Politics

The Manhattan White House, the Secret Service, and the Painted Bikini Lady

Trump Tower
Photo by iStock/100pk

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

High above, somewhere behind the black glass façade, President-elect Donald J. Trump was huddled with his inner circle, plotting just how they would “drain the swamp” and remake Washington, perhaps the world. On the street far below, inside a warren of metal fencing surrounded by hefty concrete barriers with “NYPD” emblazoned on them, two middle-aged women were engaged in a signage skirmish.  One held aloft a battered poster that read “Love Trumps Hate”; just a few feet away, the other brandished a smaller slice of cardboard that said “Get Over It.” 

I was somewhere in between... and the Secret Service seemed a little unnerved.

Trump Tower is many things -- the crown jewel skyscraper in Donald Trump’s real-estate empire, the site of the Trump Organization’s corporate offices, a long-time setting for his reality television show, The Apprentice, and now, as the New York Times describes it, “a 58-story White House in Midtown Manhattan.”  It is also, as noted above its front entrance: “OPEN TO THE PUBLIC 8 AM to 10 PM.”

When planning for the tower began in the late 1970s, Trump -- like other developers of the era -- struck a deal with the city of New York.  In order to add extra floors to the building, he agreed to provide amenities for the public, including access to restrooms, an atrium, and two upper-level gardens.    

When I arrived at Trump Tower, less than a week after Election Day, the fourth floor garden was roped off, so I proceeded up the glass escalator, made a right, and headed through a door into an outdoor pocket park on the fifth floor terrace.  Just as I entered, a group of Japanese tourists was leaving and, suddenly, I was alone, a solitary figure in a secluded urban oasis.

But not for long. 

Taking a seat on a silver aluminum chair at a matching table, I listened closely.  It had been a zoo down on Fifth Avenue just minutes before: demonstrators chanting “love trumps hate,” Trump supporters shouting back, traffic noise echoing in the urban canyon, the “whooooop” of police sirens, and a bikini-clad woman in body paint singing in front of the main entrance.  And yet in this rectangular roof garden, so near to America’s new White House-in-waiting, all was placid and peaceful.  There was no hint of the tourist-powered tumult below or of the potentially world-altering political machinations above, just the unrelenting white noise-hum of the HVAC system.     

On His Majesty’s Secret Service

The Stars and Stripes flies above the actual White House in Washington, D.C.  Inside the Oval Office, it’s joined by another flag -- the seal of the president of the United States emblazoned on a dark blue field.  Here, however, Old Glory flies side by side with slightly tattered black-and-silver Nike swoosh flags waving lazily above the tony storefronts -- Louis Vuitton and Saint Laurent, Burberry and Chanel -- of Manhattan’s 57th Street, and, of course, Trump Tower-tenant Niketown. 

That I was standing beneath those flags gazing down at luxe retailers evidently proved too much to bear for those who had been not-so-subtly surveilling me.  Soon a fit, heavily armed man clad in black tactical gear -- what looked to my eye like a Kevlar assault suit and ballistic vest -- joined me in the garden.  “How’s it going?” I asked, but he only nodded, muttered something incomprehensible, and proceeded to eyeball me hard for several minutes as I sat down at a table and scrawled away in my black Moleskine notepad.

My new paramilitary pal fit in perfectly with the armed-camp aesthetic that’s blossomed around Trump Tower.  The addition of fences and concrete barriers to already clogged holiday season sidewalks has brought all the joys of the airport security line to Fifth Avenue.  The scores of police officers now stationed around the skyscraper give it the air of a military outpost in a hostile land.  (All at a bargain basement price of $1 million-plus per day for the city of New York.)  Police Commissioner James O’Neill recently reeled off the forces which -- in addition to traffic cops, beat cops, and bomb-sniffing dogs -- now occupy this posh portion of the city: “specialized units, the critical response command, and the strategic response group, as well as plainclothes officers and counter-surveillance teams working hand-in-hand with our intelligence bureau and our partners in the federal government, specifically the Secret Service.”  The armed man in tactical gear who had joined me belonged to the latter agency. 

