"All Lives Matter" has always been a lie: The brutality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki echoes in Ferguson and Iraq today

Americans have always valued their own lives above any other — except when their fellow Americans are the "other"

Published August 7, 2015 2:35PM (EDT)

A huge expanse of ruins left by the explosion of the atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945 in Hiroshima. (AP)
A huge expanse of ruins left by the explosion of the atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945 in Hiroshima. (AP)

Of all the tweets I’ve ever tweeted--and I’ve tweeted many--by far the ones that have gotten the most exposure were a couple of tweets I hastily banged out a year ago while Twitter was collectively melting down over police brutality in Ferguson and the mainstream media’s stubborn reluctance to make a big deal over it.

I can still see them being linked every time someone says #AllLivesMatter in response to the #BlackLivesMatter refrain, most recently at Martin O’Malley’s incredibly unfortunate response to #BlackLivesMatter activists at Netroots Nation. (Whatever else you can say about him, we can at least be sure Governor O’Malley doesn’t spend much time on Twitter.)

It shouldn’t be rocket science why invoking “All Lives Matter” is, at best, insensitive and, at worst, an active attempt to derail activism and deny reality. Nobody is disagreeing that all people’s lives do, in fact, matter and ought to matter equally.

The point is that right now they are not treated as though they matter equally. Some people’s lives are treated as precious, others as disposable garbage. If you really do believe all lives matter, then your focus should be on black lives, which are demonstrably the most neglected lives in our country and, for that matter, the world. Treating a focus on black lives as a “special interest” or parochial concern requires willful ignorance about what kind of world we actually live in.

The charitable interpretation is that #AllLivesMatter folks just aren’t aware of this--they conceive of our justice and law enforcement system as a basically decent system that basically works the way it should where any instances of police brutality or unjust killings are unfortunate exceptions to the rule. They think of activists as just taking a few of those exceptions and singling them out because the victims “happen to be black.”

You can push back on this with statistical evidence -- statistics that aren’t new or shocking to anyone, that have been known for years before putting names and faces to them like Mike Brown and Sandra Bland made them go viral. You can point to the obvious signs of a culture of racism, the ever-present context of a racist history in which these events occur. You can demonstrate that you’re not “picking and choosing” victims by signal-boosting just as loudly when a white teenager is killed, demonstrating that it’s not that you don’t care about white victims, but white victims are comparatively rarer.

You keep tweeting and keep marching and keep writing articles and books hoping that you will eventually “raise awareness” enough that the #AllLivesMatter crowd will stop their pointless derailing and actually act like all lives matter.

For some of them, this might work. But I’m coming to think that for many, it doesn’t--because they do not, in fact, believe that all lives matter, and consciously or unconsciously are excluding quite a lot of people from the “all” in that phrase.

Look at President Bush’s invasion of Iraq and President Obama’s withdrawal, both of which are being furiously relitigated at the moment in the run-up to the Republican primaries. Both pro-war and anti-war pundits talk endlessly about the 4,491 American deaths in that war, either arguing that withdrawal “saved more American lives” or caused those Americans who had died to have “died in vain.”

Going totally unmentioned are the more than 100,000 Iraqi deaths (we think, no one has been able to keep accurate count) in that war, the majority of whom were civilians, killed by violence in the war, and the untold more who died from disease or privation. This is a number at least 20 times as high as the number of Americans killed, possibly 40 times as high.

But we treat our people’s deaths as fundamentally more meaningful than theirs. Even the liberal anti-war crowd reflexively talks about “American troops” being killed and “the deaths of American citizens.” Whatever you think of the war, the American troops who died volunteered to go and made the choice to be there, while hundreds of thousands of Iraqis--including Iraqi children--died with no choice in the matter at all.

It’s not new. I write this on the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing on August 6, 1945, shortly before the Nagasaki bombing on August 9. The estimated deaths from those two bombings--the only time in history nuclear weapons were used in war--are around 250,000 people, almost all civilians. Two whole cities, snuffed out in a flash of light.

