May 13, 2011

The mission earlier this month that killed Osama bin Laden is still dominating the headlines (for my take on the news, see my earlier post here). One interesting tidbit that has come out is the codename that U.S. officials used for bin Laden--Geronimo, the famous Native American warrior who alluded U.S. capture for decades. Members of his tribe are insulted by the codename and are demanding an apology. Jeff Houser, chairman of Geronimo's Fort Sill Apache Tribe, argued:

We are quite certain that the use of the name Geronimo as a code for Osama bin Laden was based on misunderstood and misconceived historical perspectives of Geronimo and his armed struggle against the United States and Mexican governments. ... However, to equate Geronimo or any other Native American figure with Osama bin Laden, a mass murderer and cowardly terrorist, is painful and offensive to our tribe and to all Native Americans.
Misunderstandings and misconceivings of history often guide public policies. Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Washington-based Native rights organization the Morning Star Institute, connected the codename to other historical abuses:
Our names are stolen and then we're renamed in order to control us, frankly.
Author Brian McLaren (the picture is one I took of him at Eastern Mennonite University), who has written some good work considering postcolonial implications for Christian theology, added his critique of the codename, and then urged white American Christians to consider these issues more carefully:
Just as we in the US need to listen - as we have never listened before - to our neighbors in the Muslim world (not to mention our Latin American neighbors, our African neighbors, and so on), we need to listen to our Native American/First Nations brothers and sisters and hear what they want to tell us about ugly parts of our history and contemporary national psyche that remain unacknowledged and that need to be radically changed. What's in a name? In this case, more than we realize.
A key issue is that the codename was not randomly chosen. Rather, it says something profound about the U.S. officials who decided to compare Geronimo to bin Laden. After all, they are not just calling bin Laden "Geronimo" but are also essentially calling Geronimo "bin Laden." How could they not see how that would be offensive to Native Americans? Or are we as a nation so used to mistreating the people of Geronimo that we do not even see the problem?

This mindset seems similar to the one that led Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum to recently express his concerns that America might be going the way of the British empire. He attacked President Barack Obama for supposedly "not understand[ing] what American exceptionalism is." Santorum then warned that Obama's policies were taking us down the same path the British took since the British empire fell apart because "they accepted the mediocrity of state control." Apparently, he longs for the U.S. to succeed where the British failed--being a lasting empire. It seems that his assessment of how the British empire faded leaves out some important aspects--like Gandhi! Perhaps they fell apart not because the British people accepted "mediocrity of state control" (whatever that really means) but because the non-British "subjects" stood up and demanded freedom. Santorum's remark reveals a lot about his mindset, just like the bin Laden codename tells us a lot about the mindset of U.S. officials. Hopefully we will be more careful with our thoughts and words, and hopefully we will be able to shed the colonial influences that still pervade our thoughts and words.