“You one of the reporters from downstairs?” he finally asked. 

“Yeah, I’m a reporter,” I replied and then filled the silence that followed by saying, “This has got to be a new one, huh, having a second White House to contend with?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” he answered, and then assured me that most visitors seemed disappointed by this park.  “I think everyone comes up thinking there’ll be a little more, but it’s like ‘yeah, okay.’” 

Small talk, however, wasn't the agent’s forte, nor did he seem particularly skilled at intimidation, though it was clear enough that he wasn’t thrilled to have this member of the public in this public space.  Luckily for me (and the lost art of conversation), we were soon joined by “Joe.”  An aging bald man of not insignificant girth, Joe appeared to have made it onto the Secret Service’s managerial track.  He didn’t do commando-chic.  He wasn’t decked out in ridiculous SWAT-style regalia, nor did he have myriad accessories affixed to his clothing or a submachine gun strapped to his body.  He wore a nondescript blue suit with a silver and blue pin on his left lapel. 

I introduced myself as he took a seat across from me and, in response, though working for a federal agency, he promptly began a very NYPD-style interrogation with a very NYPD-style accent. 

“What’s going on, Nick?” he inquired.

“Not too much.”

“What are you doing? You’re all by yourself here…”

“Yeah, I’m all by my lonesome.”

“Kinda strange,” he replied in a voice vaguely reminiscent of Robert De Niro eating a salami sandwich.

“How so?”

“I don’t know. What are you doing? Taking notes?” he asked. 

I had reflexively flipped my notepad to a fresh page as I laid it between us on the table and Joe was doing his best to get a glimpse of what I’d written.      

I explained that I was a reporter. Joe wanted to know for whom I worked, so I reeled off a list of outlets where I’d been published. He followed up by asking where I was from. I told him and asked him the same. Joe said he was from Queens.

“What do you do for a living?” I asked. 

“Secret Service.”

“I was just saying to your friend here that it must be a real experience having a second White House to contend with.”

“Yeah, you could call it that,” he replied, sounding vaguely annoyed. Joe brushed aside my further attempts at small talk in favor of his own ideas about where our conversation should go. 

“You got some ID on you?” he asked. 

“I do,” I replied, offering nothing more than a long silence.

“Can I see it?”

“Do you need to?”

“If you don’t mind,” he said politely. Since I didn’t, I handed him my driver’s license and a business card. Looking at the former, with a photo of a younger man with a much thicker head of hair, Joe asked his most important question yet: “What did you do to your hair?”

“Ah yes,” I replied with a sigh, rubbing my hand over my thinned-out locks. “It’s actually what my hair did to me.” 

He gestured to his own follically challenged head and said, “I remember those days.”

Trump Tower’s Public Private Parts

Joe asked if there was anything he could do for me, so I wasn’t bashful. I told him that I wanted to know what his job was like -- what it takes to protect President-elect Donald Trump and his soon-to-be second White House. “You do different things. Long hours.  Nothing out of the ordinary. Probably the same as you,” he said. I told him I really doubted that and kept up my reverse interrogation. “Other than talking to me, what did you do today?” I asked. 

“I dunno,” he responded. “Look around. Security. We’re Secret Service.” It was, he assured me, a boring job. 

“Come on,” I said. “There’s got to be a lot of challenges to securing a place like this. You’ve got open public spaces just like this one.”

There are, in fact, more than 500 privately owned public spaces, or POPS, similar to this landscaped terrace, all over the city.  By adding the gardens, atrium, and other amenities way back when, Trump was able to add about 20 extra floors to this building, a deal worth at least $500 million today, according to the New York Times.  And in the post-election era, Trump Tower now boasts a new, one-of-a-kind amenity.  The skies above it have been declared “national defense airspace” by the Federal Aviation Administration.  “The United States government may use deadly force against the airborne aircraft, if it is determined that the aircraft poses an imminent security threat,” the agency warned in a recent notice to pilots. 

