The Perfect Enemy

Guantanamo captives in January 2002 (photo by Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy).

Guantanamo captives in January 2002 (photo by Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy).

David Campbell observes that, although not all risks are perceived as serious (regardless of so-called objective factors), they are considered dangers by Americans when they are characterized as “alien, subversive, dirty or sick” (Writing Security, 1998, pp. 2-3).  These traits signal the presence of an enemy because they violate the avowed essence of national identity (we are a healthy, clean, and loyal citizenry).  The imagined enemy exists within a tradition of interpretation that is shaped by the dynamics of language and that carries over from one situation or context to the next.

The perfect enemy, beyond the specific features listed by Campbell, is represented as opposite to the national self-identity.  Such an enemy might be marked as dirty or sick but also as predatory, lawless, and profane.  There are many ways to express these themes of danger, but in each case they indicate the threat of an evil and barbaric force to the safety and mission of a chosen people.

Language has its own mythic dynamic that plays into the construction of the perfect enemy.  Kenneth Burke locates this principle in the myth of the Creation and the Fall wherein a fallen people seek redemption by sacrificing the ultimate scapegoat.  This ritual of sacrificing an evil enemy is what he calls the problem of victimage.  It recycles the promise of deliverance (Rhetoric of Religion, pp. 172, 235, 242).  The ritual operates on a principle of pure persuasion intrinsic to language.  Ironically, pure persuasion interferes with its own fulfillment (“like lovers who ‘quarrel to make up’”).  In the case of war rhetoric, self-interference sustains the continuing quest for salvation with each new attempt to sacrifice the perfect scapegoat (Rhetoric of Religion, pp. 273-276).

Thus, Sam Keen calls us the “enemy-making” species, hypnotized by our own hostile imagination.  The archetype of the constructed enemy consists of dehumanizing caricatures of a stranger that is aggressive, greedy, diseased, bestial, barbaric, criminal, sadistic, deadly, and demonic (Faces of the Enemy, pp. 10, 16-65).  This archetypal devil represents a force within that would pull us down and negate our struggle for positive change and wholeness.  It is a shadow figure externalized as the evil incarnate that tempts the hero with an offer of power, fame, and riches in order to possess his soul.  The devil is the prince of darkness that symbolizes the worst of human flaws.

Ritualized demonization releases a surge of dark emotions—from anger and fear to hate—that authorizes the killing of the perfect enemy.   The image of this perfect enemy is manufactured by us and for us to meet our own internal specifications.  The enemy we imagine has to be powerful and dangerous for the struggle to affirm our heroic identity as defender of civilization and virtue.  And for the cyclical form of pure persuasion to keep repeating itself, closure can never be complete.  The enemy is too perfect to defeat totally and everlastingly.  This is the biblical lesson of The Revelation, when even the long-awaited final battle between the forces of God and Satan will be a fierce and protracted engagement before bringing an end to human time.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s