If the U.S. Were a Person, Would It Have a Conscience?

One perennially-tempting metaphor that’s been tempting me more than usual lately is the one that compares a nation to a person. In some ways the United States today is behaving like a person faced with an accusation of wrongdoing.

The United States has a public image to protect, as well as a self-image to defend (Dubya’s “the America I know”), an eagerness to sweep its misbehavior under the rug, and a proliferation of storylines it tries out when conflicts between these images and reality come to the surface.

This suggests at first that, to the extent that this anthropomorphization metaphor is worthwhile, the United States is not psychopathic or infantile — it has a conscience and a far-from-well-developed ethical instinct, which is one step up from having no conscience at all.

On the other hand, even the psychopath will start coming up with a bouquet of justifications if he is caught, sounding for all the world as if he really cared. So it’s worth noticing that the corresponding bouquet of shocked and disgusted Senators only went on display because photos of the abuse in Abu Ghraib made denial of the obvious impossible.

(A checklist of characteristics common to psychopaths reads alarmingly well as a description of recent American policy and policymakers. And as a side note here are some justifications that you might be tempted to label psychopathic if it weren’t so unfair to psychopaths: 1. why are we so upset about torturing and raping a bunch of terrorists anyway?, 2. if you think those pictures were bad you should see gay porn!, 3. General Taguba’s an embittered, disgruntled liar, 4. ’twasn’t anything worse than your average fraternity hazing.)

For the purpose of argument, though, let’s let hope rule: There is a respectable public murmur of consternation even over those of our misdeeds that we could plausibly deny, and if our metaphor holds, we can call this evidence of a collective conscience.

So if this metaphor is going to be a helpful one, we next need to figure out how a person goes from being a psychopath, to being concerned with justifying her behavior by lying to herself and others, to being someone who fully owns her behavior and whose self-image matches her actual motivations and actions. (Or maybe it makes more sense to look at how ethical development takes place in children.) Then we can see if there is anything from this we can apply to the nation, using the metaphor as guidance, that seems like it would do any good.

I haven’t gotten much further along this path. My instincts tell me that instead of getting useful it will just get more and more speculative and science-fictionish.

I can’t imagine that there’s a good “cell’s-eye” view story of how to reform the ethics of a body — and that’s what you and I are, right: cells in the body politic? Are we just individually to try to become stronger voices of conscience, shouting louder than the justifications and the denial? I don’t know that this would be helpful. After all, Joe Lieberman and Christopher Hitchens see themselves in this lonely moral prophet mode too. It seems that such people are as likely to come up with more cleverly-worded justifications as they are to cut through them.

The metaphor does suggest a reason why reasoned arguments have been unable to stop the war, and why the collapse of the premises of the reasoned arguments that we rode to war on didn’t stop or discredit it.

If you want to litter, or cheat on your spouse, or pad your résumé or whatever, but you don’t want to own up to having these sinful desires, you try out justifications and redefinitions and denials and such until you find the best of the bunch. You hold onto one, but if it gives way that doesn’t really matter since there are more to choose from, and you weren’t really attached to the justification so much as to the behavior.

So if the metaphor holds here, it suggests that America didn’t so much want to protect itself from weapons of mass destruction, it didn’t so much want to prevent Saddam from conspiring with Al Qaeda to attack us or sending nukes to North Korea, it didn’t so much want to save the oppressed prisoners in the rape rooms of Abu Ghraib. What it really did want was to invade Iraq — either for reasons it didn’t want to acknowledge, or just because — and those were the best excuses it could come up with.

(So the story would go like this: Why did America go to war in Iraq? It wasn’t for reasons but because America was angry. It had just gotten sucker-punched by Al Qaeda in New York and it tried to hit back but just ended up kind of flailing away at Afghanistan which wasn’t very satisfying. And it still kind of bore a grudge against Iraq since a decade before. Why? did America attack Iraq — do you ask why a spouse abuser beats a spouse? No. You just try to stop the abuse and encourage other ways of coping with anger and frustration.)

I’m bringing all this up not because I think this metaphor can support all of the weight I’m putting on it, but just because speculations like this have been suggesting themselves to me lately. It’s as silly to blame a handful of sadistic prison guards as it is to blame the Secretary of Defense. No — the problem goes all the way to the top. It doesn’t stop at Dubya, but at the country that permits him to be the Commander-in-Chief and Hider of Things We’d Rather Not Know.

More and more, the part of my brain that interprets the behavior of individual people is lighting up when it tries to integrate and synthesize what it learns about the behavior of the U.S. as a nation. Sometimes these intuitions are false alarms that mislead, other times they’re helpful, and in this case it’s probably a mixed bag.

I’m noticing that people who used to support the war and now don’t are going through this middle-stage of stepping from plausible reason to new plausible reason as each old one burns behind them. Each reason is a little worse than the last one, and so at each stage a handful of people bail out — “I was for the war until…” until I found out there were no weapons of mass destruction, until I realized that Dubya was as inept as he sounded, until all of Colin Powell’s fairy tales dissolved into pixie dust, etc.

The saddest of these have been the people who were for the war, but only the good parts, and now that the war has actually come to pass, with all of its bad parts, they’re against it (or are starting to lean that way). They were all for deposing the dictator, bringing democracy, removing a threat, ushering in a new era of representative government in the region and all that. And that’s why they supported the war. But they never wanted the “transfer tubes,” mass civilian casualties, photographs of American sadists in action, chaotic clashing warlords, regional instability, deficit spending, military overreach, red-white-and-blue gulags and all that. Who knew that war is a package deal?

The last great plank on this burning bridge of reasons to keep our troops fighting in Iraq (or, as Kerry would dissent, to send even more troops in) is that we can’t leave now — we’ve got to fix what we’ve broken. If we just cut-and-run, bad things will happen — chaos, civil war, bloodshed.

I sometimes get emails asking me to propose solutions or make suggestions. Fine. Today’s lesson: don’t rape, don’t torture, don’t kill and get out while you can — while it still looks like you have a choice… Chaos? Civil war? Bloodshed? We’ll take our chances — just take your Puppets, your tanks, your smart weapons, your dumb politicians, your lies, your empty promises, your rapists, your sadistic torturers and go.

“River” of the Baghdad Burning blog