Back on the fifth floor, a metal plaque mounted on an exterior wall lays out the stipulations of the POPs agreement, namely that this “public garden” is to have nine large trees, four small trees, 148 seats, including 84 moveable chairs, and 21 tables.  None of the trees looked particularly large.  By my count the terrace was also missing three tables -- a type available online starting at $42.99 -- and about 20 chairs, though some were stacked out of view and, of course, just two were needed at the moment since Mr. Tactical Gear remained standing, a short distance away, the whole time.

This tiny secluded park seemed a world away from the circus below, the snarl of barricades outside the building, the tourists taking selfies with the big brassy “Trump Tower” sign in the background, and the heavily armed counterterror cops standing guard near the revolving door entrance.

I remarked on this massive NYPD presence on the streets. “It’s their city,” Joe replied and quickly changed topics, asking, “So business is good?”

“No, business is not too good. I should have picked a different profession,” I responded and asked if the Secret Service was hiring. Joe told me they were and explained what they looked for in an agent: a clean record, college degree, “law experience.” It made me reflect upon the not-so-clean record of that agency in the Obama years, a period during which its agents were repeatedly cited for gaffes, as when a fence-jumper made it all the way to the East Room of the White House, and outrageous behavior, including a prostitution scandal involving agents preparing the way for a presidential visit to Colombia. 

“What did you do before the Secret Service?” I inquired. Joe told me that he’d been a cop. At that point, he gave his black-clad compatriot the high sign and the younger man left the garden. 

“See, I’m no threat,” I assured him. Joe nodded and said he now understood the allure of the tiny park. Sensing that he was eager to end the interrogation I had turned on its head, I began peppering him with another round of questions. 

Instead of answering, he said, “Yeah, so anyway, Nick, I’ll leave you here,” and then offered me a piece of parting advice -- perhaps one that no Secret Service agent protecting a past president-elect has ever had occasion to utter, perhaps one that suggests he’s on the same wavelength as the incoming commander-in-chief, a man with a penchant for ogling women (to say nothing of bragging about sexually assaulting them). “You should come downstairs,” Joe advised, his eyes widening, a large grin spreading across his face as his voice grew animated for the first time. “There was a lady in a bikini with a painted body!”

Joe walked off and, just like that, I was alone again, listening to the dull hum of the HVAC, seated in the dying light of the late afternoon.  A short time later, on my way out of the park, I passed the Secret Service agent in tactical gear. “I think you’re the one that found the most entertainment out here all day,” he said, clearly trying to make sense of why anyone would spend his time sitting in an empty park, scribbling in a notebook. I mentioned something about sketching out the scene, but more than that, I was attempting to soak in the atmosphere, capture a feeling, grapple with the uncertain future taking shape on the chaotic avenue below and high above our heads in Manhattan’s very own gilt White House.  I was seeking a preview, you might say, of Donald Trump’s America.    

Descending the switchback escalators, I found myself gazing at the lobby where a scrum of reporters stood waiting for golden elevator doors to open, potentially disgorging a Trump family member or some other person hoping to serve at the pleasure of the next president. Behind me water cascaded several stories down a pink marble wall, an overblown monument to a bygone age of excess.  Ahead of me, glass cases filled with Trump/Pence 2016 T-shirts, colognes with the monikers “Empire” and “Success,” the iconic red “Make America Great Again” one-size-fits-all baseball cap, stuffed animals, and other tchotchkes stood next to an overflowing gilded garbage can.  Heading for the door, I thought about all of this and Joe and his commando-chic colleague and Trump’s deserted private-public park, and the army of cops, the metal barricades, and the circus that awaited me on the street.  I felt I’d truly been given some hint of the future, a whisper of what awaits. I also felt certain I’d be returning to Trump Tower -- and soon.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch, a fellow at the Nation Institute, and a contributing writer for the Intercept. His book Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa recently received an American Book Award. His latest book is Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan. His website isNickTurse.com.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Nick Turse

Now What? Eric Utne on the Election of Donald Trump

Until a few days ago, this column was going to be about real conversations, and how essential they are for our nation’s democracy. But then the 2016 election happened, and for a few days I stepped back, unplugged, and shut out the rest of the world. I wasn’t interested in talking with anyone but my closest family and friends. I was ready for what I called radically local secession.

