September 27, 2004

The Apocalyptic Crusader: Redemption, Purification and a New World -- through Sacred Violence and Death

Because it has many points of relevance to the issues I have been discussing in my series of essays based on Alice Miller's work, I strongly recommend you read the entirety of an excerpt from Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War. The excerpt is by James Carroll, and here are a few notable passages:
Nightmare in broad daylight. New York’s World Trade Center collapsed not just onto the surrounding streets but into the hearts of every person with access to CNN. Hundreds of millions of people instinctively reached out to those they loved, grateful to be alive. Death had shown itself in a new way. But if a vast throng experienced the terrible events of 9/11 as one, only one man, the president of the United States, bore a unique responsibility for finding a way to respond to them.

George W. Bush plumbed the deepest place in himself, looking for a simple expression of what the assaults of Sept. 11 required. It was his role to lead the nation, and the very world. The president, at a moment of crisis, defines the communal response. A few days after the assault, George W. Bush did this. Speaking spontaneously, without the aid of advisers or speechwriters, he put a word on the new American purpose that both shaped it and gave it meaning. "This crusade," he said, "this war on terrorism."

Crusade. I remember a momentary feeling of vertigo at the president’s use of that word, the outrageous ineptitude of it. The vertigo lifted, and what I felt then was fear, sensing not ineptitude but exactitude. ...

My subject had been the passing scene, but once George Bush launched his crusade, it became my only subject. Week after week, despite myself, I wrote, in my column in the Boston Globe, of almost nothing else. This is the record of what I witnessed, and I offer it here to mark the most extraordinary shift in American meaning and purpose of which I am aware. ...

For George W. Bush, "crusade" was an offhand reference. But all the more powerfully for that, it was an accidental probing of unintended but nevertheless real meaning. That the president used the word inadvertently suggests how it expressed his exact truth, an unmasking of his most deeply felt purpose. “Crusade,” he said. Later, his embarrassed aides suggested that he had meant to use the word only as a synonym for struggle, but Bush’s own syntax belied that. He defined crusade as war. Even offhandedly, he had said exactly what he meant.
With regard to the Crusades of almost a millennium ago, launched against the "infidel" Muslim, Carroll writes:
In the name of Jesus, and certain of God’s blessing, crusaders launched what might be called "shock and awe" attacks – laying siege, first, to the Asia Minor city of Nicaea, where they used catapults to hurl the severed heads of Muslim defenders over fortified walls. In Jerusalem they savagely slaughtered Muslims and Jews alike – practically the whole city. Eventually, Latin crusaders would turn on Eastern Christians, and then on Christian heretics, as blood-lust outran the initial "holy" impulse. That trail of violence scars the earth and human memory even to this day – especially in the places where the crusaders wreaked their havoc. And the mental map of the Crusades, with Jerusalem at the center of the earth, still defines world politics. But the main point, in relation to Bush’s instinctive response to 9/11, is that those religious invasions and wars of long ago established a cohesive Western identity precisely in opposition to Islam, an opposition that survives to this day.

With the Crusades, the violent theology of the killer God came into its own. To save the world, in this understanding, God willed the violent death of God’s only beloved son.
Here is the relevance of that mental map, for the crusaders were going to war to rescue the site of the salvific death of Jesus, and they displayed their devotion to the cross on which Jesus died by wearing it on their breasts. When Bush’s remark was translated into Arabic for broadcast throughout the Middle East, the word “crusade” was rendered as “war of the cross.”
I interject here that Alice Miller is the only writer of whom I am aware who has sufficiently explained the psychological meaning and the ultimate roots of "the violent death of God’s only beloved son." I will return to this subject and explain Miller’s views further in the near future.

And here is what, in my view, constitutes the first part of the real key to the fundamental error, and the great danger, in the approach of the Bush administration:
Before the Crusades, Christian theology had given central emphasis to the resurrection of Jesus, and to the idea of incarnation itself, but with the war of the cross, the bloody crucifixion began to dominate the Latin Christian imagination. A theology narrowly focused on the brutal death of Jesus reinforced the primitive notion that violence can be a sacred act. The cult of martyrdom, even to the point of suicidal valor, was institutionalized in the Crusades, and it is not incidental to the events of 9/11 that a culture of sacred self-destruction took equally firm hold among Muslims. The suicide-murderers of the World Trade Center, like the suicide-bombers from the West Bank and Gaza, exploit a perverse link between the willingness to die for a cause and the willingness to kill for it. Crusaders, thinking of heaven, honored that link, too.

