” the hypocrite’s outward appearance shines brightly and passes for holiness, but under that show lies the terrible weight of his deceit which the soul must bear through all eternity.”
(from John Ciardi’s notes, Canto XXIII, The Inferno by Dante)
Dante approached the injustice and corruption of his day by creating a concrete and graphic image of the Medieval visualization of Hell in The Inferno; he then populated its sundry levels of excruciating punishment with the politicians, clerics, militarists and businessmen who caused that injustice and corruption. It occurred to me that Florence in 1300 mirrors in microcosm the injustice and corruption of Washington, D.C in 2000. As I watch the President, the Vice President, other administration officials and FOX news anchors, in direct contradiction to the findings of the 9/11 Commission, regurgitate the lies they told to send 850 American soldiers to their deaths, to cripple and maim more than 4000 others, and to murder an as yet undetermined number, estimated at about 10,000 Iraqi civilians, I could not help but reflect on the legacy these men must leave to future generations. With that in mind I attempted to find the appropriate circle of Hell in which to place these leaders of the “free” world. Given the religious intensity of this administration, proclaimed by the President repeating without end his known truism “it’s not our gift that we bring to the nations of the world but God’s gift of freedom that belongs to every man and woman on the earth,” the medieval mentality that permeates Dante’s vision of Hell seemed an appropriate place to begin.
But in which circle of Hell do they belong? The Opportunists, those souls that lived without regard for good or evil but only for themselves, certainly described the reality of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle, Feith, Wolfowitz, Libby and the whole crew at the American Enterprise Institute and the Project for the New American Century, but they were housed in The Inferno in the Vestibule experiencing only the sting of wasps and hornets as they run round and round through the dirt infested air, their bodies flowing with the putrid smell of pus and blood feasted upon by worms and maggots, hardly, I confess, an adequate retribution for their crimes. After all, Dante understood the wasps and hornets to image a guilty conscience, but these men have no guilty conscience, indeed they have no conscience at all. I decided to withhold judgment.
Circle two and three offered promise at first sight, circles devoted to those who in life gave themselves to carnal desires and gluttony, but this administration is composed of many “born-again” believers, like Bush and Ashcroft, who have foresworn the sensual life for bigger and more fulfilling sins. Hoarders occupy circle four, those who destroyed God’s light within their souls by thinking of nothing but money. That seemed most appropriate for Cheney and the merchants of death who make money from war profiteering, the Halliburton, Bechtel, Titan, CACI corporations and their ilk that sit on the edge of the ravaged plains like carrion birds awaiting the appropriate time to fly in for their meal. But certainly they deserve more punishment then hurling great weights at each other, the retribution Dante conceived for Hoarders, especially since hoarding money represents only a fraction of their sins. Circle seven promised more. Here reside murderers and war makers, tyrants and dictators, those violent against their neighbors. Perhaps no place is more appropriate than to have Bush and Rumsfeld reside side by side with Saddam and Sharon! What a fitting place where the inhabitants wallow in boiling blood forever, a constant reminder of the butchery they inflicted on the innocent in life.
Dante did not provide for a soul to spend time in one circle before moving on to
another, a decided flaw in his conception when one has sinners of the like we have in DC. Consider the value of moving Bush, Rumsfeld, Rove, and Cheney, after an appropriate number of centuries in the boiling blood of circle seven, to circle eight where the fraudulent and malicious are driven at an endless walk by horned demons, a punishment that mirrors their crime: in life they prodded others to serve their fraudulent and illegal ends so now they in turn are goaded in an endless walk in the eighth ditch. Crammed in that same ditch, perhaps with an opportunity from time to time to wiggle their feet at each other, belong the tele-evangelists Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Pastor John Hagee among others, who are placed there because they sold ecclesiastical favors and offices for personal gain. These are the corruptors of God stuffed upside down in tube-like holes, feet jutting out, a veritable mockery of the baptismal font, the source of the water they used as their instrument of fear to push their congregants to their will. This ditch, packed wall to wall with their ilk from Moses to the present day, provides an oily fire that licks at their feet, a just retribution for their crimes against their respective Gods, Yahweh and Jesus. Dante understood that the greatest disaster to afflict the church came as a result of its corrupt quest for wealth; things have not changed.