Then I checked in on a handful of writers whose thinking I track, and now I’m feeling more sanguine. They include Van Jones, Glen Greenwald, Bill Moyers, Rebecca Solnit, David Abram, Martin Shaw, Sharon Blackie, Ronnie Bennett, Ricken Patel, Daniel Pinchbeck, and Russell Brand, to mention a few. Here’s a brief sampling of some of their post-election thoughts.

 American Flag
Photo by Fotolia/photolink

Let’s start with Ronnie Bennett (timegoesby.net) who puts out a must-read blog on aging called Time Goes By. She writes:

…It is not so long ago that when someone in the family died, people mourned for a long time. Custom dictated that mirrors in the home be covered, social life curtailed and that the mourners wear black (widow's weeds) for up to a year and even more in certain cases.

Everything is faster now and today that kind of mourning is obsolete, even considered morbid. Not me. Given what has just happened, I do not believe it is unreasonable at all.

Two things for sure. Like some people in the comments on Wednesday's post told us, I am wearing black. Complete black, even earrings. Maybe not all the time, but a lot of the time to remind me every day what a terrible thing we as a country have done.

My attire will probably lighten up in time but I own a lot of black clothing so I'm giving it all a new kind of symbolism and meaning.

Second, never again will I say or write that man's name.

Neither of these silly, little protests will change anything. But they will keep what has happened in the forefront of my mind and that will inform choices I make from now on.

Mostly, right now, I want to be quiet and to learn to breathe again. I don't know when I will be done with that and unlike the go-getters, I think it is a good thing to do – to be quiet and reflect.

The there’s the Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine and, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. She writes (naomiklein.org):

They will blame James Comey and the FBI. They will blame voter suppression and racism. They will blame Bernie or bust and misogyny. They will blame third parties and independent candidates. They will blame the corporate media for giving him the platform, social media for being a bullhorn, and WikiLeaks for airing the laundry. But this leaves out the force most responsible for creating the nightmare in which we now find ourselves: neoliberalism, fully embodied by Hillary Clinton and her machine… Trump’s message was: “All is hell.” Clinton answered: “All is well.” But it’s not well – far from it.

Charles Eisenstein, author of The More Beautiful World We Know in Our Hearts is Possible, (newandancientstory.net) writes:

For the last eight years it has been possible for most people (at least in the relatively privileged classes) to believe that the system, though creaky, basically works, and that the progressive deterioration of everything from ecology to economy is a temporary deviation from the evolutionary imperative of progress… The prison-industrial complex, the endless wars, the surveillance state, the pipelines, the nuclear weapons expansion were easier for liberals to swallow when they came with a dose of LGBTQ rights under an African-American President… As we enter a period of intensifying disorder, it is important to introduce a different kind of force... I would call it love if it weren’t for the risk of triggering your New Age bullshit detector… So let’s start with empathy. Politically, empathy is akin to solidarity, born of the understanding that we are all in the uncertainty together...

Rebecca Solnit, (rebeccasolnit.net) writes:

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.

Ricken Patel, (Avaaz.org) writes:

The darkness of Trumpism could help us build the most inspiring movement for human unity and progress the world has EVER seen, with a new, people-centered, high-integrity, inspiring politics that brings massive improvement to the status quo.

Michael Meade, (mosaicvoices.org) writes:

Solstice means “sun stands still.” At mid-winter it means the sun stopping amidst a darkening world. We stop as the sun stops, the way one’s heart can stop in a crucial moment of fear or beauty; then begins again, but in an altered way… There may be no better time than the dark times we find ourselves in to rekindle the instinct for uniting together and expressing love, care and community.

Bill McKibben (350.org) never fails to inform and inspire. He writes:

I wish I had some magic words to make the gobsmacked feeling go away. But I can tell you from experience that taking action, joining with others to protest, heals some of the sting. And throughout history, movements like ours have been the ones to create lasting change—not a single individual or president. That's the work we'll get back to, together. 