Here is the deeper significance of Bush’s inadvertent reference to the Crusades: Instead of being a last recourse or a necessary evil, violence was established then as the perfectly appropriate, even chivalrous, first response to what is wrong in the world. George W. Bush is a Christian for whom this particular theology lives.
And here is another part of the key:
But sacred violence, once unleashed in 1096, as in 2001, had a momentum of its own. The urgent purpose of war against the "enemy outside" – what some today call the "clash of civilizations" – led quickly to the discovery of an "enemy inside." The crusaders, en route from northwestern Europe to attack the infidel far away, first fell upon, as they said, "the infidel near at hand." Jews.


Doctrinal uniformity, too, could be enforced with sacred violence. When the U.S. attorney general defines criticism of the administration in wartime as treason, or when Congress enacts legislation that justifies the erosion of civil liberties with appeals to patriotism, they are enacting a Crusades script.
Carroll goes on to explain why specifically religious war is the danger, and how, "[d]espite our much vaunted separation of church and state, America has always had a quasi-religious understanding of itself."

Carroll also mentions another point I have analyzed (in Carroll’s view, when "end-time millennialism" convinces those on both sides that they are "ushering in the new age"):
Robert Jay Lifton shows how this phenomenon manifests itself now, with Islamist and American apocalyptic visions in fierce competition, both aimed at "purification and renewal." In his book "Superpower Syndrome," Lifton observes, "We are experiencing what could be called an apocalyptic face-off between Islamist forces, overtly visionary in their willingness to kill and die for their religion, and American forces claiming to be restrained and reasonable but no less visionary in their projection of a cleansing war-making and military power."
This is very close to the truth – but it is not the full, psychological truth.

In a previous essay in my Miller series, which began with an examination of the scorn and contempt that many hawks heaped on Spain in the wake of the Spanish election last spring, I spoke of the ultimate roots of the hawks’ reaction. After setting forth an excerpt from Miller’s book, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence (which you need to read to understand my comments more fully), I wrote:
In light of Miller’s analysis, we can now see the real tragedy of the terrorist attacks in recent years – the attacks of 9/11, the attack in Madrid, and all the other atrocities that we have witnessed. The people who commit such monstrous acts are the perfect embodiments of the mechanism Miller describes: these are people who were terribly abused as children (read any description of the kind of education and upbringing endured by any terrorist), yet they deny their own history and their own immense pain, and idealize and venerate their elders, and their religious leaders.

Now, as adults, since their denial continues, they seek revenge – and no mounting toll of bodies will sate their need, and their arguments are impervious to reason: [quoting Miller] "The unconscious compulsion to revenge repressed injuries is more powerful than all reason."

Such terrorist attacks demand a response, and they demand that our political leaders protect us from future attacks, to the extent possible. But a reasoned response would be one targeted to those who represent the danger: it would be an attack on the terrorist networks themselves, not on a third- or fourth-rate dictatorship that represented no substantial threat either to its neighbors, or to us.

But those who plan and implement our current foreign policy, as well as those who defend them, have adopted a different strategy, which arises from a different source altogether. They are using the threat of terrorism as a springboard to remake the entire world, one area at a time – utilizing the Utopian delusion of “nation-building” as their rationale, and as their rationalization. They ignore the lessons of history, which show that such a delusion is simply that – a delusion, one that it is doomed to fail; they ignore the huge costs in both human life, and economically; and they ignore that our current course provides a recruiting tool for our enemies that the terrorists themselves could only dream about, and would not be able to provide themselves, if we did not offer it to them.

But the hawks and their defenders ignore all this – and they ignore the indisputable fact that rather than minimizing the dangers we face, our present course only increases them – because they are not focused on the reality of the threat that faces us. And this leads to the additional tragedy now unleashed by the terrorist attacks of recent years, and it is this tragedy that almost no one cares to name, or to face.

The fact that we have been attacked by monsters who seek revenge for the injuries they themselves have suffered in the past, and particularly in their childhoods, has provided a morally defensible "cover" for the hawks now to engage in a similar revenge fantasy, arising out of the injuries that they have suffered in the past, and in their childhoods – and it takes the form of their desire to remake the world, of their plans of “nation-building,” and of their desire to impose their will on the rest of the world by military force, one country at a time.

