Bonhoeffer and the Brennan Hearings: The Nazis Are Coming and They Are Us
Ever since I started reading and teaching Dietrich Bonhoeffer 40 years ago I’ve been haunted by the idea that my country is reliving the history of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer, of course was the Lutheran pastor who joined in the “Confessing Church” that opposed Hitler while mainline churches were expressing enthusiastic support for der Führer. He and other thought leaders like Pastor Martin Niemoller could see Germany’s tragedy coming. Others blinded by flag-waving nationalism called them fools, alarmists, and traitors.
The problem was (and remains) that the takeover of fascism (which I define as “capitalism in crisis”) happened gradually. However, in our own case, the process has accelerated to the point where it should be evident to everyone. In fact were it not for the power of “group think,” most would reach this conclusion simply by watching the recent Senate hearings on John Brennan’s appointment as director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The inescapable deduction: the Nazis are here and they are us.
Nazis, of course, believed in the inherent superiority of their Arian Race of blond, blue-eyed darlings of the Gods. As the indispensable nation, it was their vocation to rule the world and to rid it of evil represented by lesser peoples, some of whom were deemed inherently evil. So of course, as indispensable, Nazis were not bound by the same laws as others. They could wage wars of aggression, invade countries near and far, and exterminate the inherently evil simply on the say-so of der Führer. The world belonged to the Master Race.
As Glen Greenwald has argued recently, the reincarnation of the Master Race – this time calling itself “America” – is based two key assumptions that none dares question if s/he aspires to be taken seriously as politician, educator, journalist, religious leader – or blogger. One is that the United States is fighting a never-ending war on a world-wide battlefield. The other is that the United States is “exceptional” and therefore not subject to law in the same way that other nations are. Both assumptions carry with them the odor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. They are based on ignorance of the elementary moral law of reciprocity. Consider those concepts in order.
To begin with, the concept of world-wide War on Terror renders the U.S. insidiously masterful on a global scale. According to this assumption, any person (U.S. citizens or not) opposing the United States can be labeled an enemy combatant, terrorist or terrorist sympathizer. Persons so classified are thus liable to be killed without benefit of judicial process just as enemy soldiers have been killed massively without such procedure on innumerable battlefields throughout the history of the world.
In other words, the War on Terror and the concept of a world-wide battlefield grant blanket permission to the Executive branch of the U.S. government to kill anyone anywhere at any time based solely on the judgment of the President of the United States. Moreover, since the WOT is never-ending, such permission is extended to the POTUS in perpetuity. The United States rules the planet; it is Master of all it surveys.
Absent the power of what John McMurtry calls “the ruling group mind,” such executive power would be alarming to any who care about the United States Constitution, or about their own lives. That is, according to the logic of perpetual world-wide war, any of us could easily find ourselves at the wrong end of a drone strike – or imprisoned or tortured without charge or judicial recourse. This is like the position of German citizens under Adolph Hitler.
However, the ruling group mind tells us not to worry. (And here’s where the second key assumption I mentioned enters the picture.) As representative of an exceptional nation, our government, we assume, would never imprison without charge, torture or kill good people like us. This is because unlike other governments, our’s is good and morally responsible. If we keep our noses clean, there’s nothing to worry about.
This too is exactly what people thought under the Third Reich. Like them we’re assured of our own safety because we know that ours is the “greatest nation in the world.” Virtually no person in public life wishing to be taken seriously questions this formula of national exceptionalism – not parents, teachers, priests, ministers, politicians, journalists or talk show hosts.
The assumption of U.S. exceptionalism is extremely dangerous. It renders “America” immune from what Noam Chomsky refers to as the law of reciprocity. (And this is my third point.) This moral law is so elementary that any child above the age of 5 can understand it. However it was beyond the comprehension of the Nazis – and apparently of people like John Brennan or even President Obama.
Simply put, the law of reciprocity states that what is good for you to do is good for me. Correlatively what is bad for you to do is also bad for me.
On the playground level this means that if it’s bad for a smaller child to hit a larger one, it is also bad for a larger child to hit a smaller one. On the international level it should mean that what the United States allows itself to do, it should allow to other nations. If it’s good for the U.S. to possess nuclear weapons, it is also good for nations like Korea or Iran to have them. If it’s bad for foreigners to send drones (or commercial airplanes) over U.S. soil to kill those they designate as “terrorists,” it is also bad for the U.S. to do so.
Nonetheless, as is apparent from the Brennan hearings, U.S. explanations for its drone policy, its outrage over Korea’s recent nuclear tests, and its insistence that Iran not acquire nuclear weapons, the law of reciprocity simply does not apply to the United States. Once again, this is because it is an exceptional nation. As such the United States is self-evidently GOOD, while those it designates as enemies are BAD. End of story.
What will it take to wake us up to the fact that the Nazis are here and they are us? First of all, we have to recognize that the War on Terror is bogus. Terror is a tactic, not an enemy. As such it cannot be the object of war except in a highly metaphorical sense – like the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, or the War on Crime. No one would ever argue that any of those “wars” (and they’ve all been officially designated as such by our government) suspends the Constitution or justifies extra-judicial killings. No, we are not at war, and should not allow the assumption that we are to go unchallenged. It justifies our emerging police state.
Similarly, we have to recognize that the U.S. government is not exceptional – except in its brutality. Yes, that’s what the evidence says! Read Oliver Stone’s and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States and realize that the U.S. is exceptionally self-serving, venal, cruel and anti-democratic. Instead of GOOD, it might even be designated (as Dr. King said) the greatest purveyor of violence in today’s world – which means the greatest purveyor of violence in the history of the world.
According the John Stockwell, the highly decorated ex-CIA station chief, even before the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. “Third World War” was responsible for the deaths of 6 million people in the less developed world through its instrument of proxy wars against the poor of the planet. Additionally, the U.S. has the highest per capita rate of incarceration of any nation on earth. It maintains a world-wide secret prison system. It tortures mercilessly. It has sponsored dictators and death squads in country after country. It pollutes the planet without conscience. Like none other the U.S. threatens the very survival of the human race.
The list goes on and on.
Until we face such home truths, we will be powerless to overcome the ruling group mind and to act before it’s too late.
I’m reminded of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s words about naïve Germans who postponed acting before time ran out:
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.