Missing Morals: How a Single Story Leads Us Towards War

Ryan Lau | @agorisms

When crafting important documents and speeches, leaders have the difficult task of unifying a country around them. Some notable and widely successful examples of such include Nelson Mandela’s famous “I Am Prepared to Die” speech, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In both cases, ordinary citizens took the words to heart, seeking radical change to an oppressive system.

However, leaders are also capable of using this influence for negative events. President Obama’s speech at MacDill Air Force Base, “Remarks by the President on the Administration’s Approach to Counterterrorism”, serves as a sinister example of how a single story can be used for the sake of harm. By taking advantage of his platform as president, Obama was able to reach an audience unlike any other; even the most popular news networks and nongovernmental figures have a cap on ideologues supporting them, but President Obama was able to truly reach all of America. Without a doubt, the president is guilty of the same concept: creating a single story. By painting Middle Eastern countries as aggressors, and the United States as a bringer of justice, the president created a story that dangerously ignored the real truths of American imperialism.

The Danger of a Single Story

Recalling her past in a brilliant Ted Talk, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes an excellent note of the risk of a single story. She defines a single story as defining a group of people as “only one thing, over and over again”. This means that a single story exists when an individual applies one stereotype about a group to the whole group, thus making often-faulty generalizations about that group as a whole.

In her case, existing biases and prejudices led to fundamental misunderstandings about critical parts of her identity and that of those around her. In college, for example, her roommate believed her to be very misfortunate due to her African origins. This, of course, was not the case, as Adichie came from a middle-class family that had seen some exposure to Western culture. Though not catastrophic in nature, the misunderstandings present, such as these stereotypes, clearly inhibited her roommate’s ability to make an informed judgment about her. The concept of a single story and subsequent dangers thereof are clearly present in the words of President Obama’s speech.

Misleading Information

To begin, the president outlines some particularly alarming, and often misleading statistics about his time in office. Specifically, he declares that in his tenure, there “has not been a day when a terrorist organization or some radicalized individual was not plotting to kill Americans.” On a purely technical level, this is not a lie. But as Adichie explains, a single story deals with incomplete, rather than false, information. In this case, the single-story present here is incredibly biased towards American interests and fails to take into account American flaws. Specifically, it leaves out the important moral distinction that the United States was, in many cases, the source of violence.

At the time of this speech, in 2016, the United States had ground troops actively fighting in five countries. President Obama had recently authorized drone strikes in an additional three. Is it any wonder that, when the American government is actively killing civilians and soldiers alike across eight countries on two continents, some of them would want to fight back?

Acting in Self Defense

After all, not one of these outbreaks of war is in the United States. In the history of the world, seldom has a people simply laid down their weapons and allowed a foreign aggressor to take full control of their land. Rather, they fight back when invaded. Yes, that means that they may have a desire to kill Americans, which is morally reprehensible in and of itself. However, the fact that the Americans were in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place significantly takes away the ethos of President Obama’s implicit suggestion that the United States was the real victim.

Considering that Iraq was not behind 9/11, and the military never found any weapons of mass destruction in the country, it is more than apparent that, in this case especially, the United States was an aggressor, not a defender.

An Opponent of War?

On the contrary, some may state that President Obama, unlike President Bush, who approved the war in Iraq, opposed the Iraq War. Yet, this point similarly portrays the same single, incomplete story. Upon further scrutiny, both dissolve. As for the first point, it is entirely true that Barack Obama opposed the Iraq War in 2002. The important distinction to make, however, is that he opposed it as a private citizen, and upon entering the Senate in 2005, and eventually the Presidency in 2009, his opposition quickly faded.

By 2007, then-Senator Obama voted against a measure that would give $120 billion in funding for the Iraq War, but then supported a bill that gave the same amount of money towards it with a troop withdrawal timetable. By now, his tolerance of war, even temporarily, begins to become more clear. And as stated above, the president actually increased the number of Middle Eastern countries in which the United States military was present, despite the fact that none of those additional countries had attacked Americans on their home soil. Thus, his temporary opposition to one particular war, while in a position of no power, is entirely inconsequential when compared to his actions in office, which overwhelmingly supported and furthered wars.

Not All Muslims

Admittedly, President Obama’s speech also incorporates what appears to be a call to avoid a single story of Muslims. Explaining how important it is to ignore the stereotype that Muslims are terrorists, he brilliantly states, “If we stigmatize good, patriotic Muslims, that just feeds the terrorists’ narrative.” This point is without any structural or moral flaw and therefore is perfectly valid.

Furthermore, he mentions the importance of recognizing that there are “over a billion Muslims around the world” who are not violent, which is also true. But, it is still not an adequate refutation, as it addresses an entirely different issue. The president was not guilty of stereotyping Muslims as terrorists; rather, he is guilty of stereotyping all who shoot at American troops in the Middle East as terrorists.

