At the beginning of his presidency, George was faltering. He blundered his way through unscripted camera appearances. He had little direction, save for his daily jog. He wasn’t engendering confidence from the American people. His handlers were worried. How are we going to make him more presidential, they wondered? He was the Eliza Doolittle of the Oval Office.
Then came 9.11.
And in the unspeakable rubble, George found his purpose. He found his higher calling: to rid the world of terrorism. And he proclaimed this calling to the world in no uncertain terms. Finally, he would be more than the son of George Bush I, more than the son who rode his father’s political coattails into office.
“The rein on Hussein falls mainly from the bomber plane,” repeats George back to his groomers, practicing his presidential diction. “By Jove,” they said, already thinking ahead, “I think he’s got it!”
And so began George’s conversion from privileged-son-turned-chance-politician to George Walker Bush, Avenger of Terrorism. In that life-changing moment, he found the promise of winning the war on his past. George the Avenger of Terrorism could easily conquer George the National Guard Absentee; George the Doer of Good would surely defeat George the Doer of Drugs; and George the Vanquisher of Evil could win hands down over George the Failure in Business.
He found the script, the perfect fairy tale whose plot would immortalize him in the pages of history, delivering him from his shadowy self.
So, George jumped on his white steed and promised to bring back Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.” But when bid Laden failed to turn up in either state, the quest no longer helped perpetuate George’s new designation as Terrorist Avenger. And, lo and behold, the plot was almost seamlessly spliced with a new one: Saddam Hussein, Imminent Threat to World Peace. (George’s handlers, no doubt, counted on the country not remembering or knowing that Hussein was much more of a probable threat back in the 80’s when Rumsfeld was playing footsy with him, helping him gas Iranian troops. But, back then we needed him as an ally and now we needed a bad guy. So: Code Orange! Code Orange! Duct tape at the ready, people. Look alert!) And with the help of the scripted media, many seemed not even to notice the edit.
Most likely, when many of us think about the reasons George hopes to go to war with Iraq, other than what he purports, we tend to think about the following: paying back his oil industry buddies as well as other industry friends set to profit from the war, avenging the foiled plot on his father’s life, listening to the bidding of a recycled cabinet, jockeying for even greater US global power, and distracting Americans from the abysmal state of domestic affairs, to name a few. While I believe all these are absolutely true and are important forces driving his war push that must be addressed, we don’t fully recognize another important reason.
We don’t appreciate the tremendous impact of shame. We often don’t realize to what extreme lengths a person will go to avoid or try and undo what they perceive as shame – shame of one’s past, shame of what might come. Keep in mind, how I define shame/embarrassment/dishonor and what I perceive to be excruciatingly shameful may not make you so much as bat an eye. Another’s perception of what is shameful may make no sense to you. So trying to look at shame from how you or I perceive it, from a perspective of what seems rational or reasonable, will get us nowhere.
Think about how George might experience it. One example: he focuses a lot on not wanting to be made a fool of, as when he tried disastrously to stumble his way through the adage, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Just recently, he said he wouldn’t let Hussein “fool the world one more time.” When he says these things, I clearly hear him say: I won’t let you make a fool of my family or me. I won’t be shamed by you.
We could minimize this as a bunch of psychobabble. But, unfortunately, it’s not. It’s powerful, all-too real stuff. It’s at the very heart of what drives many homicides, seemingly senseless serial killings, gang violence, child abuse, suicides and wars, as well as many less dramatic, more mundane things that you or I might do. (To be very clear, I am not comparing George to a serial killer or a child abuser. I am simply talking about how extremely powerful the pull to avoid or undo being shamed can be.)
It can be so powerful that in its grasp one can fail to see the reality of a situation because one has constructed his own sometimes-intractable reality to suit the mission of righting the wrong of past shame or potential future shame. And in George’s case, he has a past to avenge and hawkish promises to back up. And nothing: not weapons inspectors saying inspections are working, not the lack of proof of weapons of mass destruction, not CIA higher-ups saying war will make the world less safe, not the concerns of UN members, not millions of people around the world protesting against the war, not even the prospect of “collateral damage” is going to make George the Avenger of Terrorism (George the Avenger of Shame) become readily willing to be merely George the Blunderer or George the Opportune Son once again.
And as part of this reality, he has come to believe he is mandated from God to deliver us from evildoers. You can hear it in his blatant theological rhetoric (also, surely, a speechwriter’s attempt to rouse the populace). You can see it when he, the self-proclaimed devout parishioner, ignores the well-established hierarchy of his own church by snubbing the warnings against war of its leaders. He is also not heeding the words of the Vatican whose Foreign Minister, Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran said, “a unilateral war of aggression would constitute a crime against peace and against the Geneva Convention.” Tauran also said only the U.N. Security Council had the right to order war on Iraq. No matter. George is on his own hallowed mission. He can’t hear such things. Doing so would threaten to create a crack in his fragile reality. Must press on.
