It gets on my nerves because of a process which started when I first heard about My Lai. My initial reaction was "An American wouldn't", followed almost immediately by "An American did".
Now, it's fair to say that wasn't typical American behavior, and that it was eventually treated as a crime. Much later, the soldiers who protected villagers were treated as heroes rather than traitors.
Individuals are complicated. Societies are more complicated.
My best understanding is that "That is not who we are" is aspirational. It's a hope that we will live up to our best dreams, which is to say the dreams the person speaking holds. It's an effort to get psychological leverage, and I don't think it works terribly well.
What I believe is true is that we are making ourselves all the time.
The important thing is what people want and what they're working on.
I recently discovered the Reith lectures, and they looks like a good source for high qualtity thought. I'm linking to one by Kwame Appiah about how values are promoted by people who care about them-- it's not tied to race, culture, or geography. I don't think the transcript is up yet.
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