'The Ability to Kill Does Not Make America Great'

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Kai Wright cuts through the celebrating and tosses some cold water:


"Today's achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people," the president declared. "We are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to," he concluded, after insisting that the execution represents justice. "That is the story of our history, whether it's the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place." 

How perverse. President Obama is the leader of a nation in which justice is but a distant dream for millions of residents. He leads a nation that can afford billions of dollars annually for war but cannot feed the nearly 18 million children who lived in homes without food security in 2009. And yet, the Nobel Peace Prize winner can fix his mouth to say that killing a man on the other side of the globe provides proof of America's exceptionalism. 

The gap between rhetoric and reality has long been a defining trait of American life. Lies about our values have shielded us from the brutal facts of our nation ever since we built it on the back of genocide and slavery. But it is in times like these that the dissonance becomes unbearable. The president says we can do anything we want because we can kill. We could not stop poverty rates from spiraling upward to a record-setting 14.3 percent of Americans in 2009, but we can kill so we are exceptional. 

One in four black and Latino families live below the poverty line now, and as a result America's child poverty rate--one in five kids--is the second worst among rich nations, behind Mexico. But we can kill, so we are great. Fourteen million Americans are out of work, nearly a third of them for more than a year. The Depression-like jobs crises in black neighborhoods around the country have become so acceptable as to be literally unremarkable in national news media. When overall joblessness inched downward in March, the fact that black unemployment increased, again, was greeted with callous shrugs from the White House to CNN. But America is exceptional because we can kill...

We have the world's most expensive health care system, and yet in 2009 infant mortality in the U.S. was higher than in 29 other countries and the worst among rich nations. Why? In large part because the infant mortality rate is so high among black and Latina women. We cannot find justice for them, but we can kill and call it justice. 

I've been talking with some friends about this, trying to get to the heart of their discomfort, not simply with the celebrations last night, but with the singular focus on Bin Laden. The tragedy that remains in all of this, and will remain after today, and is setting in on me now even as I write this, is that we still don't really understand our place in all of this.

Osama Bin Laden We don't see the connection between our Utopianism--drive as big a car as you want, live in the house of your dreams for no money down, eat whatever you want for for 99 cents--and our need to fling our armies across the globe to protect out "way of life." It really would be nice if that spirit of omnipotence which Obama is tapping could be aimed inward. 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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