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American Exceptionalism

I disagree with Holman Jenkins’s thesis – expressed in today’s Wall Street Journal – that the killing of Osama bin Laden “vindicates” American civilization.  However necessary or just it was to kill Bin Laden, a civilization’s value is never measured by the skill and alacrity with which its government kills even the most deserving victims.

Secular and spiritual authorities have killed people for millennia.  And these authorities have often employed impressive organizational talents and state-of-the-art techniques both to gather intelligence on the whereabouts of their prey and to perform the actually killings.  In taking down Bin Laden, the U.S. government did what governments throughout the ages have regularly done.  Success at this task does nothing to distinguish America from any of hundreds of other societies – societies present and past, good and bad, great and contemptible, civil and uncivil.

What does distinguish America and the west from most other civilizations (including the primitive one championed by Bin Laden) isn’t our élan for, and skill at, martial deeds, but our embrace of individual liberty – liberty that clears space for peaceful and creative commerce.

Our civilization is vindicated by our supermarkets full of food, by our shopping malls full of clothing, by our homes with solid floors and solid roofs and air-conditioning and automatic dishwashers, by iPads and smart phones and aspirin and antibiotics and Amazon.com, by the globe-spanning cooperation that makes these things real – and by the freedom from central direction and mind-numbing, soul-shriveling superstitions that have made so many other ‘civilizations’ sanguinary and hellish.