The analyst Van Jones exclaimed on CNN that “where we’re headed looks more like Syria than the United States of America.” ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz told viewers: “I’m not in Baghdad. I’m not in Kabul. I’m not in a dangerous situation overseas. We are in America.” CNN anchor Jake Tapper brought some diversity to the stereotyping, saying he felt he was speaking to a correspondent in “Bogota.”
Others chose to be less explicit, but the message read similarly. President-elect Joe Biden weighed in, saying events “do not reflect a true America. Do not represent who we are.” Former President George W. Bush said it recalled “a banana republic,” not the United States.
Those of us living in the United States who hail from the Middle East have long felt the costs of a discourse that views our region exclusively through the lens of violence and extremism. It is not only ignorant but it also breeds Islamophobia and racism.
It would be bad if that were the whole problem, but it isn’t. We always characterize political violence as something endemic to that place over there — invariably a place populated by Black and Brown folk — without providing important political and historical context.
We just think “we are better than that,” “America is exceptional.” What these experts, journalists and politicians were doing by reacting in that way — in the midst of an insurrection stoked by the U.S. president and fed by years of misinformation on right-wing media — was simply hurling Trump’s “shithole countries” insult in a more indirect but no less ignorant way.
The problem is further compounded by the fact that thinking of political violence as something that happens over there conveniently absolves the United States of any responsibility for it. This could not be further from the truth, as the United States has routinely helped overthrow governments in the “Third World” and props up countless dictators whose anti-democratic agendas fuel political instability and oppression.
The comments also elide the very real and bloody history of political violence in the United States — a nation founded on the genocide of Indigenous peoples through settler colonialism, built with slave labor pilfered from Africa and governed by a state that has often curtailed the rights and liberties of people for a wide range of reasons.
If Americans are storming the Capitol carrying Confederate flags, one need not go to Syria to draw comparison. In fact, one need not go anywhere at all.
Our foreign affairs conversation, particularly over the past 30 years, has become so dominated by the association of political violence with the Middle East that we are almost incapable of conceptualizing one separate from the other. Why would American journalists describing American events to American viewers find it necessary to reach thousands of miles for comparison? Our information providers and information consumers are woefully undereducated about our own history of political violence. The inability to imagine American political violence has also created a massive blind spot to right-wing extremism that has increasingly been exploited.
All of this is tied to a fundamental myth that is characteristic of empire: that of American exceptionalism. It serves as an ideological defense for much of what we do around the world. We don’t bomb, invade and destroy, we “bring democracy,” “nation-build” and “lead the world.” But Americans are no less prone to political violence than any other peoples on earth. If anything, we might be more prone to it, precisely because we convince ourselves that when we do it, it is justified and when it isn’t justified, it is not really us.
But there is America the myth, and there is America the reality. If we ever want the America we are living in to be closer to the one we imagine, we need to confront the reality for what it is, and that reality is homegrown, not foreign, and yes, it is ugly. Let’s finally retire a discourse that portrays political violence as something that happens where Black and Brown folk come from. Failing to do so actively makes it harder to confront the truths we absolutely must to make this nation a better place.