President Donald Trump wrongly suggested that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the moral equivalent of the United States. Clearly, it’s not. But the reaction to his pre-Super Bowl comments shows the country is still incapable of having a grown-up conversation about America’s flaws, a blind spot that makes it nearly impossible to objectively assess the effect of U.S. policies.
“But he’s a killer,” Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said during the interview after Trump said he respected Putin.
“There are a lot of killers,” Trump returned. “You think our country’s so innocent?”
Our country isn’t so innocent, but we don’t have presidents who routinely kill or jail journalists and dissidents or a past that includes the murder of tens of millions of people the way the Soviet Union did. The Dixie Chicks were ostracized by country music fans for publicly saying they were ashamed that George W. Bush was president. But President Bush did not jail them the way Putin sent Pussy Riot to prison for two years after the group performed a protest.
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There is a bright line between the freedoms Americans sometime take for granted and what’s allowed inside Putin’s Russia. The United States has earned the right to be called a shining city upon a hill. The country has done more to advance human rights than any other, sometimes at great cost to itself. The problem is that the discussion too frequently ends there.
Too many Americans skate over the reality that the U.S. once deemed Nelson Mandela a terrorist while siding with the apartheid regime in South Africa and used its most powerful domestic law enforcement agency to try to undermine Martin Luther King Jr. The Justice Department has uncovered systemic abuse and brutality in some of our largest police departments.
Though it’s Black History Month, not enough Americans know that terrorism on our soil – thousands of lynchings, burning black men and women alive, chopping off their genitals as souvenirs – occurred through the middle of the 20th century with the indirect, and sometimes direct, blessings of the public at large and elected officials and those charged with keeping us safe.
The U.S. secretly overthrew a democratically elected leader of Iran and later sided with Saddam Hussein in the decade-long Iraq-Iran war. We adopted a systemic torture program after 9/11 but labeled it enhanced interrogation. And lest we forget, we invaded another nation, resulting in at least 100,000 deaths on false premises and further destabilized a region already on the brink of chaos.
The United States is morally superior to Putin’s Russia. But it is not good enough to be better than Russia, not good enough to pat ourselves on the backs for all the good we’ve done.
Our high ideals demand more – that we be better than we were and are – and always will. That can’t happen if we aren’t more willing to grapple with the harm we’ve sometimes caused.