Tricksters sometimes use mirrors to disrupt the projections of the war state. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 to reveal the hypocrisy of a racist society fighting a racist war in Vietnam under the flag of freedom. One year later, to the day, he was murdered in Memphis by a racist.
Russian Premier Vladimir Putin likes to taunt the United States from afar for its “amazing, primitive, blunt cynicism” (March 18, 2014):
Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.”
Since we can’t kill Putin, we dismiss him as a bully and a monster.
Whether killed or discredited, tricksters leave a residue of misgivings that can be repressed or acknowledged. Trickster’s mirror is a handy tool for exposing the war state’s internal anxiety over democracy outwardly projected in the image of terrorism. Trickster’s mirror works by comparing the language used to describe democracy with the language used to describe terrorism. Similarities are revealed.
Ostensibly, democracy is a positive term of national identity and terrorism is a synonym for evildoing. But democracy is historically distrusted in U.S. political culture unless it is diluted and contained. We Americans practice a form of thin democracy (Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy) in which political elites do the work of the people (Robert Dahl, How Democratic Is the American Constitution?). The danger that the people will act out is a source of anxiety for the powers that be and even the public at large, which imagines itself collectively as an ignorant, irrational, and violent mob—potential agents of terror.
Vestiges of this nightmare are scattered over the landscape of war culture. President Obama and Representative Peter King, an unlikely pair, worry that a certain segment of the American citizenry can be “radicalized.” Boston’s brother bombers symbolize this threat from within. President Bush felt the need to contain war protesters in remote free-speech zones beyond the news cameras. The aroused public had a right to express themselves democratically, but he was the decider. The Occupy movement was widely regarded as an incoherent and purposeless disruption of the political and economic order, a cause for police suppression. The spectre of an awakened citizenry threatens the establishment. The people must be surveilled when they cannot be channeled into consumerism, spectatorship, and patriotic ceremonials.
The image of the terrorist is democracy’s exaggerated fear of its own tendency to revolution should it ever escape the narrow confines of elite rule. This unacknowledged anxiety lurking inside the body politic bolsters the presumption of war, unless perhaps our misgivings about our identity as a democratic people are glimpsed and confronted in trickster’s mirror.