The president still defines the term ‘terrorist’ too broadly, but instead of including all Muslims in the definition, he includes all Middle Eastern citizens acting in self-defense against American imperialism. However, one cannot logically consider someone acting in true self-defense to be a terrorist. Following that measure, we would have to define the Founding Fathers as terrorists, too. By failing to exclude this defining factor from his statement, President Obama once more does not take into account the immoralities of his actions and those of his troops.

American Interests

Surely, it would run diametrically opposed to the interests of President Obama, and of his country, for him to use such harsh words against America. It is understandable, though not excusable, that he crafted language in this particular way, in order to get Americans to view his actions through the American stereotype of defending freedom. Nonetheless, it is absolutely essential, when seeking to avoid more casualties than are absolutely necessary, to recognize that a single story does not hold all of the information necessary to make full judgments.

Unfortunately, the above example is not the sole occurrence of the president’s reliance on a single story to mask the true nature of events. Throughout the speech, he uses the same strategy multiple times. The next major occurrence relates to a clear contradiction on the function of both the presidency and the institution of war. In the speech, President Obama states, “The most solemn responsibility for any president is keeping the American people safe. In carrying out that duty, I have sent men and women into harm’s way.”

There is a quite clear, albeit likely intentional contradiction in this statement. Simply put, sending American people in danger does not keep American people safe. Going beyond this, however, the narrative of a single story once again becomes clear. As President of the United States, it was his job to guard the interests of his own people. However, it was also his role to follow the outlines of the Geneva Convention, which critically condemn the killing of civilian lives, regardless of national origin.

Were We at Fault?

In order for Obama’s words to paint an accurate picture, rather than one diluted side of the story, then the averted civilian death toll resulting from his actions must surpass the actual one that followed them. In Iraq alone, the civilian death toll from 2009 to 2016 was over 82,000. Admittedly, some of these deaths were due to suicide bombings, but such a factor does not begin to account for every casualty. Once again, it is critical to note that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that the nation played no role in the 9/11 terror attacks.

Thus, it is extremely improbable, given the clear military superiority of the United States by both budget and nuclear capability, that the Middle Eastern country could have possibly inflicted anywhere near the same number of civilians casualties as America did to it. It, therefore, follows necessarily that these words, though not untrue, are incomplete and rely once more on the American stereotype. Where he may have been looking out for American interests (though even this much requires rectifying a glaring contradiction), he fails to mention the equal interests of the lives of those who suffered under the might of the United States. In doing so, morality simply slips away from the discussion.

The Fight Against Al-Qaeda

Additionally, President Obama created a single story when speaking of his efforts to fight Al-Qaeda. Later in the speech, he boldly claims that “core Al-Qaeda – the organization that hit us on 9/11 – is a shadow of its former self.” Obviously, this is meant to portray Al-Qaeda, the group legitimately responsible for 9/11, as the enemy, and he is absolutely correct in placing this blame here. But do his actions regarding the group match this sentiment? Appallingly, such is not the case. Not only does the United States not unilaterally oppose Al-Qaeda, but instead, in Yemen, the two effectively fight on the same side.

Since 2015, towards the end of President Obama’s second term in office, war broke out between the government of Yemen and the Houthi rebels, who sought to overthrow it. Not long after, Saudi Arabia joined in with a multinational coalition to fight on the side of the incumbent Hadi government. This coalition has since bombed hundreds of civilians, including children on a school bus. Among one of the countries giving the coalition aid in the form of money, weapons, vehicles, and mid-air support on drone strikes is the United States.

Teaming Up with Terrorists

However, this is not the only form of assistance that the United States has given. Beginning in 2016, Al-Qaeda entered the conflict, also on the side of the Hadi: the same side as the United States. Over a span of two years, the American military, first under the direction of President Obama, arranged agreements with Al-Qaeda.

On numerous occasions, according to an Associated Press study, the United States paid the terrorist group to leave cities in Yemen. In other instances, they allowed them to keep looted weapons and money while retreating, even calling off drone strikes against the militants. President Obama, as well as any other government official, has yet to justify these actions. In fact, he has yet to speak out about them. His actions, without a doubt, only strengthen Al-Qaeda, allowing them an increased presence in the Middle East and an increased ability to attack the United States. But, in the address, President Obama makes no mention of this.

Though the total influence of Al-Qaeda may have lessened in recent years, the full story reveals that the president himself oversaw, or at least failed to prevent, his own military arming and protecting the very terrorists he alleges to fully oppose. This, clearly, avoids the full story of American intervention, instead only focusing on the common belief of Americans as victims, and those in the Middle East as aggressors. In reality, though, it is vice versa in this situation.

A Dangerous Story

Certainly, President Obama’s 2016 remarks on counterterrorism create a dangerously one-sided story, creating additional, undeserved sympathy for Americans due to a lack of the full story. Where Adichie suffers due to the creation of single stories, so do tens of thousands of Middle Eastern civilians. Perhaps, with a full representation of the story, and a path away from unjust stereotyping and overgeneralization, some of these individuals would not need to perish.

Yet, there is still hope. Full stories exist in multitudes, and can often rectify biased or prejudiced accounts of events. In a world of war, rejecting single stories, seeking many perspectives, and fairly applying them may truly bring peace.

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