And then there’s Dougald Hine (Crossed Lines, dougald.nu), co-founder of my favorite collapsarian website, Dark Mountain:

It’s not the apocalypse, of course, but if you thought the shape of history was meant to be an upward curve of progress, then this feels like the apocalypse… It reminds me of the conversations that sometimes happen in the last days of life, or on the evening of a funeral… There’s a chance of getting real… Donald Trump is a shadowy parody of a trickster, a toxic mimic of Loki. We don’t know the shape of the war that could be coming, nor how that war will end, and not only because we cannot see the future, but because it hasn’t happened yet: there is still more than one way all this could play out, though the possibilities likely range from bad to worse. Among the things that might be worth doing is to read some books from Germany in the 1920s and 30s, to get a better understanding of what Nazism looked like, before anyone could say for sure how the story would end… If someone were to ask me what kind of cause is sufficient to live for in dark times, the best answer I could give would be: to take responsibility for the survival of something that matters deeply. Whatever that is, your best action might then be to get it out of harm’s way, or to put yourself in harm’s way on its behalf, or anything else your sense of responsibility tells you. Some of those actions will be loud and public, others quiet, invisible, never to be known. They are beginning already. And though it is not the bravest form of action, and often takes place far from the frontline, I believe the work of sense-making is among the actions that are called for… This is where I intend to put a good part of my energy in the next while, to the question of what it means if the future is not coming back. How do we disentangle our thinking and our hopes from the cultural logic of progress? For that logic does not have enough room for loss, nor for the kind of deep rethinking that is called for when a culture is in crisis… I want to say that this is also history, though it doesn’t get written down so much: the small joys and gentlenesses, the fragments of peace, time spent caring for our children, or our parents, or our neighbours. These tasks alone are not enough to hold off the darkness, but they are one of the starting points, one of the models for what it means to take responsibility for the survival of things that matter deeply.... We’ll get through because we have to, the way we always have, one foot in front of another. Hold those you love tight. Be kind to strangers… There is work to be done.

Each of these thinkers and visionaries has a finger on the pulse of our times. If you’re not reading them, I urge you to do so. You won’t regret it.

Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader. He is writing a memoir, to be published by Random House.

On the Road With Our American Selves

Gaza City
Photo by Fotolia/anwarerheem

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

The fluorescent circus of Election 2016 — that spectacle of yellow comb-overs, and orange skin, and predatory pussy-grabbing, and last-minute FBI interventions, and blinking memes hewn by an underground army of self-important Internet trolls — has finally come to its unnatural end.  I had looked forward to this moment, only to find us all instantly embroiled in a new crisis.  And unfortunately, it’s easy to foretell what, or rather who, will move into the bright lights of our collective gaze now: we’re going to (continue to) focus on... well, ourselves.

We are obviously not, for instance, going to redeploy our energies toward examining the embarrassing war that we’re still waging in Afghanistan, now in its 16th year — something that went practically unmentioned during election season, even as fighting heated up there. (You can be sure that Afghans have a somewhat different perspective on the newsworthiness of that war.)  We are also not going to spend our time searching for the names of people like Momina Bibi, whom we’ve... oops... inadvertently annihilated while carrying out our nation’s drone kill program.

For his part, Donald Trump has pledged to “take out” the families of terrorists, a plan that sounds practically ordinary when compared to our actual drone assassination program, conceived by President George W. Bush and maintained and expanded by President Obama.  And while I don’t for a moment pretend that Trump’s electoral victory is anything less than an emergency for our republic — especially for the most vulnerable among us, and for every American who believes in justice, equity, or basic kindness — it’s also true that some things won’t change at all.  In fact, it’s prototypically American that an overlong and inward-looking election spectacle (which will, incidentally, have “big-league” international implications) will be supplanted by still more inward-looking phenomena.

And it jogs my memory in a not very pleasant way.  I can’t help but recall the moment, years ago and 8,000 miles away, when I was introduced to my own American-centered self.  The experience left an ugly mark on my picture of who I am — and who, perhaps, so many of us are, as Americans.

No, Not Us...

