Friday, May 20, 2011

The dangers of the arrogance of the empire

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

I am among those who were enthusiastic about the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president, especially coming after G. Bush Jr., a bellicose, fundamentalist, and not very bright president. The latter believed in the imminence of the Biblical Armageddon Bible and followed to the letter the ideology of Manifest Destiny, a script invented by the American imperial will to justify war against Mexico, according to which the United States would be the new chosen people of God to bring human rights, freedom and democracy to the world. This belief in its own exceptionalism translated into historical arrogance that made the United States arrogate to itself the right to impose its lifestyle and worldview on the whole world, through politics or weapons.

I was hoping that the new president was not yet hostage to this nefarious and imaginary divine election, since he announced in his program multilateralism and not hegemony, but I had my doubts, because behind the "Yes, we can", the old arrogance could be hiding. Faced with the economic and financial crisis, he proclaimed that the United States had shown throughout its history that it could do anything, and that it would overcome the current situation. Now, upon the assassination of Osama bin Laden ordered by him (in a state of law, which separates the powers, does the executive branch have the power to kill, or is it incumbent upon the judicial branch to order the arrest, prosecute and punish?), the mask has fallen. He was not able to hide the atavistic arrogance.

The president, of humble origin, of African descent, born outside the continent, first Muslim and then converted evangelical*, said plainly: "What happened on Sunday sent a message around the world:...when we say we will never forget, we mean what we say," which is like saying: "terrorists around the world, we will kill you."

There, without mincing words, all the arrogance and imperial attitude of putting oneself above all ethics is revealed.

This brings to mind the words of a theologian who served twelve years as an adviser to the ex-Inquisition in Rome and came to sympathize with me when I was suffering through the doctrinal trial. He confessed: "Learn from my experience: the ex-Inquisition forgets nothing, forgives nothing, and takes everything. Be prepared." Indeed, that's what I felt. Worse happened to a moral theologian, beloved throughout Christendom, Germany's Bernhard Häring. With a throat cancer that almost did not allow him to speak, he was subjected to rigorous questioning in the dark room of that office of psychological horror because of some statements about sexuality. Upon leaving, he confessed, "this interview was worse than the one I suffered under the Nazi SS during the war." which means: the label doesn't matter -- Catholic or Nazi, every authoritarian and totalitarian system follows the same logic: it avenges everything, it doesn't forget and it doesn't forgive.

Barack Obama promised to do so and intends to carry forward the terrorist state created by his predecessor, keeping the Patriot Act that authorizes the suspension of certain rights and the preventive detention of suspects without even notifying their families, which turns into kidnapping.

Not without reason the Norwegian Johan Galtung, the man of the culture of peace, creator of two institutions of peace research and inventor of the Transcend method in mediating conflicts (a kind of win-win policy) wrote that such acts bring the United States closer to a fascist state.

The truth is that we are faced with an empire. It is the logical and necessary consequence of the alleged exceptionalism. It is a unique empire, based not on a territorial or colonial occupation, but on 800 military bases spread around the world, most of them unnecessary for American security. But they are there to frighten and to ensure its hegemony in the world. None of that has been dismantled by the new emperor, who did not close Guantanamo as he had promised and who still sent thirty thousand soldiers to Afghanistan for a hopeless war.

We may disagree with the basic thesis of Samuel P. Huntington in his controversial book The Clash of Civilizations, but there are noteworthy observations in it such as this: "the belief in the superiority of Western culture is wrong, immoral and dangerous." (p. 395) Moreover, "Western intervention is probably the most dangerous source of instability and a potential global conflict in a multi-civilization world." (p. 397) Well then, the conditions for such a tragedy are being created by the United States and its European allies.

The American people -- good, hardworking, and somewhat naive, who we admire -- are one thing, and the imperial government, which doesn't respect international treaties that are against its interests and which is capable of all forms of violence, is another. But there are no eternal empires. The time will come when it will be another number in the graveyard of vanished empires.

*Translator's Note: Leonardo Boff's description of President Obama is a little misleading. He was never a Muslim as an adult and though yes, he was technically not born in the continental United States, he was born in Hawaii, a U.S. state.


  1. I do see what Boff is driving at: a restatement of the essential fact that no power on earth will last for ever or can really be a 'chosen people'. I think he is being hard on Obama although I too have been disappointed over the failure to close Guantanamo, over the murder of Bin Laden (they were probably terrified of the consequences of a long drawn-out trial) and above all over the appalling treatment of Bradley Manning. The fact is that the American president is by no means able to act alone and is dependent to a huge extent upon advice (and pressure) received from those around him. The President is also so dependent upon the good will of his people that it gives him very little freedom to act in any way which will be even mildly unpopular. That does mean that good and necessary things cannot always be achieved. There is often a massive price to pay for extreme democracy on the American model.

  2. And what is wrong about killing O.B.L.? Hey...didn't we hear that they found stuff in his house that show that he was planning to kill-terrorize more people? Ohhh he got no trial? Who cares. Why the waste of time and money for this character.
    About Pres. Obama, he is just an arrogant good man ( I guess)with good intentions but with no clue about international politics and no idea on how to fix things here and he things that by telling people not to eat more big-macs and telling Israel to move back to the 1967 borders... Shaboom! All will be done and problem solved.
    The only good thing he did, is not to kill so many people as his predecessor did, just one and is enough.
    Who will be next? I hope is not Obama. Actually since I can't vote for Bill Clinton any more, I don't care. Neither of both parties have real solutions to this economy. The real presidency belongs to money and power any some spend for the military other spend for social things, but the truth is that this country is in the trillions of debt and perhaps in a couple of generations will all belong to the sneaky deceiving chines. ♦