Twenty-four years ago, I was in the Republic of Panama working as a Peace Corps Volunteer–an official representative of the United States of America.
Panama had recently been invaded by the United States in a clumsy attempt to remove Manuel Noriega from power. The operation left an estimated 3,500 Panamanian civilians dead and 20,000 homeless. Noriega was ultimately captured, but at great cost.
It wasn’t the first U.S. atrocity in Panama. In 1964 U.S. forces killed 21 Panamanians in response to protests over the flying of the Panamanian flag in the Canal Zone.
One day during our service, my husband and I were in a bar in Panama City. We met a young serviceman and, when we explained we were Peace Corps Volunteers, he said, “Oh! So, we shoot ’em, and you apologise.”
Yep. That’s about right.
I feel like I’ve been apologising for my country my whole adult life. As a people, Americans can be great. They can be generous, kind, openhearted, and open-minded. I like Americans–some of my best friends are Americans.
But America as a nation is often a bully, stuck in out-of-date ideas, selfish, arrogant, close-minded, racist, sexist, and uncaring. It was founded by people seeking religious freedom, yet is stubbornly intolerant of religious diversity. It was founded on the premise that ‘all men are created equal’, and yet has never treated all men equally (and don’t even ask how the nation has treated women…).
As a child, I was taught that America provided equal opportunity to all, and benevolently gave aid to those in need. I recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day at school, and believed in the words ‘with liberty and justice for all’.
But so much of what I saw, even as a child, revealed the lie in what I was taught. I have now spent half my adult life living outside the United States, seeing America from many different perspectives. None of them are flattering.
I don’t say this to bash America. I say it from a deep belief that America has the potential to live up to its ideals. I say it from a fundamental need to see my country do right by its people and the world. I say it in the hope that maybe someday I won’t have to be ashamed to admit I’m an American.
Until then, to the rest of the world, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.