Eight years before I heard about a guy in Yemen whose cousins were obliterated by an American drone strike in a procession following his wedding celebration, I gleefully clicked through the travel site Kayak and pressed “confirm purchase” on one-way tickets to Kathmandu.  It was 2008, shortly before Barack Obama would be elected, and my boyfriend and I, a couple of twenty-somethings jonesing to see the world, were about to depart on what we expected to be the adventure of our lives.  Having worked temporary stints and squirreled away some cash, we packed our belongings into my mom’s damp basement and prepared ourselves for a journey meant to last half a year and cross South Asia and East Africa.  What we didn’t know, as we headed for New York’s Kennedy Airport, our passports zippered into our money belts, was that, whatever we had left behind at my mom’s, we were unwittingly carrying something far heftier with us: our American-ness.

Adventures commenced as soon as we stepped off the plane.  We glimpsed ice-capped peaks that rose majestically out of the clouds as we walked the lower Everest trail.  Then — consider this our introduction to the presumptions we hadn’t shed — we ran into a little snafu.  We hadn’t brought along enough cash for our multi-week mountain trek; apparently we’d expected Capital One ATMs to appear miraculously on a Himalayan footpath.  After we dealt with that issue through a service that worked by landline and carbon paper, we took a bumpy Jeep ride south to India and soon found ourselves walking the sloping fields of Darjeeling, the leaves of tea shrubs glinting in the afternoon light.  Then we rode trains west and south, while through the frame of a moving window I looked out at fields and rice paddies where women in red or orange or turquoise saris worked the land, even as the sun set and the sky turned pink and reflected off the water where the rice grew.

Things would, however, soon get significantly less picturesque, as in some strange, twisted way, the farther we traveled, the closer to home we seemed to get.
We arrived in Mombasa, Kenya, in January 2009, on a day when thousands of the city’s residents had flooded its streets to protest a recent, and particularly bloody, Israeli attack on Gaza. Hamas, firing rockets into southern Israel, had killed one Israeli and injured many others.  Israel retaliated in an overwhelming fashion, filling the Gazan sky with aircraft and killing hundreds of Palestinians, including five girls from a single family, ages four to 17, who were unlucky enough to live in a refugee camp adjacent to a mosque that an Israeli plane had leveled.

As I hopped off the matatu, or passenger van, into the scorching Kenyan heat, I was aware that 50,000 angry protesters had gathered not so far away, and certain facts became clear to me.  For one thing, the slaughter of hundreds of civilians, including several dozen children, in what was, to me, a faraway land, was a big effing deal here. That should probably go without saying just about anywhere — except I was suddenly aware that, were I home, the opposite would have been true.  Those deaths in distant Gaza (unlike nearby Israel) would barely have caused a blip in the American news.  What’s more, if I had been at home and the story had somehow caught my eye, I knew that I wouldn’t have paid it much mind. Another war in a foreign country is what I would’ve thought, and that would have been that.

At that moment, though, I didn’t dwell on the point, because — let’s be serious — I was scared poopless. There was a huge, angry protest nearby and we’d just gotten word that the crowd was burning an American flag.  Israel, it turned out, had used a new U.S.-made missile in its assault on Gaza. According to the Jerusalem Post, it was a weapon designed to minimize “collateral damage” (though tell that to the families of the dead). The enraged people who had taken to the streets in Mombasa were decrying my country’s role in the carnage — and I was a skinny American with a backpack who’d arrived in the wrong city on the wrong day.

We got the hell out of there as soon as we could. Early the next morning we climbed aboard a rusty old bus bound for Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I felt a wave of relief once I’d settled into my seat. I was looking forward to a different country and a new vista.

That new vista, it turned out, materialized almost at once. Our bus was soon barreling along a rutted dirt road, the scenery whipping by the window in a distinctly less-than-picturesque fashion.  In fact, it passed in such a blur that I realized we were going way too fast.  We already knew that bus accidents were common here; we’d heard about a recent one in which all the passengers died.

When we hit what undoubtedly was a yawning pothole on that none-too-well kept road, the windows shook ominously and I thought: we could die. By then, my slick hands were gripping my shredded vinyl seat.  I could practically feel the heat of the crash-induced flames and had no trouble picturing our charred bodies in the wreckage of the bus.  And then that other thought came to me, the one I wouldn’t forget, the one, thousands of miles from home, that seemed to catch who I really was: No not us, we can’t die was what I said to myself, pressing my eyes shut.  I meant, of course, my boyfriend and I; I meant, that is, we Americans.

