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June 2003

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Philosopher Wendy Hamblet takes a highly critical view of the Bush administration, drawing a parallel between its policies and those of ancient regimes that in theory sought external “demons” as substitutes for internal woes. An earlier, expanded version of this paper was presented in 2002 at the University of Southern Mississippi conference.—Ed.

When archaic communities fell into social chaos, the priests or other leaders would initiate "purification rituals" that led to the location of the source of the social disorder in an "inassimilable other"—members of society already in some respect marginalized. During troubled times, these rituals re-ordered and re-harmonized social spaces through a projection of internal "evils" onto an identifiably different "sacrificial other" within the community. The alienated one was "demonized"—posited as an intruder into the civilized community—a devil, a superhuman force. Then the victim was harassed and finally removed from his hapless existence in a cathartic climax of murder or mayhem. Murder on occasion may have been metaphorical, perhaps consisting of an eviction from the community. But occasionally, an actual murder would have to be performed to maintain the seriousness of the event. This purifying act left the community feeling elevated into illusions of special election by their godlike dispensation of justice. These rituals generally culminated in festivals that included song, dance, and distribution of meats and other goodly spoils, and beverages would flow in happy celebration of the victory of good over evil.

Anthropologists of violence generally agree that the purification ritual's violence rarely remained contained within the community; the sense of "elevation" issuing from the bloody event came to expression as aggressive gestures directed toward the external world. Spears or insults might be hurled or boundary-stones might be provocatively extended. These gestures of empowerment could fulfill themselves in wars with their worldly neighbors. Anthropologists hold that these rituals were practiced across the human landscape in ancient times. Perhaps the most disturbing point of theoretical concurrence lies in their assertion that purification rituals persist even into the modern era in more or less sublimated forms, conveying variant but ideologically and ontologically consistent messages. This is so in the work of scholars even in the supposedly secular world, where mythologies of demons and divine murder are difficult to entertain. Wherever hyper-religious language prevails in descriptions of people and events, wherever a polar world view oversimplifies complex world incidents and recasts them into a battle of good against evil—there the ancient "logic of demonization" is still at work.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attack, President George W. Bush has resurrected a hyper-religious language and rallied a logic of polar oppositions to reconfigure complex events on the world stage as clear and without prior history. It is "us" against "them;" "you're either with us or against us;" a "beacon of freedom and opportunity" over against "an axis of evil. " This logic echoes an ancient Manichaeanism perhaps last rallied during the Crusades and the wars that sought to free the Holy Land of contamination by what was seen as the infidel presence. In public addresses, President Bush deploys apocalyptic metaphors of "nuclear holy war" and he has been reported to feel privately "chosen by god" to deliver the world from its current "evil."

The first phase of these purification rituals began in 2001. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, 12,000 Arabs and Arab Americans were detained and interrogated. Human Rights Watch tops its monthly update of human rights abuses for November, 2002, with the report titled "Abuse of Post-September 11 Detainees" which documents scores of detainees suffering arbitrary detention, due process violations, and secret arrests and proceedings. Detainees were held without charges, their access to counsel impeded, and some were subjected to coercive interrogations. Judicial orders for release pending immigration hearings were overridden. The Justice Department in some cases incarcerated people under restrictive conditions such as solitary confinement.

These initial institutional violences are taking on new and more insidious forms. With the "Homeland Security Bill" (called "The Homeland Security Monstrosity" by Representative Ron Paul of Texas), neighbors will be asked to spy upon neighbors, and private correspondences and financial transactions will be tracked. The Human Rights Watch holds that, in the wake of these developments, civil rights in the United States are more vulnerable than ever.

The first phases of the purification rituals thus manifested themselves in the forms of institutional and communal harassments—and worse—directed at "different" others. In a short while, however, what may be termed the ritual murders extended into the external world with the attack on Afghanistan. Between October of 2001 and March of 2002, more Afghan civilians were killed than had died in the World Trade Center disaster. These were peasants tending their animals, wedding parties celebrating their vows, villagers nestled in their huts. In seven short months, the American military delivered up vengeance progressing from medium-sized missiles to Tomahawk and cruise missiles, on to bunker-busting 2,000 lb bombs, then to B-52 carpet-bombing with cluster bombs, and finally to the euphemistically-christened "daisy cutter" bombs. For a handful of terrorists, many innocent lives were "sacrificed" to American re-empowerment. Those residents of villages and cities left alive after the year of carnage poured out into neighbouring lands, leaving Kabul and Kandahar with a scant twenty percent of their populations of a year before.

We have witnessed the world being carved up into two vast Manichaean camps — the "brightest beacon of freedom and opportunity" over against "an axis of evil." The "axis of evil" has grown until American troops are currently positioned across the globe, in many foreign countries far beyond the contaminated axes. And the face of evil has been transformed. Osama Bin Ladin has all but disappeared, and Saddam Hussein, a petty tyrant once cultivated as an ally against Iran, was transformed into the most menacing demon of the day. The world, however, seems generally less than pleased with the cleansing processes. Many countries have expressed a greater fear of President Bush's intentions than those of terrorists. Both traditional allies and historical foes abroad, as with peace activists and intellectuals in America, began to name the real threat to world peace the "new world order" of George W. Bush. Story after story can be cited from major news media across the globe that criticize America for its aggressive policies threatening world stability. Witness this passage from Paris' Le Monde diplomatique:

With publication this September [2002] of the Bush administration's document defining the new "national security strategy" of the United States, we have the answer [to the question of what drives the changes in international politics]. The world's geopolitical architecture now has at its apex a single hyperpower, the United States. . . [whose] doctrine [of self defense] reestablishes the right to preventive war that Hitler used in 1941 against the Soviet Union and Japan used in the same year against the United States at Pearl Harbour. It also summarily abolishes one of the basic principles of international law, established with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, that one sovereign state does not intervene, and especially not militarily, in the internal affairs of another. . . . (Article by Ignacio Ramonet, Oct 2002).