This is more than half as many as the total deaths of US servicemen in the entire Second World War (407,300). This is double the total number of US servicemen who died in battle in the Pacific Theater (106,207).

This was an atrocity that even in the wave of jingoistic celebrations that marked the end of the war in the United States still gripped the imagination with just how horrible a weapon the A-bomb was, how indiscriminately destructive, how lingering the effects of radiation sickness and cancer and poisoned soil.

And yet we justify it.

After a period of time in which Hiroshima was a useful symbol for peace activists afraid of a future nuclear exchange to invoke, our present relative confidence we won’t be nuked ourselves has ushered in a new age of Hiroshima apologism. In the 1990s, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union and when America was riding high on a wave of optimism off of our Cold War victory, the Smithsonian tried to put up a historical exhibit showing the Enola Gay and was shouted down because any mention of the deaths in Hiroshima or the suffering of the survivors was seen by protesters as an unpatriotic attack on our troops.

Even today, I’ve seen people passing around Paul Fussell’s decades-old piece for The New Republic which uses a lot of words to tell us that war is hell, we’d understand why Hiroshima needed to be nuked if we were American GIs, and that the critics of the bombing are all privileged civilians who weren’t there. (This ignores that one of the greatest critics of the bombing and one of my personal heroes, John Rawls, very much was there, abandoned the military due to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and wrote his landmark "A Theory of Justice" partly in reaction to America’s moral myopia over the bomb.)

Over and over we hear it, that the bombing was justified because it “saved American lives”; we hear floated the idea that a half million American soldiers or more would’ve died in the invasion of the Home Islands (more than had died in the entire war up to that point), that Japanese civilians would have fought to the last man, woman and child, etc., etc. Usually left out of these debates are the fact that any American analysis of Japanese ferocity in the face of invasion was tainted by quite fanatical racism, the same racism that led to the incarceration of 120,000 Americans for no military purpose. Minus such racism the idea that every single person in Japan would’ve picked up gardening implements and kitchen knives to fight to the death---the assumption on which the enormous projected death tolls depended--seems unlikely.

But to me that debate isn’t the point. The point is the speedy use of the bomb almost as soon as it was ready, less than a month after the first successful Trinity test -- that no time was given for a negotiated surrender, no consideration was given to testing the theory of ferocious, intractable Japanese resistance before resorting to nuclear force. Any such delay would have cost more American lives -- therefore the decision to vaporize two cities had to be made instantly.

Even now, writing these words, I hesitate to say that it would have been worth take the chance and sacrifice the lives of some American GIs -- estimates are that about 30,000 would’ve died in the first month or so of a ground invasion, a tragic figure but an order of magnitude less than the death toll of the bombings. So steeped am I in American political rhetoric that this sounds obscene. I can’t ever imagine a president or presidential candidate saying it. And the reverse -- the willingness to blow up one city, two cities, any number of cities filled with foreigners to keep even one American life out of harm’s way -- is what we expect to hear from politicians. In our ears it sounds noble.

But it’s not. It’s not noble at all, and everyone who isn’t an American already knows that it isn’t.

The same impulse is alive and well today. Any number of foreign lives is worth sacrificing to “save American lives.” Every month there’s an unknown number of wedding parties, houses of worship, marketplaces blown up by drones, paid for by our tax dollars, authorized by President Obama. Every month there’s an unknown number of innocent civilians -- an unknown number of children -- who become “collateral damage” of these drone strikes.

And half the country actively defends this because it lets them sleep soundly at night that potential terrorists in some of the poorest parts of the world are being blown up before they even have the chance to think about some ill-conceived plan to smuggle a homemade bomb onto a plane that might kill a US citizen.

The other half -- myself included -- expresses distaste for these senseless deaths, cracks dark jokes about it, but doesn’t get too noisy because we sleep better at night knowing that the man signing countless death warrants is pro-choice, pro-gay rights and expanded health insurance for freelancers.

