On the last Sunday of May, I was on the campus of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. I stood in the back of a crowd of a few thousand, one composed largely of graduating seniors, and family and friends there to support them. We were all listening to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) deliver the commencement address. As a member of the faculty, I could have been up on the stage positioned in a seat behind the senator, but, as I typically do for the event, instead opted to stand in the back - not least because I don’t like sitting under a hot sun in a heavy robe.
Gillibrand’s speech included reflections on her entry into what she called grassroots politics - Hillary Clinton’s multi-million-dollar US senate campaign in 2000 - as well as platitudinous exhortations that the graduates challenge themselves and assertions that no goals are too big to achieve. While toward the end, she spoke briefly of the need to fight poverty in the United States and raise the country’s minimum wage, and voiced strong support for women’s and LGBT rights, there was little in the speech to which one could object - at least in the context of the politically liberal ethos that prevails at Vassar.
Later that day, I felt irritated, but I wasn’t quite clear why - until I realised that I was angry with myself for quietly standing there, for not speaking out, for not indicating any protest during Gillibrand’s speech. Instead, I followed everyone around me and offered my polite applause for someone whose politics (much of which) are abhorrent - at least from a perspective that takes seriously matters of global justice, universal human rights and international law.
New York’s junior US senator, Kirsten Gillibrand got her start in Congress when she was elected to the House of Representatives in 2006. Mirroring the relatively conservative nature of her district, the Democrat was a member of the Blue Dog Caucus, one who voted, for example, against gun control legislation and opposed efforts by New York’s governor to provide driver’s licenses to unauthorised immigrants.
In early 2009, she became a US senator when another New York governor appointed her to fill Hillary Clinton’s seat after Barack Obama chose the former first lady to be secretary of state. With her move from the House to the Senate, Gillibrand’s politics quickly changed from one of the most conservative to one of the more liberal among Democrats on Capitol Hill. Whether the shift manifests a chameleon-like opportunism or simply her adjusting to the realities of moving from representing a relatively small, rural district to serving all of New York State, I am not sure. What is clear that Gillibrand plays a safe politics.
Thus, even at her most crusading moments, as when Gillibrand has criticised US military leaders for not doing enough to combat sexual assault within the armed forces, she ends up endorsing the larger institutional status quo. Incidents of sexual violence, she argues, "degrade military readiness [and] subvert strategic goodwill." In other words, sexual violence within the military is wrong because, among other reasons, it undermines the Pentagon and its gargantuan, global footprint.
The very fact of empire as such is invisible to most within the United States. Meanwhile, its violent and unjust manifestations...are widely accepted as the way things should be...
While Gillibrand has expressed disapproval of the Obama administration for its slow withdrawal from Afghanistan and voted in favour of an expedited timetable, she strongly endorses the overall war effort. She thus embodies the spirit of "American Empire" explicated by Andrew Bacevich, a retired US Army colonel and now professor of international relations at Boston University, in his eponymous book. In this regard, her disagreement is an example of what Bacevich characterizes as "little more than quibbles over operational details."
It embodies the profound consensus among Democrats and Republicans about what Bacevich calls the "fundamentals" of US policy, ones that include, as he explains in a more recent book, the American credo - that the necessary job of the United States is "to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world." It sees the world in generally black and white terms, with obvious forces of good - the United States and its allies - and those that are indisputably nefarious.
This credo dovetails with a "scared trinity" of convictions that underlie US military practice: international peace and order require a global American military presence, a military able to project power globally, and one that intervenes globally to counter existing or anticipated threats.
Together, Bacevich asserts, the credo and trinity create the foundation of the "rules" Washington follows and draws upon to justify what it does, while "precluding that intrusion of aberrant thinking" that could lead to vibrant debate.
Lack of aberrant thinking
As an imperial team player, Gillibrand embraces these rules, while showing almost no evidence of aberrant thinking when it comes to matters of US military and foreign policy. This is partly why Politico can say that she is "quietly building a résumé that would allow her to be taken seriously should she ever decide to run for president."
This also explains how and why she referred to her 2011 tour of the Hancock Air National Guard Base, just outside of Syracuse, NY, as "inspirational". This for one of the locations from which the United States flies the MQ-9 Reaper - the military’s best "hunter-killer" drone - in Afghanistan. It is a technology, said Gillibrand in echoing the Pentagon’s standard fare, which "will save lives".
As the New York senator’s words suggest, the lives of some - "us" (and those with whom "we" identify) - are effectively the only ones that matter. Thus, her official website speaks of the need of the United States to support Israel and "protect its citizens against terrorist threats," but says nothing about Palestinians. And when Israel commits atrocities, as it has, for instance, in its attacks over the last few years against the people of the illegally occupied Gaza Strip, she not only says nothing critical, but unequivocally supports them.
