In the commotion over the swap of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Guantanamo prisoners, right-wingers were gobsmacked by Obamaphobe Charles Krauthammer’s support of the president’s decision. They were only somewhat less surprised by David Brooks’ support. Has the messiah come?
Hardly. But both Krauthammer and Brooks are Jews well aware of Israel’s readiness to exchange over a thousand incarcerated Palestinians — “terrorists,” as they are called — for a single Israeli prisoner of war. In the Jewish State, it’s a given that you negotiate with anyone, and risk putting lots of hostile guys back on street, to get back one of your own. Good, bad, or indifferent, an Israeli soldier is one of ours.
The Israeli position is completely in line with the U.S. military’s own commitment not to leave any personnel behind — which is why no one in the military can be found to criticize the deal. So perhaps the real question is why other Americans are prepared to do so.
For Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and herself (let it be noted) Jewish, it appears to be the latest example of the White House’s failure to keep her in the loop. Then there’s that pesky if conceivably unconstitutional law requiring the president to notify Congress 30 days in advance of the release of any prisoner from Gitmo. And is anyone surprised that GOP politicians were in favor of getting Bergdahl home for only so long as the president didn’t manage to make it happen?
But Fox-laced Republican opposition just begs the question. Americans really do seem less willing than Israelis to embrace the principle that you get your people home simply because they’re your people, regardless of what they did or didn’t do, or even of the risk that exchanging them for bad guys might pose. How come?
The answer, I suggest, is that American identity is not like Israeli identity. There’s something chosen about it, and if you seem to choose otherwise, you can be extruded from the community as expressly unAmerican.
This volitional character of American identity dates from the earliest days of the republic, when colonials who opposed independence were denominated Tories and sent packing to Canada. The Revolution made the turncoat general Benedict Arnold into a synonym for traitor.
Punishment for renunciation of American identity was epitomized in “The Man Without a Country,” a short story by Edward Everett Hale published in the Atlantic in 1863. The story tells of a U.S. Army lieutenant who renounces his country during a trial for treason and is consequently sentenced to spend the rest of his days at sea with nary a word of news about the United States. He ends his days having converted his cabin into a patriotic shrine. The story is, in fact, a pro-Union allegory about the Civil War.
The readiness of Americans to identify fellow Americans as unAmerican includes Catholics and other immigrants in the 19th century, leftists in the 20th century, and Muslims in the 21st century. John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” brought down the charge of unAmericanism on all of Marin County. Few have been disturbed by the drone-killing of the teenage American son of the American Islamist preacher Anwar Awlaki.
“Why are we doing anything to get this guy back?” asks Ann Coulter, going on to explain why the deal for Bergdahl was wrong. “He’s ashamed to be an American. He calls America ‘disgusting.’ He wanted to leave, so he left. He got what he wanted.”
The metaphysics of Americanism say that we get back our own only when they deserve it. If they don’t deserve it, they’re not our own.