Al-Qaeda has been saying the same thing for a decade now, but the American news media responded this weekend as if the terrorists' American-born propagandist had said something new in justifying the killing of U.S. civilians. Mr. al-Awlaki, like his emir bin Laden, rejects the idea that American civilians are innocent. They endorse wars against Muslims by voting for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, he notes, and they finance those wars by paying taxes.
I'd be surprised to find anyone in the U.S. who doesn't at least feel an impulse to refute this argument, even if reason compels them to suppress the impulse. Let's separate two propositions: the subjective charge that Americans deserve death for causing the deaths of Muslims and the argument that civilians, i.e. citizens, are responsible for the acts of their government. The first is a political argument and little more than an appeal to revenge. The second gets to the heart of what Americans mean by democratic government. As any inegalitarian thinker will remind you, the U.S. government is a republic, not a democracy. Policy is made by elected representatives who have to answer for their decisions during regular elections. Because the right to vote is now restricted only by age and not by any other demographic considerations, we are a democratic republic in fact as well as claim. But our government remains essentially republican because we grant our elected representatives the right to legislate according to their own consciences instead of by instruction from their constituents. Where does responsibility lay? A republican system of government may encourage citizens to assign all responsibility to their representatives. Voters might say that they are responsible for putting a person in a responsible position, but not for the decisions their representative makes. Someone with a sense of history might argue that once Congress rejected the idea that it could be instructed by its constituents, the constituents were no longer directly responsible for his decisions. That representative remains accountable to constituents for those decisions, but not in any way that requires them to share responsibility for them. Even if they re-elect their representative, they might claim to be endorsing the person or the general principles he or she stands for (i.e. a party platform or movement ideology), but not his entire voting record. A delegation of responsibility, it might be argued further, is inherent in representative government. As a result, Americans are inclined to look at their government's actions and say "They did it" rather than "We did it."
My question is: Is this a responsible attitude? My follow-up is: Why do I suspect that those Americans who talk the most about responsibility in every other aspect of life are the ones most likely to disclaim personal responsibility for the actions of their democratically-elected representatives? Leaving ideological grudges aside, my final question is: Might this more widespread denial of personal responsibility for government explain much of our present dysfunction? Might it not also explain why we treat elections like job interviews, paying attention to the resume (party affiliation) and personal impressions and expecting the applicant to solve our problems for us or be fired rather than putting our heads together to figure out solutions for ourselves?
al-Qaeda doesn't believe in democracy, but sometimes those who criticize a thing have a better idea of what it is (whatever their opinion of it) then those who praise it while taking it for granted. Whether this is one of those times you can decide for yourselves.