Unmerciful Judge, Merry Executioners

As the 2004 election looms, the incumbent President’s detractors and defenders have returned their attention to Mr. Bush’s equivocal stint in the Texas Air National Guard during the early 1970s. As has been repeatedly pointed out, his service record-or non-record-in a capacity that allowed him to avoid combat in the Viet Nam conflict was remarkably little investigated during his first run for President. The documentation relevant to that service remains somewhat ambiguous, in part because some of it seems to have been destroyed or concealed while he was in the Texas Governor’s Mansion. There is another aspect of the President’s past, however, little emphasized during the election of 2000, that is perfectly unambiguous in documentation and at least as revealing of Mr. Bush’s character. It may be found in his handling of the numerous death sentence reviews that reached his desk as a part of his governorship.

During George W. Bush’s first campaign for the presidency, reporters actually uncovered considerable information about executions in Texas and about Governor Bush’s performance as the final reviewer of those sentences. What they learned was often ghastly: incompetent public defenders, oblivious judges, mentally retarded defendants, patently unreliable testimony, prosecutorial perjury, and so forth. Reporters’ discoveries about Bush’s role were also unsettling, and fell broadly into two categories: obvious lies about the system and his oversight of it; and his evident indifference to justice and human life. Although Governor Bush claimed to have spent significant time and energy on the appeals that came to his desk, and although he repeatedly assured voters that he could vouch for the care and accuracy of the judicial system that condemns the convicted to death in Texas, investigations showed only too clearly that he could not have given much thought to the condemned persons whose cases came before him; nor could he have plausibly claimed that death sentencing in Texas was remotely equitable, let alone carefully and dependably administered.

The national electorate-and, with the exception of a few enterprising reporters, most of the media-took little interest in these matters. The Democratic candidate, Vice-President Gore, favored capital punishment and thus was in no very good position to make an issue of Bush’s and Texas’s record of state killing; a majority of U.S. voters at that time favored capital punishment; Bush’s role appeared to be essentially bureaucratic-that is to say, mechanical, mindless, automatic. And so we wound up with (“elected” has never seemed the right word) a President and an Administration whose penchant for shedding blood has led the U.S. down paths that are bellicose and costly, dismissive of other nations, and manifestly dangerous to our own.

What might we have learned had we taken more notice of George W. Bush’s supervision of his state’s executions? Could we have predicted the character of the future President and the kind of actions influential members of his administration would promote (despite their self-description as practitioners of “compassionate conservatism”)? To help answer these questions, let us turn to a thinker few Americans have ever read (although he won the Novel Prize for Literature in 1981), Elias Canetti.

When Canetti published his great meditation on human nature, Masse und Macht (1960, trans. Crowds and Power 1962), he identified as humankind’s most dangerous inheritance, “its curse and perhaps its destruction,” a kind of leader that he called “der Überlebende.” Usually translated as “Survivor,” but perhaps more accurately rendered as “Outliver,” die Überlebenden wish not just to survive, but also to outlive all those around them. Consciously or not, they wish, Canetti wrote, “to survive alone.”

To achieve this outliving, die Überlebenden embrace power. Their particular conception of power pivots on a fulcrum of paranoia. The world of the Outliver teems with enemies, often disguised, who must be exposed, judged, and crushed. Ultimately, Canetti argues, even allies of Outlivers will be classified as enemies, because they will have been subjected to and resent the Outliver’s commands. “Beneath every command, the death sentence and its pitiless horror show through” (358). Those who have obeyed rulers’ commands, then, have suffered the threat of a death sentence and the rulers must assume that the commanded will seize any opportunity to retaliate against that threat. As the orders that rulers have given accumulate, so too does what Canetti calls “the anxiety of command.” In particular, “whoever gets hold of such a system [of command] through too brief a service or to whom it has otherwise been given, is by the very nature of his position burdened with the anxiety of command and must seek to free himself of it. [One recalls how little time George W. Bush has spent in lower echelon jobs.] The means of his release, which he seizes with some hesitation but which he can nonetheless not do without, is to issue a sudden command for mass death” (558-9).

Since assuming power through a disputed and bizarrely concluded election, the second Bush Administration has consistently made choices and exhibited behavior characteristic of Canetti’s Outlivers-of Outlivers, moreover, heavily laden with the anxiety of command. It has preferred modalities of power to judicial or legislative processes, and has reflexively acted out a mania for secrecy. Mistrustful of other nations, it has withdrawn from, defied, and refused to participate in numerous international treaties. With the curious exception of North Korea, it has preferred bilateral to multilateral diplomacy, and it has cooperated with multi-national organizations like NATO and the UN only as long as those groups endorse conclusions it has already reached. It has unhesitatingly put at risk hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel and has hardly seemed to notice the thousands of foreign nationals it has killed, wounded, and imprisoned.