For the better part of the last ten years, I have worked with psychotic adults, many of whom are struggling with addiction, as George has. Those besieged by delusions of grandeur have created their own realities, some believing they are followed by the FBI and the CIA (sounds less far fetched these days). Some think they are God.
I’m reminded of a client, who I’ll call Sam. Like George, Sam fervently believes his mission is to rid the world of evil. He spends his waking hours planning, thinking and talking about how he can save the world before it is too late. He considers himself a lone warrior. In a dirty, tattered notebook, he writes out intricate plans and draws elaborate mazes, designed to keep the evildoers from gaining entry to Earth. This mission consumes him. It has caused him to neglect his children and his wife, who he loves very much. He has forgotten day to day reality, much like George is neglecting and forgetting what should be pressing domestic concerns here in the US as he fixates on his war against terror.
Again, to be clear, I do not think George is psychotic. But I do think, like Sam, he needs his belief, be it a full-blown delusion or not, because from his frame of reference it serves a purpose. Sam needs his mission to save the world because that mission is really a convoluted one to save himself. And I imagine George’s mission is the same, whether he remotely recognizes it or not.
But unlike George, all Sam has to destroy is his marriage, his relationship with his kids and his future – a terrible tragedy to be sure, but a personal one. While George may well create his very own personal tragedy, he also has the power to create a global one – to destroy countless families, neighborhoods, and towns; to create a world that says preemptive wars are okay; a world that has a double standard that says having nuclear weapons if you are a “good” country is acceptable, that the US can use weapons of mass destruction on Iraq, if necessary, while making it clear to Iraqi’s top generals that if they use the same weapons of mass destruction they will be treated as war criminals and will most likely be executed. He may very well create worldwide unrest and erode long-standing alliances and threaten to render ineffective institutions, such as the UN, that were created to promote world cooperation and peace. With such major paradigm shifts, if the war happens the world truly will be deeply and horribly changed.
But, George, before you change the rules of the world to try and prove to yourself that you’re not what you fear you are; I am asking you to come see me. I am officially extending an open-ended invitation to work with me in therapy. Come in and do intrapsychic battle in my office. Leave the world out of it.
I absolutely do not believe everybody needs therapy. But, George, if ever there was a person who needs it, it’s you. Your blustering and bravado betray a deeper disquietude. You don’t fool me for a minute. But don’t feel too self-conscious; you’re not alone. We all have our demons. Tragically, the pages of history are littered with brash, self-doubting men (yeah, as it happens, almost exclusively men) who have gone to war for less, playing out their internal battles with the lives of men and women.
I charge infinitely less than the hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars you are about to charge US taxpayers for this war. And think of the cost in human lives you could save – US soldier and Iraqi civilian alike. I tell you what; I’ll even do it pro bono. It’ll be my biggest and best volunteer effort for the peace movement yet. Therapy for peace: inner peace for you, and world peace for the rest of us.
As I did with Sam, I’ll focus on what drives your reality. I’ll help you discover why, intrapsychically speaking, you need this war (ever-mindful of the more evident external reasons) and help you find a way to resolve your inner conflict in a less destructive way. But first things first, I’ll address your primary fantasy on whose shoulders all the others stand: that you were elected president. Sssselected. You were selected president, thanks to the politics of the Supreme Court. Second, about Hussein: yes, he is without question a vicious, scary, self-serving, sonofabitch who has committed egregious atrocities, and his people would be better off without him. But, no; war on him – killing countless numbers of his innocent citizens, under the pretext of “liberating” them, enraging and alienating millions of people around the world, creating a precedent of preemptive war for all the world to follow is not the way to make any of us safer.
After you’ve digested those realities, I’ll begin to help you come to terms with the difficult fact that when you take away your white steed, your armor and your mission of pursuing all that is evil, what you are in truth left with is a fledgling economy that in your charge has gone from a bouncing, healthy surplus to a crawling, ailing deficit; an ever-widening disparity between the rich and the poor; unconscionably eradicated environmental protections, impacting the entire world; fast-disappearing, hard fought civil liberties and freedoms; a dilapidated education system whose promised funds now supplement the military budget; the most secretive US government in history; a growing blatantly partisan judiciary; an unabashed self-serving plutocracy governed by a few of your old and new corporate friends; and a public record full of your verbal blunders and malapropisms.
But most of all, George, like Eliza Doolittle, what you are ultimately left with is plain ole’ you.
No, I hear you say. No, no, no. For you need your fantasy because in your mind not only is Hussein a less daunting foe than your internal demons; in his conquering he offers the promise of your salvation. So, I imagine rather than coming to see me, you’ll remain the all-too powerful, yet all-too beleaguered son who says: No, reality won’t do. It won’t do at all.
I am George the Terrorist Avenger. George the Conqueror of Evil.
Onward to Iraq and beyond.
CAROL NORRIS is a psychotherapist and freelance writer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.