Sen. John McCain died on Saturday after a public battle with brain cancer. In the wake of his death, McCain (R-Ariz.) was roundly praised by Democrats and Republicans alike. Many have called McCain a “great American.” CNN characterized the senator as “an abrasive American hero with a twinkle in his eye.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) said he would introduce a resolution to rename the Russell Senate Office Building after McCain. The country’s collective praise song for McCain has been steady since Friday, when it was announced that he would discontinue treatment for his illness.
But for some of us, McCain’s American hero narrative has long fallen flat. Our sentiments, however, are not particularly welcome in the current dialogue. Any attempt to interrupt the chorus of acclaim with reminders of his many misdeeds has been met with swift condemnation. Those naming McCain’s harms have been accused of attacking the senator and the dignity of his family ― as if telling the full, truthful story of his life and career were an insult to the senator and his loved ones. Such moments are part of a longstanding tradition in the United States: At death’s door and beyond, all statesmen are good statesmen. We have seen similar erasures of past sins when former Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan made their final exits, and we will likely see still more of it when war criminals like Henry Kissinger and ex-President George W. Bush shuffle off this mortal coil.
These sentiments are to be expected from Republicans, who seldom feign concern for the people McCain has helped destroy. But the liberal impulse to valorize leaders who have caused great suffering the world over is more troubling and of greater consequence. Democrats often insist that the lives of the oppressed matter ― until discussion of those lives proves inconvenient.
The typical liberal refrain this weekend was something akin to, “I disagreed with his policies, but he was a man who stood by his beliefs” ― as though consistency were an admirable trait in people who do and support terrible things.
Any mention of McCain’s political sins has been met with pearl clutching and moralization. “Do we have to discuss this today?” they ask, as though they would be discussing the damage done in Iraq or Afghanistan tomorrow. Indeed, McCain helped usher in the era of the forever war, relegating the havoc of armed conflict to mere background noise in the United States, barely seen or acknowledged in the distance. Permanent atrocity is out of sight and out of mind, ensuring that those who mourn McCain today won’t have to acknowledge his violent legacy tomorrow.
McCain’s victims ― the millions who have suffered and died in accordance with his war hawk policies and positions ― who are already invisible in popular discourse in the U.S., are now deemed wholly unmentionable. Because McCain was a “great American.”
But what is American greatness? Is it a reflection of what the U.S. claims to embody or a reflection of its actual practices? Was McCain a great American when he demanded escalation after escalation in Iraq, even as the majority of Americans turned against the war effort? Was he a great American when he insisted the surge was a necessary investment and that maintaining a military presence in Iraq might be necessary? Was he a great American when he sang “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” at a campaign stop in 2007 or compared the country’s then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a monkey in 2013? Perhaps McCain was modeling American greatness when he said, “I hate the g**ks. I will hate them as long as I live.”
McCain’s Islamophobia was on display in a moment he is often praised for: his rebuttal of an accusation during the 2008 presidential campaign that Barack Obama was an Arab. McCain countered the accusation by saying, “He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues” ― thereby positioning an Arab identity as existing in opposition to decency, a positive familial identity and U.S. citizenship.
McCain was a supporter of Israeli apartheid ― a mainstream position in U.S. politics but one that will nonetheless be judged harshly by history, as all colonialist atrocities ought to be.
His decision to broker a land deal that would turn Oak Flat, an Apache holy site in Arizona into a copper mine was likewise consistent with American traditions, as was its erasure from popular discourse. The movement to save Oak Flat was a powerful, intergenerational effort that inspired people around the world, and McCain dealt that campaign a crushing defeat when he and Sen. Jeff Flake attached a rider to a must-pass defense bill in 2014 that sealed the deal.
Some have argued that Schumer’s plan to rename the Russell Senate Office Building makes sense because former Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.) had a history of obstructing civil rights legislation. That argument erases the fact that McCain voted against civil rights legislation in 1990. While McCain apologized in 2008 for voting against a 1983 bill that recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday, he stood by his decision to help scuttle the Civil Rights Act of 1990.
Perhaps most notably overlooked in the heroization of McCain is his betrayal of the cause many most closely identify him with: the effort to end acts of torture at the hands of U.S. interrogators. Because of his time as a POW, after he was shot down in Vietnam, many saw McCain as an insightful voice on the topic of torture. He railed against it as both immoral and ineffectual. But in 2005, he made a deal with the Bush administration that allowed CIA interrogators to continue practices such as waterboarding. Like many of the moral flip-flops that mark McCain’s career, the compromise was made with an eye toward his ultimate goal, the goal he embraced his war hawk politics in pursuit of, promoting wars with manufactured evidence, lying his way into a shared responsibility for an era of endless warfare: the presidency.
About a year ago, McCain — who once claimed, on the march to war, that the U.S. would win easily in Iraq and do just fine in Afghanistan — was trying to sell yet another escalation in the war in Afghanistan. In his final year in office, he also offered a key endorsement of the Republican tax cuts, helping set in motion the unraveling of the Affordable Care Act that he has received so much praise for “saving.” Those tax cuts could leave millions more Americans without any semblance of the care that McCain received during his battle with cancer and in his final days.
Some view the mere mention of these facts as cold and callous and yet somehow do not view themselves as cold and callous for attempting to silence any mention of the millions of people whose families were, are and will be no less grief stricken than McCain’s family is now, because of policies he helped perpetuate. Despite the sanctimonious rebukes directed at any discussion of his harms, the truth is, he died in a peaceful setting, surrounded by his loved ones.
Death comes to us all, but for many of McCain’s victims, it has come in the form of imperialism and violence dealt by American drones, bombs and artillery. For others, it may come in the form of gross inequality and inadequate medical care. The lives and deaths of McCain’s victims should not be erased for the sake of sentimentality, nationalism or sanctimony. Not even for a day.
Kelly Hayes is a Menominee author and activist living and working in Chicago. Her work has been featured in numerous publications as well as the anthologies Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? and The Solidarity Struggle: How People of Color Succeed and Fail at Showing Up for Each Other in the Fight for Freedom.
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