Individually, these actions have various explanations: a pronounced bias toward supporting the interests of large corporations-from which many in the Administration come and to which it is indebted for massive financial support; a desire to assert more U.S. control over the huge oil reserves of the Middle East (now all but openly treated as a recalcitrant American protectorate); distrust of science, especially when it brings commercial or industrial practices into question; the imperial ideology of “The American Century”; and so forth. Such individual tactical and strategic inclinations, however, do not fully explain the consistency and coherence of the pattern of decisions and actions taken by the current Administration. To account for that pattern we need to look more deeply and to consider what we might call the personality of the G. W. Bush Administration.

Concealment, the desire to “go it alone,” and a predisposition to regard difference or dissent as enmity have, from January 2000, characterized this Administration. Since 9/11/2001, numerous arrests and detentions without charges or legal recourse have been executed in the name of the war on terrorism. These actions reflect both the raw exercise of force and the paranoid supposition that others wear the masks and pursue the conspiracies that power knows intimately from its own practices. Consonant with this mind-set is the desire for an enlarged “Patriot Act,” in order to uncover the multitude of enemies presumed to be concealed among us. That the U.S. faces serious dangers is indisputable; that the actions of the Bush Administration are effective, safe, or legal responses to that danger is profoundly doubtful.

Prominent in the personality of this Administration is its obsession with the power of governments to kill. Discussing “The Ruler as Outliver,” Canetti observed that his “first and decisive feature is his legal power over life and death. It is the seal of his power, which is absolute only as long as his right to impose death remains undisputed” (273). The eagerness of the Bush Administration that the death penalty should be more widely and frequently sought in federal courts reflects the Outliver’s craving for absolute power. In pursuit of more death-penalty prosecutions, Attorney General Ashcroft has repeatedly overruled recommendations of his own prosecutors; and the executions already accomplished under Ashcroft’s urging are the first of federal death row prisoners in thirty-eight years. Equally suggestive is the Administration’s fondness, when speaking of foreign enemies, to promise, “They will be captured, or killed.” To make the latter more probable, Administration warriors urge development of tactical nuclear weapons designed to inflict lethal American might upon those who try to escape in mountain caves or buried concrete bunkers. Whether such actions violate international law and assumptions of innocence, or re-escalate a nuclear arms race, does not seem to merit discussion.

The assassination of Uday and Qusay Hussein offered a vivid example of this Administration’s passion for killing. The attack on the home in which they were trapped was simply murderous-overwhelming cannon fire and rockets against a few cornered opponents. As Peter Davis noted in The Nation, there was “no waiting them out, no disabling gas lobbed into the house At the end they were impotent, helpless, and the order of the day-which no one here doubts came from Washington-was Exterminate the Brutes.” When given a choice between capture and kill, those in charge evidently hardly considered the former.

For the paranoid leader, “every execution for which he is responsible bestows some strength. He obtains the power of the Outliver” (274). Given that no weapons of mass destruction have yet been found in Iraq (as of September, 2004) and that, if they eventually appear, they are unlikely to have posed a substantial threat to the U.S., Canetti’s next sentences are especially germane: “His victims may not have actually been lined up against him, but they might have been able to do so. His fear transforms them, at first retrospectively perhaps, into enemies that have struggled against him. He has sentenced them; they have been brought low; he has outlived them” (274). Unself-consciously, Bush gloated in his 2003 State of the Union address, “All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let’s put it this way-they are no longer a problem.” The implications of the adjective “suspected” for the imprisonment and killing seem to have escaped him (and applauding legislators). Similarly, the regime of Saddam Hussein, whether it had weapons of mass destruction or not, is “no longer a problem.” So we have been told; but ongoing casualties render increasingly questionable the famous “mission accomplished” boast.

Since declaring that the U.S. is engaged in a global war on terrorism, the President has shown fondness for his alternative title, “Commander-in-Chief.” Considering that he evaded the hazards of Vietnam by enrolling in (and perhaps deserting) the Texas Air National Guard, his identification of himself with those who actually bomb and shoot is incongruous. Arriving by fighter jet for his triumphal speech on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, “Bush emerged in a green flight suit, carrying his helmet, and shouted to reporters, ‘Yes, I flew it!'” As Commander, Bush can order soldiers to kill the enemy or-almost as satisfying-to die in the attempt. Moreover, soldiers, and such enemy combatants as he chooses to designate, may themselves be sentenced to death through military courts, for which the Bush Administration has shown unambivalent enthusiasm.

