It can't happen here
I almost missed it, it was so small. Hidden below a story about the death of Socks, the Clinton family cat, was this item in Time magazine:
REOPENED Five years after the atrocities committed within its walls shocked the world, Abu Ghraib now touts modern amenities and humane treatment of its inmates. The renovated jail, rechristened Baghdad Central Prison, formally reopened on Feb. 21.
Whether the locals will call it that, or whether they'll refer to it as "the prison formerly known as Abu Ghraib", remains to be seen.
Barack Obama has promised to close the equally notorious Guantánamo prison this year, and has repeated George W. Bush's assurances that "The United States does not torture." Obama has said nothing, however, about the secret U.S. prisons in other countries — the so-called "black sites" where suspects continue to be held outside any legal system.
Some Americans have been for harsh interrogation methods — "The prisoners are terrorists; they deserve it"; "The punishments weren't very bad" — while some have been against — "The guards were just a few bad apples"; "Our government couldn't have ordered them to do this". But the consensus of both groups was that America would never do anything wrong: It can't happen here.
That was the title of a novel written by Sinclair Lewis in 1935. In the story, voters believe too strongly in the strength of America's democratic system and elect a president with fascist values. Lewis's point was that Americans are sometimes idealistic to the point of denial.
In a recent speech, Obama said that America had invented the automobile. He should have said that America popularized the automobile and made it affordable — but he didn't think to. Would the leader of any other country make such a mistake? Probably not. But why?
Around 1970, in an early attempt at political correctness, schools introduced "social studies". Kids learned to value other cultures, including native and minority cultures in the U.S. Although we learned some facts about American inventors and the structure of the U.S. government, the focus was on anthropology, not politics. We never discussed how the parliamentary system works or why monarchies still exist or — God forbid (literally) — anything at all about communism.
That the American system was the best one imaginable, and that life in (middle-class) America was the best possible, didn't even have to be said directly. The other cultures we learned about were Eskimos, Hopi Indians, terrace farmers in China, and Kalahari bushmen named !Kau, !Koma and !Twi. Modern places such as Europe were discussed mostly in their historical context of warfare, poverty and emigration.
I'm sure that classrooms have changed since Obama and I were in school. America has certainly been a leader in bringing progress, technology and civilization to the world, and I'm very proud of that — but it's not the only country to have done so. To face the challenges of the 21st century, America will need allies abroad, better informed citizens at home, and a realistic sense of purpose.