No, pre-Inauguration Washington is nothing like Baghdad or Kabul

No, pre-Inauguration Washington is nothing like Baghdad or Kabul
Downtown Washington DC, January 2021.Andrew Lichtenstein for Insider
  • After a violent mob stormed the Capitol, harried journalists and TV talking heads resorted to the rhetoric of American exceptionalism and invoked tired tropes of Third World chaos.
  • These comparisons trivialize war, and the experience of millions of people who have lived under American occupation for the past two decades.
  • It's time for America to retire the myth of exceptionalism it tells itself to avoid facing a complicated reality, argues Mohamad Bazzi.

As rioters overran the US Capitol on Jan. 6, Martha Raddatz, ABC News' chief global affairs correspondent, was reporting live from the scene. It was a tense and confusing moment, so Raddatz reached for a comparison that was somehow intended to reassure her American viewers. "It is so horrible to know, we are in America where this is happening, on Capitol Hill. I'm not in Baghdad. I'm not in Kabul," she said. "I'm not in a dangerous situation overseas. We are in America."

Perhaps without realizing it, Raddatz tapped into the foundational myth of American exceptionalism. In this version of America, the rioting and attack on the heart of US power can't happen here. That kind of chaos and civil strife only takes place in other parts of the world because, as we've been constantly reminded since January 6, "this is not who we are."

This isn't to single out Raddatz, who has covered conflict with depth and nuance during her decades as a foreign correspondent. It's very difficult to keep one's composure on air as chaos unfolds around you. Later that night, CNN analyst Van Jones told viewers, "Where we're headed looks more like Syria than the United States of America."
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And it wasn't just harried journalists and TV talking heads who resorted to the rhetoric of American exceptionalism and invoked tired tropes of Third World chaos. Former President George W. Bush declared in a statement: "This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic - not our democratic republic." Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that rioters storming the Capitol was "3rd world style anti-American anarchy." Even President-elect Joe Biden, who was praised for his conciliatory response, said the extremist protesters "do not represent who we are."

This knee-jerk denialism - that America is somehow immune to the kind of political violence endemic to other places, most often non-white countries - is still dominating much of the conversation in the United States, even after the scope and breadth of the Capitol riot have become clearer. And there's little introspection about the history of American political violence both at home and abroad: from the systemic brutality and exploitation of slavery; Jim Crow-enforced segregation and lynchings; to white supremacist violence at the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

For all his faults, President Donald Trump was remarkably honest in expressing his views of the rest of the world. In January 2018, while discussing immigration from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa with members of Congress, Trump exclaimed, "Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?" His crass comment was widely scorned, but it taps into the same sense of national superiority and notions of civilized behavior that other politicians know to keep quiet. What's left unsaid by more savvy politicians who decried the attack on the Capitol as not reflecting "who we are"- Americans are better than those other countries wracked by social chaos and political violence.
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On Jan. 15, as thousands of National Guard troops were deployed in Washington to secure Biden's inauguration, CNN host Wolf Blitzer tweeted a photo of a small group of soldiers standing on a Washington street. He wrote: "I spotted these National Guard troops at a normal Washington street corner not even near the Capitol. So many streets have been closed. It reminds me of the war zones I saw in Baghdad or Mosul or Falluja. So sad."

Of course, US soldiers would be standing on the streets of Washington a week after rioters, encouraged by a president who refused to accept losing an election, stormed the seat of the legislature that was preparing to certify that loss. In fact, those soldiers are far more out of place in the "war zones" of Baghdad, Mosul, or Fallujah, where they're an occupying force that is resented by most of the population. Blitzer was rightfully skewered on social media for his lack of self-awareness and for failing to note that the conflict he found so sad in Iraq was actually instigated by an American invasion in 2003. There's a simple solution here: let's stop making these unfortunate comparisons. Instead, journalists, politicians, and think tank analysts can try to explain what happened in America in 2021, without resorting to Nazi Germany, the Balkans, Lebanon, Afghanistan, or Iraq. America has problems of its own creation -and it's a disservice to both Americans and people abroad to trivialize them in this way.
No, pre-Inauguration Washington is nothing like Baghdad or Kabul
Downtown Washington DC, January 2021.Andrew Lichtenstein for Insider
It's easier to hold onto the illusion of American exceptionalism and superiority than to confront hard truths: that Trump is not an aberration, and that his rise is rooted in the Republican Party's history of racial grievance and right-wing conspiracy theories, which he manipulated better than others. Trump might have used social media and technology to spread disinformation more effectively than past American demagogues, but his rhetoric is rooted in similar notions of white and nationalist victimhood employed by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy and southern segregationist George Wallace.
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These lazy comparisons also trivialize war, and the experience of millions of people who have lived under American occupation for the past two decades. Iraqis and Afghans have shown tremendous resilience through occupation, insurgency, and civil war. They've survived deaths of loved ones, economic and social devastation, and yet they've voted repeatedly in elections at great personal risk. Americans have little concept of what it means to live under occupation - and the terror that US military power can inflict.

Many of the journalists, analysts, and politicians making comparisons to foreign conflicts also neglect to mention essential context: most of the places they're referencing turned into war zones largely because of US invasion or foreign policy.

Iraq and Afghanistan were not only invaded by the United States during the Bush administration, but they've suffered for decades because of US policies that favor short-term security and economic interests over democratic principles. Indeed, every American president since George H.W. Bush in 1991-Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump-has ended up bombing Iraq. With a prolonged US occupation, Iraq also become a magnet for Arab and Muslim jihadists who wanted to fight foreign troops occupying a Muslim land. The insurgency and civil war in Iraq eventually led to the rise of ISIS, which led to another round of US and Western bombing of Iraqi cities, including Mosul. Afghanistan also suffered from decades of US meddling before the Bush administration invaded in 2001, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since then, Afghans have been victims of both the US occupation and the Taliban extremists it was intended to overthrow.
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While the violence we've witnessed on the streets of Washington over the past two weeks is alarming, it's nowhere near the "war zones" of Iraq, Afghanistan, or other places where the United States has imposed its military might. Americans need to accept that they're facing homegrown and deeply-rooted extremist movements - and that violence is indeed part of American history and policy, both at home and abroad. It's time for America to retire the myth of exceptionalism it tells itself to avoid facing a complicated reality.

Mohamad Bazzi (@BazziNYU) is a journalism professor at New York University and former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday, where he was a lead writer on the 2003 Iraq war. He is a non-resident fellow at Democracy for the Arab World Now.

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