"Exceptional" Lives

05/19/2011 12:54 pm ET | Updated Jul 19, 2011

American lives were not exceptional when it came to bin Laden's terror.
Far more Muslims were murdered than Americans, Europeans and other
westerners. And there is a good reason why some of us ignore this.

Anyone who grew up in America during the 50s will remember the catechism
of nationalism that pervaded our homes and classrooms. From kindergarten
through high school, we heard from both our parents and teachers that
"Americans are better than others," and "everybody else in the world wishes they could
be American." We didn't have a name for it until university when we enrolled in
Poly Sci 101, but this mentality comes under the rubric of "American exceptionalism."

Later, those of us who as adults traveled abroad were shocked when we learned
it was a myth, a theory at best and not necessarily true. Experiences in France and
Great Britain opened our eyes to other nationalities while in Scandinavia, we actually
encountered pity. Life in American society must be hell for its weakest members,
the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians claimed. "Why?" they asked, "don't you take better
care of your sick, elderly, unemployed and small children whose mothers must work
in the absence of competent childcare?"

America never had feudalism. America never had royalty and was always a republic. America never had rigid social classes with impermeable barriers. The majority of Americans believe in God and the unique conviction that our rights come from the Creator and not come from the government. This belief glorifies the individual personality, giving responsibility to the individual -- not the state. And because it comes from God, individualism is assumed to be morally superior to collective action.

American society is a monument to "rugged" individualism or more poetically, social Darwinism. Families must take care of their own. Those in need without families must rely on charity. Families without resources must rely on private sector philanthropy. In trouble?
Get in line! And be quick! There's a limit to what's available. First come, first served.

This devotion to individualism is a Puritan ethic. From colonial times, America's puritanical culture made it different from other nations; a moral example to the rest of the world: "the city upon a hill," exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries.

Today, the USA is not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) because the American government argues that U.S. officials and military forces should be exempted from the court's jurisdiction. Why? Because the CIA, certain government officials and drones are crucial to international peace and security. Non-Americans -- i.e., the rest of the world -- interpret this to mean that America is not to be held accountable for its actions. But why should it be? America is an exception.

Perhaps this was the mindset of those who turned the announcement of Osama bin Laden's death into a carnival. Instead of lighting candles to honor the dead, people sadly forgot about the thousands of lives al Qaeda took in the name of global jihad. Indisputably, far more Muslims have been murdered than non-Muslims because Al Qaeda's "near enemies" always took precedence over "far enemies." According to al Qaeda doctrine, Shiite Muslims, Sufi Muslims and secular Muslims are apostates and they must die.

Consider the bombings at the Imam Ali Mosque; in Irbil and Istanbul; on the SuperFerry; and the bloody massacres at Ashura and Al-Khobar. Remember Sharm el-Sheikh when the majority of the dead were Egyptians and over 200 were wounded by the blasts, making the attack the deadliest terrorist action in the country's history. Consider the bombings at the Amman hotel; in Algiers, Kandahar, Basra, Musayyib and Baghdad (9/05, 2/07, 4/07, 8/09, 10/09, 4/10). Remember the attacks in Khanaqin; at the Buratha Mosque; in Sadr City and the battle of Tal Afar.

In no way is this partial list designed to diminish the significance of 9/11 -- or to ignore London's 7/7 or Madrid -- but it does underscore that Americans were not "exceptional" when it came to bin Laden's terrorism. Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy went to Ground Zero expecting dignity on the announcement of bin Laden's death. Instead she found Super Bowl atmosphere and a fraternity party. As she says in the Guardian: "Good riddance, bin Laden! I detested your nihilistic violence!"

Yes, his death was welcome and few dispute this. But it is a shame some of America's youth, many of whom were too young to have been truly aware of 9/11, chose to reinforce America's sense of its exceptionalism. Do they think that the life of an American is worth more than the life of another nationality?