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Tyranny and American Exceptionalism

Monday, June 29, 2009 at 09:49 PM EDT

“When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

- Richard M. Nixon

“Policies that were wrong under George W. Bush are no less wrong because Barack Obama is in the White House.”

- Bob Herbert

Americans have a tendency to conceive of their country as an exception to the rules, or to the laws of human nature, that govern other nations. This notion is sometimes called the notion of “American exceptionalism”.

Sometimes, it takes the form of believing Americans are destined to be a free people. When we see the difficulty so many other peoples have realizing their freedom, it often confirms our notions that what is happening to them cannot happen to us. We might fully support the Iranian people in their struggle for democratic elections, but our support for them is seldom qualified by the thought, “That could happen here.”

Put differently, we do not learn from others. Very few Americans think Iran has anything to teach us about our own democracy. After all, we are an exception to the rules that govern countries like Iran.

Sometimes the notion of American exceptionalism takes the form of believing our leaders can breach with impunity the checks and balances that have traditionally limited their power over us.

Richard Nixon seems to have expressed that opinion when he stated that if the President does it, it’s not illegal. In any other country, unchecked power soon becomes tyranny. But not — we think — in America. In America, only the nut cases warn us against allowing our government to have unchecked powers.

President Obama has declared his intention to indefinitely imprison people without trial.

The notion that a free people can grant their government the power to imprison them indefinitely and without trial is absurd. There is nothing in the long history of our species to suggest that is at all possible, let alone likely. Any people who grant their government tyrannical powers will before too long enjoy a tyranny — says history.

“But we are different”, says the American exceptionalist, “We can get away with it. Yes, we can.”