She even endorsed a 2010 Israeli attack on a six-ship flotilla to Gaza in international waters that killed nine individuals, framing the brutality as part of "Israel’s right to self-defense" while ignoring that it constituted a clear violation of international law. Instead, Gillibrand "called on the Obama Administration to determine whether or not an organizer of the flotilla, the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), should be placed on a list of foreign terrorist groups".
Similarly, Gillibrand has marched in step with the official consensus on Iran, one that purportedly seeks to deny Iran a right both the US and Israel demand for themselves - to have nuclear weapons. In this spirit of nuclear apartheid, she co-authored a 2012 economic sanctions bill whose passage only helped to escalate tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Gillibrand was silent about these policies during her Vassar commencement speech. On the eve of Memorial Day, a national holiday dedicated to remembering individuals who have died while serving in the US military, she offered nothing on matters of war and militarism - or of peace. And I mimicked her silence, setting a bad example as to how one lives a politically committed and ethical life, confronts abusive power, and takes seriously the concept of democratic engagement.
The Bradley Manning factor
Perhaps if we did speak out and protest that which we find unacceptable, we wouldn’t need such extraordinary individuals to take great risks in exposing the depraved levels to which we have sunk.
Less than a week later, I found myself in a very different environment, in a crowd of approximately one thousand people outside the gates of Fort Meade in Maryland. Along with anti-war veterans, peace activists, and queer rights advocates - among many others - I was part of a demonstration of solidarity with Bradley Manning two days before of the beginning of his court martial trial.
Imprisoned since 2010, Manning is a US Army private and an intelligence analyst. It was he who released to Wikileaks the "Collateral Murder" video, one that provides a cockpit view of a US Apache helicopter gunning down and killing two Reuters journalists and shooting children in Baghdad, along with tens of thousands of pages of other military and diplomatic documents related to US activities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Facing a variety of charges including "aiding the enemy," Manning could receive life imprisonment without parole.
A key goal of the US government’s case against Manning is to establish a working relationship between him and Julian Assange. It appears that the Obama administration hopes to gain evidence for a possible federal criminal prosecution against the Wikileaks founder, a man Kirsten Gillibrand has opined should be prosecuted to "the fullest extent of the law" and "thrown in jail for a very long time."
Although Gillibrand’s opinion of Manning is not on record, her words on Assange, and her larger politics, make clear what she thinks of those who challenge the US national security state and its global pretensions by exposing its secrets, and what should happen to them.
Of course, Gillibrand is hardly alone in Congress. Indeed, while her politics on the domestic front are left-leaning - albeit in what is (relative to most countries) a very narrow political spectrum - her positions on matters defined as within the realm of national security put her squarely in the center of the Washington establishment. Validating Bacevich’s assertion regarding bipartisan agreement on foreign policy "fundamentals," more than 80 senators, for example, shared her endorsement of the Israeli attack against the Gaza flotilla. And her Iran economic sanctions bill passed by a 94-0 vote.
It is this consensus that Manning’s revelations helped to disrupt. It is a consensus built on, among other things, hundreds of US military bases in dozens of countries. It is one that demands impunity for the United States for its actions abroad and accountability for those of its official enemies, and requires that Washington have a right to wage war around the globe.
Bradley Manning helped to shine a bright light on many of the lies that both justify and help obscure the underlying workings of unjust power - within the US and far beyond. It is for such reasons that Sarah Shourd, one of three US hikers arrested by Iranian forces in Iraqi Kurdistan and jailed in Tehran as a political hostage for over a year, expressed her gratitude to Manning. Speaking at the rally, the writer and anti-solitary-confinement activist thanked Manning - for trying to prevent the torture of Iraqis, for exposing corruption in Tunisia and contributing to the Arab Spring, for helping to bring about a more informed debate, and for his courage and extraordinary example.
The invisible empire
The very fact of empire as such is invisible to most within the United States. Meanwhile, its violent and unjust manifestations - from Afghanistan to Diego Garcia, Gaza, and Guantanamo to Iraq and Yemen to the large sectors of the population at home impoverished by a military budget that rivals those of all the rest of the world’s countries combined - are widely accepted as the way things should be, or simply the way things are, with little that can be done to change the situation.
What allows empire to endure in part is the quiescence of those among us who see empire as simply wrong. In that sense, how different are people like me who fail to confront the polite politicians that so blithely reproduce empire’s violence on a regular basis from those who hold Bradley Manning at Fort Meade and deny his freedom, or those who now seek to hunt down and prosecute Edward Snowden? Perhaps if we did speak out and protest that which we find unacceptable, we wouldn’t need such extraordinary individuals to take great risks in exposing the depraved levels to which we have sunk.
Next time, I will try very hard not to be still when one of its empire’s chief proponents is in front of me.
Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. His books include Dying to Live: A Story of US Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid(City Lights Books, 2008) and Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on "Illegals" and the Remaking of the US-Mexico Boundary(Routledge, 2010).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.