This sentiment aligning American war motives with imperialism is voiced again and again from France to Germany to Pakistan to Austria in news articles with titles such as: "Bilateral Impunity: Eviscerating International Justice" and "Brave New World Order: Is Bush a War Criminal?" And the World Press Review is not unique, nor slanted in its coverage, but the web news and international media are replete with criticisms of Bush's policies and style. Further, in the United States, the Los Angeles Times reported: "Many members of the UN Security Council see American bullying, not Iraqi defiance, as the greater risk to geopolitical stability." (Oct. 30, 2002).

President Bush has been artful in eclipsing these international criticisms through a skilled marketing campaign directed toward the American people. He has explained to the latter that America, as the "beacon of freedom and opportunity in the world," has come under attack by "deviant infidel civilizations" because "they hate us for our freedom." This explanation is consistent with the logic with which the World Trade Center crisis has been articulated all along, so it is accepted by the man in the street.

In the international community, many see America as an abuser of innocents, historically an aggravating presence in foreign lands, itself tottering dangerously close to a demonic abyss. From the military intervention in the Philippines from 1898 to 1910 (where 600,000 Filipinos died resisting American occupation) to Vietnam where, between 1961 and 1975, two million Vietnamese, North and South, were killed, to the many interventions in Latin America where governments dependent upon America were imposed, to the occupation of Nicaragua that lasted for twenty years, of Haiti for nineteen, and the Dominican Republic for eight years. The list goes on and on. Add to these the fact that America has been the only world power to detonate weapons of mass destruction—the atomic bombs of 1945—and one could say that the entire last century of American foreign policies has been one long sacrificial crisis.

Thus, there are good reasons why international skepticism exists about the intentions, the methods and policies, the alliances and secret missions of the "beacon of freedom and opportunity." The rest of the world has witnessed that America is not unequivocally interested in eliminating all terrorism. To many, it is evident that America only eliminates the terrorism that fails to suit its purposes. Washington has in the past befriended and armed some of the worst terrorist nations and individuals in the world. Cases in point: Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Zionist extremists, and the Saudis.

How then are we to understand the gap between external international dissatisfaction with the United States, post 9/11, and the internal satisfaction voiced by a majority of American? This puzzle can be resolved by addressing the question that logically arises if we are to accept the thesis of a rough equivalence of archaic purification rituals with current American rhetoric and policies. Because the logic of demonization and counter-cultural rejection can be understood to have more to do with the chaos at home than with the crimes of external demons, we may ask: what American "evils" is Bush with his alerts and his drums of war trying to shield from public scrutiny within America? To begin to answer this question we may catalog the current ills plaguing the United States.

  • The United States is by far the most unequal of all industrialized societies, with the richest ten per cent of the population possessing more than seventy per cent of the nation's wealth; the richest five per cent of families enjoy an income equal to that of the combined income of the bottom fifty per cent of Americans. More than twelve million American children live in poverty. The poverty rate for blacks is more than twice the poverty rate for whites. Forty million Americans cannot afford health insurance.
  • --The United States comprises five per cent of the world's population but houses one fourth of the world's prisoners. Blacks take up an inordinate percentage of those cells. They make up 12.3 percent of the population of America, but constitute half the two million Americans behind bars. 0nly China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran execute more prisoners than the United States.
  • --America has oft been called one of the most violent societies in the world, and much of that crime is racially motivated. Domestic violence is the single greatest cause of injury to women.
  • --The United States has the highest substance abuse rate of any industrialized country.
  • --America is a land of breathtaking beauty and bounteous resources. Yet almost half of America's rivers, lakes, and estuaries are too polluted for safe fishing or swimming and much of its air is polluted.

How has George W. Bush coped with these serious internal problems in the time that he has spent at the national helm? The gap between rich and poor has broadened even more. There was an increase in racially motivated crime over the year 2002, prompting the Human Rights Watch to chastise the United States for its failure to protect its Arab-American citizens from the consequence of 9/11. Racial profiling has now been more-or-less institutionalized. With the Homeland Security Department, Americans will be subject to warrantless searches, forced vaccinations of entire communities , federal neighborhood snitch programs, and a new "Information Awareness Office" at the Pentagon that uses military intelligence to spy on domestic citizens.

Most Americans continue to accept without complaint restrictions on their own freedom; their pride triumphs over the occasional ridicule of their nation's leader in the international community. Why? They have fallen prey to the seductive language of "holy war" and the logic of the demonic. They seem to be fearful or at least reluctant to oppose the public discourse that counsels war upon infidel demons, this because opposition is construed not only as treachery toward the nation, but as impiety. The language of unambiguously good and evil players on the world stage, however, is logically and empirically untenable. No one is the god's exclusive "chosen one" and, similarly, no one—let alone an entire civilization—is wholly "evil." Evil is a remarkably common phenomenon. It is not to be found only in the hyper-moralizing discourses that project guilt and contamination onto alien others in order to produce illusions of innocence so as to eclipse the chaotic realities at home.

Assessing the Presidency of George W. Bush at Midpoint

The author, a Canadian citizen, was born in London, England. She earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Pennsylvania State University and currently teaches at Adelphi University, Long Island, New York. At the time this paper was presented, she was affiliated with the California State University.

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