It was then that I felt an electric zap, as the events of the previous day had just melded with the present dangers and forced me to see what I would have preferred to ignore: that there was an unsavory likeness between my outlook and the American credo that thousands had been protesting in Mombasa.  We can’t die, was my thought, as if we were somehow different — as if these Africans on the bus with us could die, but not us. Or, just as easily, those Palestinians could die -- and thanks to U.S.-supplied arms, no less — and I wouldn’t even tune in for the story.  Clutching my torn bus seat, I was still afraid, but another sensation overwhelmed me. I felt like a colossal jerk.
Of course, as you know because you’re reading this, we made it safely to Dar es Salaam that night. But I was changed.

Apologizing to Ourselves

I’d like to say that my egocentricity about which lives matter most is uncommon among my countrymen and women.  But if you spool through the seven-plus years since I rode that bus, you’ll notice how that very same mindset has meant that Americans go wild with panic over lone wolf terror killings on our soil, but show scant concern when it comes to the White House-directed, CIA-run drone assassination campaigns across the world, and all the civilian casualties that are the bloody result.  The dead innocents include members of a Yemeni family who were riding in a wedding procession when four missiles bore down on them, and Momina Bibi, that Pakistani grandmother who was tending to an okra patch as her grandchildren played nearby when a missile blasted her to smithereens. And don’t forget the 42 staff members, patients, and relatives at a Médecins Sans Frontièreshospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killed in an attack by a U.S. AC-130 gunship.  Depending on which tally you use, since 2009 we’ve killed an estimated 474 civilians, or perhaps 745, outside of official war zones (and far more civilians, like those dead in that hospital, within those zones), although the horrifying truth is that the real numbers are likely much higher, but unknown and unknowable.

Meanwhile, duh, we would never fire a missile at a suspected terrorist if innocent U.S. civilians were identified in the vicinity. We value American life far too highly for such wantonness.  In 2015, when a drone struck an al-Qaeda compound in Pakistan, it was later discovered that two hostages, one of them an American, were inside. In response, President Obama delivered grave remarks: “I offer our deepest apologies to the families... I directed that this operation be declassified and disclosed... because the families deserve to know the truth.”

But why so sorry that time and not with the other 474 or more deaths?  Of course the difference was that innocent American blood was spilt.  We don’t even try to hide this dubious hierarchy; we celebrate it.  In that same speech, President Obama reflected on why we Americans are so darn special.  “One of the things that makes us exceptional,” he declared, “is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”

If you hailed from any other country, it might have seemed like an odd, not to say tasteless, time to wax poetic about American exceptionalism.  The president was, after all, confessing that we’d accidentally fired missiles at two captive aid workers.  But I can appreciate the sentiment.  Inadequate though the apology was — “There are hundreds, potentially thousands of others who deserve the same apology,” said an investigator for Amnesty International — he was at least admitting that the United States had erred, and he was pointing out that such admissions are important.  Indeed, they are.  It’s just... what about the rest of the people on the planet?

The Trump administration will probably espouse a philosophy much like President Obama’s when it comes to valuing (or not) the lives of foreign innocents.  And yet there’s part of me that must be as unworldly as that twenty-something who flew into Kathmandu, because I find myself dreaming about a new brand of American exceptionalism in our future.  Not one that gives you that icky feeling when you’re riding a speeding bus in another hemisphere, nor one at whose heart lies the idea that we Americans are different and special and better -- which, history tells us, is actually a totally unexceptional notion among powerful nations.  Instead, I imagine what would be truly exceptional: an America that values all human life in the same way.

Of course, I’m also a realist and I know that that’s not the world we live in, especially now — and that it won’t be for, at best, a very long time.

Mattea Kramer, a TomDispatch regular, is at work on a memoir called The Young Person’s Guide to Aging, which inspired this essay. Follow her on Twitter.

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Copyright 2016 Mattea Kramer