The recent violence displayed in the Capitol, towards the end of Trump’s administration, has offered a brief glimpse of the violence around the world caused by America’s interfering foreign policy. The USA’s War on Terror is a brilliant example of how colonialism has been preserved in essence and been modernised, rather than eradicated. Language is an important detail in this modernisation: colonies are now called Spheres of Influence. The consequences are the same: economic gain for imperial powers through the desecration of other countries.
In Western societies, we wilfully have selective memories and fluctuating moral standards. For instance, racism in our own country is an atrocity, but racism (and even torture for that matter) is acceptable when our government commits it abroad. This is perhaps best viewed through the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal, a prison active during the Iraq war in which detainees were subject to physical torture, sexual abuse, and murder by members of the US army and CIA (I would suggest viewing the sadistic photos taken by the officers). I bring this up not to show one instance of the horrific treatment of natives during wartime, but because the criminals involved received disgustingly light punishments: 11 soldiers were convicted of various charges, the longest being 10 years (only 6 after parole), and three other soldiers were cleared of all charges. Crucially, no one was convicted of murder.
Evidently, in the 21st century, modern colonial powers can enter countries through the guise of human rights and international protection, and, literally, murder, rape, and torture without significant repercussions. I also use Abu Ghraib as an example of how, even in the most extreme cases our outrage is brief— in truth, Iraqi lives do not matter, because they are tortured and murdered far from our homes. The issue with labelling cases like these as tragedies is the comfort we take in acknowledging the horror without fathoming it— as Tony Kushner observes, the word ‘tragedy’ merely serves as a “rhetorical dead-end, and thus, prevents us from fully comprehending an event whilst also aiding us in forgetting it”.
As a society, we need to come to terms with that fact: that on a government level we do not care about human rights when set against our own self-interest. Otherwise, we would have sanctions on China for its concentration camps; would not sell weapons to Saudi Arabia; and would take a more active role in preventing Israeli illegal settlements in the West Bank.
There is a wonderful moment in an interview with Trump after the assassination of Khashoggi, in which we get a rare confirmation on the USA’s view on human rights violations: “I’m not going to tell a country that’s spending hundreds of billions of dollars and has helped me do one thing very importantly, keep oil prices down… it’s about America first” (NBS News, 2018). I have great respect for how refreshingly explicit this is; there is no farce, just pure logic: Saudi Arabia powers Western economies, and thus it can do as it likes until it is no longer of use. This is not unique to Trump- it follows all previous US administrations’ reactions to human rights violations; the only extraordinary aspect is how honest about it Trump is.
Aggressive foreign policy has become normalised within the social psyche. One instance of this was multiple news outlets reporting that there were more US troops in the Capitol a week ahead of Biden’s inauguration than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. The fact it is considered shocking that there were more American troops stationed to protect the president, than meddling in another continent, is a damning indictment upon the international acceptance of America’s role as a modern colonial power.
Ultimately, there is a huge double standard in the way we, as Western societies, view human rights, and when we choose to make them matter. There is a very encouraging movement to decolonise history which has emerged in mainstream culture. However, it is perhaps important to acknowledge that colonial remnants linger not only in academia, but modern foreign policy and our social views of the so-called Global South as well.
We share a frighteningly similar psychology with our colonial ancestors, one that used to allow us to excuse the horrors of slavery and colonial brutality.
A protest in front of the White House on the 17th anniversary of Guantanamo Bay, where the US has historically tortured suspected criminals, via Flickr