was described as "belligerent." In spite of that fact, William Paul was released from hospital and not held by the police.

Contrast that arrest with the arrest and subsequent death in police custody of Freddy Gray of Baltimore, Maryland. Four hours before William Paul was cited, Freddie Gray died in a Baltimore area hospital from complications from a spinal column fracture that happened at some point while in police custody. Gray's crime, almost a week prior to his death, was running away from a police detail in a Baltimore neighborhood looking for drug dealers. Somehow, during his arrest and booking, his spinal cord was broken and he was injured severely enough to kill him less than seven days later. Contrast that with the treatment of the "belligerent" Mr. Paul, who was cited and released with no bodily injury.

The three examples given here expose the corrupt injustice at the heart of American society. On a global level, the idea of the importance and uniqueness of life being exclusive to the U.S. and her allies leads to the non-western victims of drone warfare being described in broad terms that rob them of autonomy and individual identity. On the national level, those with access to the high reaches of power and influence in the government get a fraction of the punishment for crimes their lesser connected counterparts can lose years of their lives to. And this bleeds down to the local level, where the same institution that kills a Baltimore man in the course of arresting him for running away frees the rich son of a politician for an actual crime.

The relentless "othering" of the global, national, and local underclass by those in power has consequences. These consequences are obvious this week. Victims of international aggression are only acknowledged as people when they are Western nationals. Architects of policy have rights and privileges those who expose the abuses in the policy do not. A member of the American political aristocracy is treated deferentially for his crime by the institution that kills a poor black man of a similar age for no crime at all.

If America wants to present itself as the arbiter of human rights, justice, and upward mobility around the globe and at home -- as its leaders constantly assert they do -- then societal change is needed, desperately. This week has thrown that fact into stark relief.