The horrific killing of an unarmed African American man, George Floyd, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers late last month and the ensuing demonstrations and riots across the country provide a stark and hardly compelling backdrop to the US administration’s attempt to employ America’s unique soft power by vigorously accusing Iran, China and other authoritarian states for mistreatment and abuse of their citizens.
Long a defender of human rights abroad, America’s voice has again been quieted by its centuries-long struggle to overcome endemic racism, made so painfully apparent by Floyd’s killing. Its response to the hundreds of demonstrations across the United States and beyond following the Floyd death’s further tarnishes a nation allegedly grounded in the principles of free speech, assembly and right to redress.
“Grozny Rules” in America?
Perhaps most appalling amidst this American tragedy has been the behavior of the US president. Donald Trump further eroded America’s messaging to the world on issues like human rights and democracy by calling on state governors to “dominate” the demonstrators, the vast majority of whom were merely exercising their rights under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
Additionally, he threatened to call out active duty military troops in Washington, ordered Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley to draw up plans for security for the demonstrations, and urged governors to request federal troop assistance in their states. Never mind that federal law prohibits mobilization of the armed forces — as opposed to the National Guard, which are under the authority of respective state governors — except under the direst circumstances such as natural disasters, violent insurrection, etc. And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has no constitutional authority — nor expertise, by the way — in national law enforcement.
Curiously, around the same time as Trump’s authoritarian remarks, he had spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin. As is the want of this administration, no transcript of the conversation’s contents was provided. Trump’s spokesperson was asked if the US president had sought advice from Putin, but she pleaded ignorance of the call’s contents.
Nevertheless, one cannot fail to draw the connection between Trump’s harsh, uncivil and patently unconstitutional remarks to state governors and the well-documented tactics of Russia’s notorious strongman. One need only look at Grozny, Chechnya, in 1999 and Aleppo, Syria, in 2017. In both cases, Putin employed overwhelming force to assert domination over his foes and, in the process, effectively leveled two cities and killed thousands of innocent civilians in the process. “Grozny rules” are the oppressor Putin’s trademark approach to dealing with any perceived challenge or threat to his authority.
Donald Trump has frequently spoken admiringly of Putin, even defending him against accusations of interfering in the 2016 US presidential elections. Does Trump also believe that the Putin approach applies to the protests erupting throughout the US? It sounded that way from his conversation with governors, most of whom were horrified by the president’s comments.
If that is the case, then America has no ground to stand on when criticizing China for its treatment of protesters in Hong Kong, or Iran for its brutal repression of protesters throughout the country earlier this year, or Sudan for its government’s crackdown on demonstrators in the early stages of its citizens’ call for democracy and rule of law last year.
The Stain of Racism
America has long prided itself as the global defender of liberty, human rights, rule of law and democracy. It’s record of behavior would sometimes suggest, however, that what may be good for others may not apply at home.
No issue speaks more loudly to that than America’s tragic history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, racial segregation and prejudice. They remain a dark stain on its most prized founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Both speak of mankind’s loftiest aspirations. But America’s history reveals its citizens’ worst and vilest instincts. The treatment hasn’t been limited to African Americans, though none has suffered as they. Latino people, Asians, Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, Catholics and most recently Muslims have also experienced the piercing betrayal of America’s uniquely ugly and detestable brand of prejudice. There is also the mistreatment of the country’s Native Americans, who saw the systematic theft of their lands under negotiated treaties, only to see every one of those treaties broken.
All of these Americans would seem to be well within their rights to seize on the words of one of the country’s most revered founders, Thomas Jefferson: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants… God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” Yet, rather than rebel, they all have rallied heroically to the nation’s cause in every one of its wars, from the American Revolution, through its two world wars and right up to its most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — African Americans beginning in the Revolution and continuing through the Civil War and World War II, and Japanese Americans and the Native American “code talkers” also in the Second World War.
They took up their nation’s arms for the values embodied in its founding documents and laws. Upon returning home, however, the very values they risked — and often lost — their lives to defend were vitiated. The rights they sought to advance on foreign soil were denied them on their own.
Suffering America’s Duality
And still, after the many racial convulsions throughout its history, including the violent and destructive 1960s, the well-intended laws, the noble words, education and modern 21st-century communication, the country has not yet expunged the evil of racism from the hearts of too many of its citizens. In his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote of America’s “duality,” a nation “torn between selves — a self in which she proudly professed the great principles of democracy and a self in which she sadly practiced the antithesis of democracy.”
That antithesis has been its subjugation of African Americans, first by slavery and now by circumscribed rights and treatment by too many law enforcement authorities as second-class citizens — or less.
Today, civil rights leaders, religious leaders, educators, legal scholars, political figures and millions of citizens are expressing ideas for fixing America’s “original sin.” Some do so with scholarly writing and moving speeches; many more through protest marches. They must be heard and their sentiments incorporated into the changes that must occur in the nation’s laws, its education system, its commerce and police practices. Most especially, they must be heard and seen in the behavior of its defender-of-rights-in-chief, the president.
When that task is taken up in earnest, when enough Americans can genuinely embrace in their hearts the values their country has historically espoused, and when African Americans can walk anywhere in this country without fear for their lives, then and only then will the country become the superpower of soft power in this world.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.