Nobody can heal without first recognizing harm.
During Monday’s Vaisakhi celebration, an event marking the Punjabi harvest festival, Justin Trudeau became the first Canadian prime minister to apologize for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident. Canada refused to allow immigrants from Punjab, India, to disembark from their ship, the Komagata Maru, leaving it trapped in the Vancouver harbor for two months. When the Komagata Maru returned to India, 19 passengers died in gunfire that broke out after the ship docked — killed for being Sikh.
The U.S. government could learn from Trudeau’s example. It is time to acknowledge that America has more blood on its hands than almost any other country in modern history.
Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Hiroshima, Japan, the site of the world’s first nuclear bombing. As the first cabinet-level American official to visit the city’s memorial, there was some speculation that Kerry might apologize for the United States’ 1945 bombing. Instead, he chose to speak broadly about the need for global peace.
That’s a message worth spreading, but ignoring an opportunity to offer amends is disappointingly narrow-minded. No doubt, the decision was a purely political calculation.
In the minds of some Americans, recognizing any moral failing in the country shows weakness. To them, the United States has final say on what counts as justice — that just about everything our own nation does qualifies as purely coincidental.
We can try to defend our use of nuclear weapons as integral to ending World War II, potentially saving millions of lives by sacrificing 199,000 others in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Still, those lives belonged to innocent civilians. There have been scholarly debates about the ethics of using nuclear weapons ever since, but other American acts of violence have absolutely no claim to the “justified” label.
The genocide of Native Americans was supposedly necessary for the United States to exist, so that makes it defensible to some. Of course, that does not account for the centuries of killing Native Americans that served exclusively economic ends. Judging the morality behind internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is, according to Donald Trump, a “had to be there” situation. Without slavery, the American South wouldn’t have reached economic stability, and 37 percent of Americans don’t think students should hear that it caused the Civil War.
Kerry avoided taking blame in Hiroshima, but Americans must recognize that we have made mistakes. Those missteps don’t invalidate a vision of American leadership, they show us how to be better.
The United States is an exceptional place. It is a country where most people express themselves without fear of imprisonment or killing. That hasn’t always been the case, though, and ignoring that fact feeds into an idealistic but ultimately false image.
American exceptionalism can — and often does — go too far. The lives we have justified destroying shows national denial that we would not accept from Germany 70 years ago.
If we are supposed to set a moral standard for the world, we should at least meet it ourselves.