A sentence of death is easier to achieve in such courts than in civil ones, since they have relaxed rules of evidence and do not require judicial unanimity to win a sentence to kill. Such courts are now threatened for some of the persons caged in Guantanamo. Captive there, incommunicado and without legal representation or advice, their plight must be especially gratifying for the Administration’s Outlivers. Beyond reach of the outside world, the prisoners are as if dead. Yet they nonetheless await sentencing, as by God on the Day of Final Judgment. They can be killed-again, so to speak-or restored to life. The power of resurrection, Canetti observed, is the greatest power imaginable. For the Outliver, having that power but refusing to exercise it may well be its ultimate expression.

This brings us back to Governor Bush and his record of reviewing and granting-or, virtually always, not granting-clemency for the 152 condemned persons whose cases came before him in Texas. The score: thumbs up, 1; thumbs down, 151. Long before he entered the White House, George W. Bush exhibited what Chris Matthews of MSNBC observed about him after his ascension-that he has “an almost giddy readiness to kill.” That proclivity had not gone unnoticed with respect to Bush’s actions and attitudes in the Texas Governor’s mansion. Time observed in August, 2000, that “George W. Bush, who has had more executions during his five-year tenure in Austin than any other governor in the nation since capital punishment was reinstated, has made his support for executing mentally retarded inmates clear.” According to CNN, Bush was criticized for laughing during a televised debate when asked about a pending execution. Reporting on his interview with Bush for Talk magazine, Tucker Carlson described him mimicking a woman’s final plea for her life: ” ‘Please,’ Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, ‘don’t kill me.’ ” The woman whose plea Bush was mocking was Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted murderer whose conversion to Christianity led her to become a spiritual leader for other death row inmates and on whose behalf many individuals and organizations-including the Pope, Amnesty International, the UN, and the European Parliament-had petitioned Governor Bush to mitigate her sentence to life imprisonment. But, as in 99.3% of the other cases that came before this man, the command to kill prevailed.

As startling as Bush’s “smirking” about the plea of a woman whom he had consigned to execution, is the fact that the exchange between Larry King and Tucker that Bush recreated for his interviewer “never took place, at least on television”-which is where Bush claimed to have seen it. Tucker’s groveling answer to Larry King’s “hard questions” appears to be a creation of Bush’s imagination. To the query, “What would you say to Governor Bush?”-if King ever asked it-the Governor invents the reply most satisfying to an all-powerful Überlebende, “Please don’t kill me.” Uday and Qusay couldn’t have said it better.

As slangy adolescents, my friends and I liked to refer to favorite things and people as “killers.” “That’s a killer car your Dad’s got,” for example. Now I find myself wondering if the U.S. has a killer President. Have we in the White House “humankind’s curse and perhaps its destruction”? Have the extraordinary events of the last presidential election left us with the sort of leader Canetti warned of? Is the President of the United States such a person; and has he surrounded himself with kindred spirits, kindred Überlebenden?

Obviously, one very much hopes not, but the evidence has been distressingly consistent. Because George W. Bush and many of his key officers lean strongly toward the type that Canetti called Outlivers, American citizens and the world must take seriously the threats they pose. As the U.S. electorate confronts the claims and counter-claims of another presidential election, the incessant assertions of the Bush Administration that dire circumstances exist, that “bad guys” abound and will continue to exist indefinitely, must be viewed with vigilant skepticism. For Outlivers find nothing more convenient to justify the exercise of their power than the specter of omnipresent enemies.

Denouncing bombings in Baghdad, the President declared of the perpetrators, “They hate freedom, they love terror.” (October 28, 2003) As one whose speeches constantly parade various threats before his countrymen and who urges Congress to pass another, even more intrusive and confining “Patriot Act,” Bush’s typically simple formulation would seem to apply at least as revealingly to his Administration as to those who carried out the attacks in Iraq.

What can we who unhappily watch the spectacle of our bellicose government and its nominated enemies do about all this? For starters, we must still remember-whether George Bush manages to claim the White House again or not-to cherish the civil liberties that remain to us and to guard against the unstinting promoters of “fear itself,” be they foreign or domestic. For die Überlebende must by their very nature truly “hate freedom love terror.”

Leslie Brill is a professor and former Chair in the Department of English at Wayne State University. Brill can be reached at: aa4525@wayne.edu