If we genuinely believed all lives mattered, none of us would be sleeping soundly at all.

I made a half-tongue-in-cheek statement -- not intended to be historically rigorous -- that apologists for the Hiroshima bombing are pulling a geopolitical equivalent of the all-too-familiar “the cop feared for his life.”

Obviously war is very different from police violence. Obviously racist attitudes about black Americans are different from racist attitudes about Japanese foreigners.

But I think the principle holds. When you value one set of people’s lives more than others, you’ll automatically see even the threat of harm to some people as a bigger deal than the certainty of harm to others.

When all your wartime propaganda portrays the Japanese as twisted inhuman apes, you’ll find it easy to sign off on the certainty of 250,000 of their deaths than take any “unnecessary” risk of death among your people -- the real people.

It’s no different from those who justify the final certainty of shooting an unarmed man in the head by denying that a police officer should ever “unnecessarily” risk his life at all -- by speaking to the suspect, by engaging him hand-to-hand, by retreating from the scene.

Never mind that the officer, like a soldier, is a uniformed professional who has volunteered to place himself in harm’s way and the other man is an unarmed civilian -- the officer is seen as a real person whose life matters and the suspect is not. A 10% or 50% or 80% chance the officer might die is totally unacceptable, and therefore worth a 100% chance of the suspect’s death.

We do this all the time. We refuse to accept even the smallest probability that anyone anywhere might carry out another 9/11 attack, so instead we accept the certainty that we’re murdering a certain number of innocent children every week with Hellfire missiles. We refuse to accept even the smallest probability that Saddam Hussein might have WMDs that might someday make their way to our shores, so instead we accept the certainty of massacre, torture and starvation as long as it hits other people who don’t count.

And whenever we’re forced to make a choice between Americans, we’ll gladly pick whichever Americans seem more like “real Americans” at the time and sacrifice the others for them. That can mean the 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were thrown in prison on the off chance that one of them might be saboteurs. It can mean the four American citizens who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in Pakistan.

For Chinese-Americans like me and my family--some of whom cheered the treatment of Japanese-Americans during the war -- it can mean the unpleasant experience of seeing “our friends the Chinese” and “our enemies the Japanese” suddenly switch places after the war, seeing Chinese-American scientists deported in 1955 and held in solitary confinement in 1999 just to make sure we weren’t handing nuclear secrets to the enemy.

That’s the thing about people who decide American lives matter and others’ lives don’t--you never know when you might stop being an American and start being an “other”; Chinese- and Japanese-Americans find out all too often many Americans can’t even tell the difference.

And then, of course, there’s the people who’ve been “other” from the beginning, whose ancestors were defined as not really people -- three-fifths of a person, to be exact -- in the Constitution, whom the rest of us have been happy to treat as free labor, test subjects for syphilis experiments and acceptable targets for cops with rage issues for generations.

I’ll give some people the credit for being consistent. I remember many highly unpleasant conversations with an acquaintance in college who strongly believed that it was the job of an American citizen to value Americans’ lives over all others, that in an extreme scenario he’d support nuking the entire rest of the world to save the United States.

He even expected me, when I talked about my own status as a natural-born citizen and my parents’ as naturalized citizens, to say I felt closer to my parents after they “became Americans” like me than I had before they took the oath.

I said that I didn’t think the citizenship test and oath meant that much and that aside from the legal benefits of citizenship I didn’t see how my parents becoming citizens when I was a kid mattered much at all, that whether you care about a person or see a person’s life as having value has less than nothing to do with what government they pay taxes to. He became angry, said my attitude was, well, un-American.

I’ll give my former acquaintance and people like him the credit that at least they don’t try to pretend “all lives matter,” and generally don’t try to say so.

But everyone else? If we really think all lives matter, regardless of race, creed, nation or class…

I wish we’d act like it.

By Arthur Chu

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