The president’s dramatic announcement over a week ago that U.S. commandos had killed Osama Bin Laden at once raised questions. What were the precise circumstances of the killing? What are the likely consequences for al Qaeda and its regional affiliates? What are the implications for the U.S. stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan? We are not going to get clear answers any time soon on these matters. What does seem clear is how a sense of national exceptionalism has informed much of the U.S. reaction to the announcement. The notion of the United States as a special country and Americans as a special people with a unique historical destiny has long been an essential element in U.S. nationalism. The current commentary provides a reminder of how much exceptionalism is still with us.
Attempts to defend the crowds cheering bin Laden’s death got me thinking. While some bemoaned unseemly celebration, the defenders saw a simple, understandable release of patriotic emotion—“collective effervescence” in the words of a social psychologist. This patriotism was a welcome expression of solidarity that commentators felt was all too often missing in American life of late and far indeed from the brutish, hatred-filled nationalism at work in other lands.
This distinction between good, clean patriotic fun and sinister nationalism follows a time-tested formula for setting the United States apart from other countries. They have nationalism; we have patriotism. Driven by nationalism, they do terrible things. A benign patriotism keeps Americans moving along moderate and enlightened paths.
Most students of nationalism would choke on this distinction grounded essentially, as it is, on a subjective judgment about whether a set of ideas has good or bad effects. They would regard national solidarity, whatever it is called, deeply rooted in notions of group difference. Indeed, most specialists would see both nationalism and patriotism dependent on drawing us-them boundaries, from which arise pride, fervor, and intergroup stereotyping with the potential for conflict.
How strong the group solidarity is, how rigid the boundaries against others, and how dehumanized those others may seem are all variables that determine to what extent the solidarity (whatever it is called) turns into hostility. The American experience is filled with examples of nationalism demonizing “aliens” at home as well as abroad. The post-9/11 stereotyping of Muslims is the most recent example of boundary building. Earlier instances of deep suspicion and commonplace violence were directed against Native Americans and African Americans, Latinos, European immigrants, Japanese and Japanese Americans, and “Reds” in all sorts of guises. That American nationalists are as subject to bouts of foreign hating may be an unpleasant truth to those who want to see the United States as exceptional, but it is a truth nonetheless.
This unspoken sense of U.S. exceptionalism has entered the picture in a second way: the strained attempt to find a legal basis for the Bin Laden killing. For a nation committed to the rule of law at home and nominally in international affairs, the impulse to seek legal ground is understandable. The results are far from compelling.
Some point to the UN Security Council resolution 1368 of 12 September 2001 in response to the attacks in the United States the day before. To be sure, the resolution invoked the right of self defense, but it says nothing directly about the ground rules for handling terrorists.
Others take heart from a pronouncement by UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial killings Philip Alston. He has declared that targeted killing can be legal. But he and other special UN rapporteurs have laid down standards. The killing of suspected terrorists is permissible only in self defense or in the defense of others. Alston has chided Washington for failing to provide a credible public accounting that would clarify whether the Bin Laden raid or for that matter the CIA-conducted drone attacks meet the standard.
Finally, making bin Laden into an “enemy combatant” won’t provide compelling legal cover. The category is a U.S. invention without international law status, indeed created to get around international law while pretending to stay within its bounds. The U.S. position in the final analysis appears to be that exceptional people have the prerogative to create their own rules.
Nationalism is one of the most potent forces in modern global politics. To pretend that the United States is not as much as any country caught in its grip is to misunderstand ourselves but also to open ourselves to the very excesses we condemn in others. The capacity to step back and see ourselves with a degree of detachment is one of the prime checks on nationalist excesses. Tolerating or ignoring the miasma that exceptionalism casts over us, by contrast, is likely to increase the odds that we will commit those excesses.
To imagine ourselves immune to nationalism is also to misunderstand our situation. By exempting ourselves as special people from international standards, we give leaders elsewhere a justification for conducting their own snatch or kill operations wherever they please. We may think we are serving justice, but the more likely consequence is frayed international trust and cooperation and ultimately less security for the United States.
Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His ten books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his website.