Only two circles remain, but they are the most graphic in representing the
Eternal retributions due our leaders. Hypocrites tread the forlorn track of the bolgia that is their home for all eternity in circle eight. Robed in leaden monk’s habits, glowing in gilded splendor, the outward show of holiness, they carry the terrible weight of deceit beneath these garments, “so heavy that we, their weary fulcrums, creak and groan.” Here is an appropriate circle for our band of hypocrites: politicians, military fawners and churchmen. But they are more than hypocrites; they are thieves as well having stolen the citizens’ wealth for decades to come. Fortunately, thieves, too, reside in circle eight wrapped in pits of monstrous reptiles that twist and curl about their loins. What an apt retribution since they borrowed Nietzsche’s corrosive philosophy, used ironically by the Nazis against the Jews, to gain power by blindly following Strauss’ negation of morality: use religion Zionism and Christianity to manipulate millions by invoking fear on one side and prophecy on the other instinct and superstition as motivating drives to empire. Perhaps Dante would allow them to experience the retribution of both sins since, as followers of Strauss, they are bound by no morals whatsoever, only power.
Now there will be those who would draw a distinction between Bush as
Puppet and his handlers, the evil counselors that use his dim wit to their advantage. Should we accept that distinction, we must separate Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the cabal of neo-cons from their shadow boss as they enter the ditch set aside for evil counselors where they will move about endlessly, hidden inside enormous flames. Hidden forever, consumed by flames that represent the destruction of the gifts given to them by God, the perversion of their intellects from seeking what is good to manipulate others by wiles and stratagems, they sinned by glibness of tongue and so are consumed by tongues of flames. Conscious deceit corrupts both the deceiver and the deceived: the deceiver decays into demonic decadence, the deceived into an unreasoning pawn inflicting the deceivers will on the innocent.
Circle eight, however, does not end with tongues of flame. Below that ditch
circles a group of hideous and mutilated souls, the sowers of discord. Certainly, the whole army of this administration must join this parade of deceivers. They tore asunder the very threads of unity that God had created to bind all peoples into one so they, for all eternity, must be hacked apart by the bloody sword wielded by demons. Day after day they drag their torn bodies through the pit as their wounds heal only to be hacked again and again by the demons, a continuing circuit of constant torment and mutilation. What an awful band they are! Sowers Of Religious Discord, Sowers of Political Discord, Sowers of Discord between Kinsmen, the reapers of the whirlwind. Here reside all the clerics of the evangelical right, sowers of prophetic discord, liars who deceive by proclaiming communication with God Almighty as they interpret the Book of Revelation and drive their respective congregations to invest in terrorism in Israel; here beside them crawl the Zionist right-wing members of Sharon’s brigade of fanatics who deceive the Jews even to accepting the deadly Christians for political expedient reasons; here Karl Rove worms his way hacked by demons, the very face of deception and discord; here stumble beneath the blows all who used their kinsmen, their fellow Americans, as fodder for their wars, the lowest of all in Hell, an incestuous legion driven to fratricide to attain their ends; and here, no doubt, we will see George W. Bush cry out, as Mosca dei Lamberti did to Dante from this deepest abyss, “Remember me; see what a sentence has been passed upon me, and search all Hell for one to equal this! I set son against father, father against son and since I parted those who should be one in duty and in love, I bear my brain divided from its source within this trunk; and walk here where my evil turns to pain.” And so he walks for all eternity holding his severed head by the hair before him like a lantern as it weeps in its despair.
All of these await entrance into the final ditch in circle eight, a ditch reserved for the falsifiers. Since they corrupted society through their falsifications they exist in darkness, filth, disease, din, and stench, the sum of the corruptions they inflicted on humankind. But there is one final ditch, the ninth, a bolgia designed for those treacherous to country, an apt accommodation for our crew of sinners. Here they remain locked in ice, in close proximity to their lord, Satan, only half their faces above the ice, where even tears freeze in the sockets making impossible the relief that comes with tears of remorse.
Our righteous indignation might revel in the potential Dante provides in The Inferno for our criminals, but my cynicism doesn’t allow for it. No, I’m afraid that “W” will retire from office to Crawford where the next Presidential Library will be built, albeit the smallest of all since he does not read or write and most, if not all, Presidential papers will either be classified or non-existent. The only point of comparability between this library and others will be its silence. Perhaps cynicism is a cry of despair? After all there is a legacy created by this administration, a legacy of deceit that hovers like a dark shadow above all America.
The good Prayer Book (5:6) observes “The Lord will abhor both the bloodthirsty and deceitful men,” perhaps as comfort for those who have had to live through their vileness, but I do not believe that they will suffer their due rewards. We will and our children will. Consider the real and painful legacy these men have bequeathed to all Americans. The most insidious legacy and the most corrosive for a democracy is the dissembling of trust in our fellow men, those we must select as our leaders. Erode trust and the very pillars that support consent by the governed crumbles. This administration has eroded trust. But there’s more, there is erosion of belief in the perceived values that are the bedrock of America’s uniqueness in the world honesty, fairness, and equality for all. Act illegally, attack with overwhelming power, and impose beliefs where they are unwanted and the substance of the American experiment evaporates. This administration has corrupted America’s values. But there’s more, there is questioning now of the ideology that gives America its primary position among the nations of the world a belief that rights reside inherently in the nature of the individual, a belief that embraces the sacredness of all and grants respect to all. Force nations to heel to America’s will and the very concept of individual rights vanish. This administration has destroyed the American character and its promise.
