Americas Superiority Complex

(December 22, 2002)


Recently, a friend of mine, reacting to my suggestion that there are certain moral or ethical norms that need to be met before we invade Iraq, seems to have answered to the effect that since we are morally superior to our intended target, that there really was no ethical problem to be faced. Quite the contrary.

First there is the mistake of trying to assert one's own righteousness which I believe the Bible reminds us is gone the moment we think we are better than others. But even given that common human failing, I think we need to be reminded that, even aside from the folly of judging our own perfection, that how we judge another culture's moral standards is not necessarily the standard (correct or not) with which they judge us. For example, for Muslims, only one glance at our movie posters, as seen in the streets of Cairo or Beirut, needs convince them that we are a corrupt and licentious society.

But it goes a lot deeper than that. We in the West tend to rank our individual rights and privileges (our "freedoms") above everything else. To a Muslim, as it would have to a Jew in ancient times, this sounds like idolatry, the worship of self in the place of God. To them, the highest value (even as reflected in our own "Lord's Prayer") is the realization of God's will or kingdom on earth. In fact, the Muslim code of conduct is remarkably close to the Ten Commandments as they were originally understood (including not forbidding polygamy) by the Jews, and even include some of the other Jewish ritual commands (like circumcision) and prohibitions (against eating pork or taking interest on loans) as well. Many, perhaps even most Muslims look at the Jewish and Christian failure to keep these commandments and the kind of society this failure has produced, as a prime sign of our infidelity to God.

Add to this our readiness to assert our debased (as perceived by them) society on them, either by proxy (Israel) or directly by our own force of arms. All this makes American talk about pre-emptive strikes against their countries particularly threatening. As Osama bin Laden put it succinctly in an interview some years ago: "If we punch you in the nose, you Christians are supposed to turn the other cheek. But if you punch us in the nose, we will punch right back." In other words, it is not our ideals that Muslims object to, it is our hypocrisy in failing to live up to them and yet claiming we are superior at the same time.

So granted that people like Saddam Hussein are just as big as hypocrites (bin Laden has had Saddam, as well as the high-living Saudi royalty, on his enemies list as well), the problem still remains: for once we claim a moral superiority on the one hand, yet try to justify pre-emptive strikes as "self-defensive" on the other, we proclaim our own double-standards to the world, and invite them, who still believe in an "eye-for-eye" and "tooth-for-tooth" or "life-or-life" to do the same. And while we worry that Saddam just might be able to do this some day, in Pakistan, a country that is a real hotbed of Islamicist fundamentalism compared to Iraq, we have a country that already can do so.