Whether or not the rhetoric is sincere, it aims to persuade us that our country is on the side of the angels. Stories to the contrary are ignored or forgotten. The simple but effective mechanism for suppressing the nation’s guilty conscience is to concoct a devil figure. If our enemy is evil, then we are a force for good. This self-serving logic is regularly recycled. It keeps bad memories in check whenever or wherever they might pop up. It works like a vaccination to immunize us from a dreaded disease. (more…)
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. (more…)
“Terrorist networks currently pose the greatest national security threat to the United States . . . [Al-Qaida] aims to overthrow the existing world order and replace it with a reactionary, authoritarian, transnational entity. This threat will be sustained over a protracted period (decades not years) and will require a global response” (U.S. Department of State).
Terrorism is the scourge of our era. We want to remove the menace. So we resort to war. The logic of war is founded on a lethal concoction of fear, loathing, revenge, and redemption. These are the emotions and desires that make war feel righteous and seem rational, necessary, and even natural in the course of human affairs. They inhibit any inclination to place our trust in less deadly and destructive options. They sustain the war state by operating below the threshold of awareness and self-critique.
The language and imagery of myth can give us access to the emotional foundations of rationalized war. Yet, we relegate myth to past and primitive cultures. Myth, by this way of thinking, is misleading in the contemporary world of reason, science, and technology. (more…)
In Abrahamic mythology, God enabled his people to destroy evil giants and to occupy their land. Oversized pagans were ousted from the promised land by a chosen people. David, not timid Saul, was fit to lead the people, for David was “a man of valor, a warrior” (1 Samuel 16:18 NRSV). Young David slew the taunting Goliath; King David and his army killed Philistine giants to secure Israel and Judah.
Killing the ungodly Goliath is a parable of the courage that comes from knowing the faithful underdog is victorious over those who have “defied the armies of the living God” (1 Samuel 17: 36 NRSV). The parable equates virtue with the strength of courage, evil with the monster’s bluster. Aggression is symbolically transformed into defense when one fights the Lord’s battle against satanic forces.
The story of David and Goliath is embedded in U.S. war culture. It projects evil and transforms the world’s most powerful nation into the righteous defender of the oppressed. Cowering before a bully does not befit an American president to lead the world to glory. (more…)
“When did you compact with the Devil?” So does the Reverend John Hale storm in his fierce inquisition of the slave Tituba in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Under threat of being whipped to death, she replies:
He say, “You work for me, Tituba, and I make you free! I give you pretty dress to wear, and put you way high up in the air, and you gone fly back to Barbados!”
Pacts with the Devil have an ancient lineage. An early example of a diabolical offer refused is recorded in Matthew’s gospel. In the desert, the Devil offers the Messiah “all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them,” if only Jesus would worship him. (4:8) (more…)
In January 2010, following a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed 100,000 people, TV evangelist Pat Robertson attributed the calamities that Haiti had suffered throughout history to the fact that Haitians had sworn a pact with the devil long ago. (citation) In doing so, Robertson was the latest in a long line of Christian preachers and political leaders (dating back to the time of Christopher Columbus) who have perceived devilish, demonic, or thoroughly evil characteristics in the non-Christian spiritualities of the Americas. Robertson went on to compare the seeming prosperity of the Dominican Republic (for tourists only) with the poverty of Haiti. (more…)
A Caucasian hit man named Vaggan in a Tony Hillerman murder mystery, The Ghostway (1984), kills to cleanse. After a nighttime hit, he arrives home to shower, relax, sleep, exercise, and eat a healthy breakfast of wheat germ, alfalfa sprouts, and cheese. Sprawling, decaying Los Angeles, with its swarming minorities and choking smog, is his base of operations. He works for crime bosses who get rich dealing drugs, stealing cars, and sharking loans. He kills deadbeats, using his earnings to buy weapons and build a bunker. He anticipates the day of the falling missiles, when hydrogen bombs will burn the city clean and sterilize a rotting civilization: “blood, death, fire, chaos, honor, and new beginnings. ‘Nietzsche for thought, Wagner for music,’ his father would say” (pp. 122-123). Götterdämmerung, Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods, inspires Vaggan, who expects to survive the curing ceremonial of the impending holocaust.
Clean war (to revivify the dead metaphor of just war) is the work of the gods. Dirty wars are oxymoronic at best. (more…)
In Salem in 1692, the Kingdom of Satan had descended in great wrath. Legions of the devil’s servants were torturing the minds and bodies of the faithful, a score of condemned persons had been executed on Gallows Hill, and the jails were filled with confessed witches and wizards.
Marie Louis Von Franz observes:
“There is such a passionate drive within the shadowy part of oneself that reason may not prevail against it. A bitter experience coming from the outside may occasionally help; a brick, so to speak, has to drop on one’s head to put a stop to shadow drives and impulses.”
(Carl Jung, Man and his Symbols, 1968)
Such a “brick,” such an irreconcilable chasm between delusion and reality, such a personal calling to account for the consequences of unexamined projections of evil, was to fall squarely on the head of the Reverend John Hale. (more…)
Archetypes are powerful and recurring symbols or images that convey models of behavior and bestow fundamental forms of thought and feeling. Deeply embedded in culture, they typically operate on a people subconsciously, below the level of critical reflection. They carry mythic force made manifest in metaphors, which function as myths in miniature. “Archetypal metaphors in rhetoric,” in Michael Osborn’s terms (Quarterly Journal of Speech, 1967), infuse popular language with a stable architecture of preference. God is conceived as a blindingly bright light and the devil as ominously dark. Archetypes link experiences to motives with cultural authority.
Trauma, in U.S. war culture, is the emotional shock of the violence of war, which perpetuates terror and hatred of outsiders. To perceive itself as victim rather than perpetrator of war, the imperial nation stifles its collective shadow and projects it onto chosen enemies. This recurring dynamic engages the devil myth of American exceptionalism.
The causes and consequences of war trauma are intertwined: the destruction of war traumatizes and the trauma of repression prompts the violence of war. Democracy itself is held hostage in this anxious cultural paradigm because of its perceived vulnerability to evildoers. The boundary between good and evil is sharply drawn so as to proscribe democratic deliberation of alien points of view and to render dissent unpatriotic.