08/05/2013 10:56 am ET | Updated Oct 05, 2013

Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars and the Cost of Us-Them Thinking

I just saw Jeremy Scahill's documentary Dirty Wars, and it got me thinking about the phrase "American lives." You hear it from politicians all the time: it's the thing they're going to protect, the thing that motivates the policies they're going to adopt or the actions they've already taken. And like any phrase that you repeat too many times, it starts to sound strange.

Because what, really, are American lives? What is it to be an American? What is it that unites all of us and distinguishes us from all of them?

Nothing. There's just nothing - no cultural trait or practice, no single history, not even a language - that meets that description. We don't even all live in America; plenty of US citizens make their homes around the globe. (You might say that we're all under the jurisdiction of the American government, but that just seems circular.)

In other words, being an American is nothing other than being human, with a label attached. Which means that being American is the same thing, minus the label. Which means that the thing that distinguishes us from everyone else is just the label - just a word. In some sense, it's literally nothing more than drawing a line and saying, We're on this side, and you're on that side.


And at a very basic, practical level, there might be nothing wrong with that. This coming year, I'm going to be a student teacher. And while I don't believe that my students' prospects are any more important than those of the kids in the next classroom, I will be spending my time and energy looking after the kids in my classroom.

You might suggest that this is the same attitude that many of our politicians adopt - a pragmatic recognition of the fact that they're from this place, not another, and that they can only do so much.

But of course, the us-them distinction goes much deeper than that. Deep down, many of us really do believe that American lives are more important than others (and our foreign policy bears that out). And this distinction grows out of something even more basic - our preference for ourselves over others. If we go still one layer further, we begin to see that this preference is based on a profound illusion - the mistaken view that the self and other are separate.

But even if you don't want to go that last step - and I'm not sure this is the right place to go into all of that, anyway - it should be pretty clear that we value our own lives and our own experience way, way more than those of other people.

The fact is that most of us - me included - are massively selfish. We spend almost all of our time monitoring our own emotional states, making fine-grained calculations about what we can do we to feel better or avoid feeling worse. What little time or attention we direct toward others is often also - and in some cases, entirely - in covert service to ourselves. We are walking, talking egos, endlessly driven by hope and fear and often completely oblivious to the way our words and actions affect others. (This is the kind of thing that becomes abundantly clear through meditation practice, for example, but I actually think many of us sense it already. We just don't like to acknowledge it, because unless we've truly encountered practices like meditation, we don't know any other way.)

We do all of this because we take ourselves to be real - solid, freestanding, autonomous individuals, fundamentally separate from those around us. What's more, we understand our interests to be fundamentally distinct from (and in conflict with) those of other people. We lose touch entirely with our role in what King called the "inescapable network of mutuality." Instead, we conceive of the world as a finite pie, of life as an endless series of zero-sum games. In such a world, other human beings are no longer sacred vessels or profound mysteries. They're no longer even really visible as human beings. They're simply competitors, obstacles to us getting what we want. And they quickly become the objects of our aggression.

As with us at the individual level, so with the nation as a whole. In a world in which

a) our leaders believe Americans to matter more than other human beings,

b) our leaders understand their primary obligation to be keeping us safe, and

c) no perfect safety or security is possible,

We have a perfect recipe for a deeply fearful, incredibly aggressive, and increasingly out-of-control foreign policy. And this seems to be exactly what Scahill wants to show us -- that when we see the world in us-vs.-them terms, we end up acting so destructively that we create the very enemies we so fear.

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