This is the source of the rage and condemnation you see directed at the people of Spain. The hawks are saying, in effect: "How dare you disobey and disagree with us? How dare you question the wisdom of our course? How dare you suggest that you might have another plan of action which would achieve the end we say we care so much about, and would achieve it more effectively, and create less new dangers in doing so? Don’t you understand that we know best, and that we are not to be questioned? How dare you?"

This is the voice of the enraged parent – who inflicts untold cruelties on his child, all the while proclaiming that he is committing monstrous acts for the child’s own good. And, in fact, this is precisely what the hawks tell anyone who disagrees with them, and what they tell the entire rest of the world: we know what is best for you, not your own citizens, and not your own leaders. We do, and you had better do what we say -- or else.

No, we are not at the point where another Hitler or Stalin could grab the reins of power here in the United States – not yet. But the longer the indeterminate “war on terror” goes on, and the more attacks there are, the greater the likelihood becomes that either this administration or a succeeding one will finally impose an authoritarian dictatorship on us. All the required pieces are now being put in place, as revealed for example in this series about Ashcroft’s unremitting attacks on individual rights, and on the personal liberty of us all.

In this deeper sense, commentators and writers such as David Brooks, Mark Steyn, Jonah Goldberg, James Lileks, Andrew Sullivan, and Steven den Beste [all of whom I quoted in the earlier post] are the harbingers of the horrors that might yet come. They are the people who will tell us, in a moment of great national and world crisis, that what we need is more "discipline" – despite the fact that it is mindless, cruel, unnecessary "discipline" that caused the initial horrors. And they will tell us that anyone who dares to disagree is a "fifth columnist," who is aiding the enemy – and who must be made to shut up and go away, or perhaps simply to disappear forever.

Then, in another thirty or forty years, assuming that mankind survives and people in the future study how it was that horrors visited the world yet again despite all the warnings of history, they will be the people who will say: "But we never knew it would come to that. We just did what we thought was required for our own survival." And one or two might even add that they "were only following orders."

What you are hearing now is the voice of the thug – which in truth is the voice of the abused child, grown to adulthood, and still denying his own pain, and therefore denying the pain of everyone else. And the child now seeks to revenge himself upon an external enemy, any external enemy, and the terrorist attacks have provided the perfect opportunity to unleash destruction, but destruction on a scale that Hitler and Stalin could only dream of.

Do I think catastrophe can be avoided? Perhaps. It is too soon to tell. But many of the signs are not hopeful, and the longer the “crisis” goes on, the greater the danger becomes.
The dangers that confront us today present an additional problem, since they do genuinely constitute a grave threat, "an authentic global crisis that requires an urgent response," as Carroll puts it. However, as Carroll also discusses, "the Bush administration is taking steps that, instead of meeting the danger, make it far worse." [Added 1/29/06: in fact, I would not make this point in the same manner today. I think the talk of a "global crisis" is exaggerated in many significant respects, and I will return to this issue soon and explain how my thinking has developed.]

Even though we employ somewhat different terms, the extent to which Carroll and I are describing the same phenomenon is very striking to me. The dynamics we both discuss involve redemption through death on a mass scale, leading (its exponents hope) to an entirely new world – and the greater the scale of death and destruction, the better, from the perspective of the apocalyptic-millennialist world view. The same dynamics also lead to an "external" and an "internal" enemy. This time, the internal enemy comprises not only Muslims and Arabs, but everyone who fails to echo the administration line, and who thereby proves himself to be a "fifth columnist" who wants "the other side" to win, whether he will admit it or not. There are other similarities as well, and I will return to all these issues very soon.

In the meantime, I urge you to read Carroll’s article. He summarizes what I consider to be many of the crucial elements of the psychological mechanisms now at work around the world, on the parts of both our enemies and of many of our defenders, too. And that is the greatest danger of all: because both sides are utilizing the same overall framework, one animated and given tremendous emotional impetus because of the deep and powerful psychological forces at work, today’s conflict could all too easily lead to worldwide conflagration, on a scale we have never before witnessed. And I say that fully mindful of the enormity of the destruction of both World Wars.

That prospect is one which rightfully can keep you awake at night, if only in a vain attempt to prevent the nightmares from coming. I myself have had little luck with such preventive measures, but perhaps you will have more success.

So, there will be much more on all of this. And may you nonetheless have pleasant dreams in the meantime, although that prospect grows increasingly unlikely in our world today, at least so long as we remain on our present course.