Consider also these legacies of national distrust: distrust in the Supreme Court that steals the vote from the people to fulfill its political obligation to the Republican Party; distrust in the political system that has been co-opted by corporate money; distrust in the Congress that can impeach one President for a personal failure and let another lie to the people in order to wage his personal war using our soldiers’ lives to achieve his end; distrust among the people as they watch a band of Neo-Cons abscond with their government and impose their ideology on the world’s communities in their name; distrust among the people as they witness a small group of religious zealots attempt to force their superstitious beliefs on the country subverting thereby the separation of church from state; distrust of the media that has been acquiescent in the corruption that has plagued this administration; distrust of the government departments created to uphold and secure our safety because the administration has refused to cooperate in the proper investigation of the terrorist acts that resulted in 9/11; distrust of those in our society that represent privilege, power, and wealth as above the law while the deprived, impotent, and poor fill our prisons; and, finally, distrust in a system that promised individual control and consent betrayed by those who took control and mocked consent.
Consider also these legacies of international concern: perception of America as a nation that will subvert and undermine the Geneva Conventions regarding human rights and prisoner rights, a perception that destroys the very premise of America’s declaration of individual rights; cynicism regarding America’s stated motives to bring “freedom and Democracy” to all when the worlds’ communities witness this administration impose its will by force or coercion on weaker nations; an understanding that America is willing to lie to its people and to the people of the world to gain its ends making impossible trust in American policies; questioning of the logic and sense of Democracy if it allows for such stupidity to gain control of the most powerful nation on the planet by a few ideologues who have no belief in the system they have subverted; awareness that this government will inflict its retaliation on those who do not agree with it negating thereby honest and sincere dissent; recognition that corporate power determines the actions of America and its foreign policy and determines the use of the world’s natural resources by control of America’s might; realization that America has locked itself irrevocably to Israel regardless of the consequences of that allegiance to international security and peace in the mid-east recognizing in its support of Sharon a nation that wants instability in order to ensure Israeli theft of Palestinian land and eventual hegemony in the “greater middle east”; an appreciation that America under this administration will deny any responsibility for creating conditions that breed terrorism because it denies responsibility for ravaging the world’s resources causing endless harm to the environment and great disparity in health and wealth around the world; and, finally, recognition and fear that this administration has created a new foreign policy that has opened the door to chaos and destruction by claiming its right to pre-emptive strikes against other nations, disengaging unilaterally from international treaties and agreements, negating the concept and function of international law, accepting the use of civilians as fodder for war to invoke shock and awe, mocking the value of the United Nations as a collective body for international peace, and, finally, and most viciously, destroying the principle that gives meaning to government by law, acceptance of extra-judicial execution thereby giving license to all to kill at will negating both individual rights and belief in human equality. This legacy of understanding by the international community becomes our legacy as we travel the world.
Some would argue that I have omitted the most significant legacy, the economic debt thrust on the American people and their children. Let me recognize that legacy as a just retribution imposed on a people (imposed unfairly on those who fought against this administration) that let this administration stay in power by not speaking out against the representatives that coddled to its power, that allowed its media to become but sounding brass for corporate voices and administration lies, that enabled Ashcroft to cripple our freedoms with his right-wing religious prejudices and his shackling of our rights with his Patriot Acts, and that listened to the pseudo-prophets of the National Church of Television as they excused Bush’s lies that has resulted in close to 900 dead American soldiers and 10,000 Iraqi civilians, countless wounded and maimed, all in the name of the peaceful Jesus they purportedly worship. Unfortunately, that debt may become the anchor that sinks America in time. While the Neo-Cons extol America’s world dominance both militarily and economically, reality suggests that another power has arisen that could undermine that dominance. With the rise of the European Union and its currency, the Euro, America’s dollar has competition. As America’s debt builds, as its losses in the military theater become more and more obvious, as its acceptance as an international partner continues to erode, as more nations see it and its parasite in the mid-east, Israel, as terrorist states and the greatest threat to peace on the planet, confidence in the dollar will fall and the Euro will become more and more attractive. That could be disastrous for America resulting in the worst tangible legacy of all, an economic depression of incalculable consequences.
Perhaps we must return to the Prayer Book (43:1), “Oh God, defend my cause against the ungodly people: O deliver me from the deceitful and wicked man.”
William Cook is a professor of English at the University of La Verne in southern California. His new book, Psalms for the 21st Century, was just published by Mellen Press. He can be reached at: cookb@ULV.EDU