This article is excerpted from LILA RAJIVA’s upcoming book “The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media” published by Monthly Review Press.
Like the repressed, history also returns. The repressed of the neo-liberal maximizer of utility returns. Self-directed, self-interested man looks into a warped mirror and finds homo religiosis. The sublime of religion that appalls us, also fascinates. What shows itself in the scenes of prison abuse does not appear as only defensive, the planned, rational response of threatened modernity. but as something more burdened with emotion, something that simmers under the glassy surface of “no-touch,” something sharp, frenzied, even exhibitionistic. It calls attention to itself. Underneath the neo-liberal rhetoric of a defensive war of modernity against the rise of a new barbarism, we must ask if we find instead a war of religion, an aggressive war against an ancient enemy, a new Crusade. There are those who think so.
In an October 23, 2003 AP report, General Boykin, assistant to Cambone, described the battle against Islamic terrorists as a clash between Christianity and “a guy named Satan” and suggested that Christians needed to support the divine plan that had put Bush in office, “Why is this man in the White House?” he asked rhetorically. “The majority of Americans did not vote for him. He’s in the White House because God put him there.” Earlier, in January 2003, Boykin also told a congregation how the Somali warlord Osman Atto had boasted on CNN that “Allah” would protect him and Boykin had capped the story with the remark, “Well, you know what? I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.” In June 2002, he showed a congregation pictures of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, that had been taken from an Army helicopter in 1993 just after the battle with Somali war lords which killed 18 American soldiers, a debacle depicted in the film, “Black Hawk Down.” He said he had enlarged the photos when he had got back home to the US. and noticed what looked like a dark blemish over the city. “This is your enemy,” he declared to the congregation, “It is the principalities of darkness …. It is a demonic presence in that city that God revealed to me as the enemy.” It was Boykin who briefed Stephen Cambone his boss on Miller,s visit to Abu Ghraib. It was Boykin who encourages the directive to change policy there along the lines that had proved so effective at Guantanamo.
Boykin represents the enormous power of evangelicals in the Bush administration Except for a notorious call for a crusade immediately after Sept 11, Bush has been careful in speeches to differentiate between the war on Iraq and one on Islam. Muslim ambassadors have for the first time participated in a formal Ramadan dinner at the White House and a Muslim chaplain has officiated at the opening prayers of Congress, but others close to him have been more intemperate. Franklin Graham, whose father Billy converted Bush, has called Islam evil and Graham,s decision to join other Christian evangelists in Iraq both to aid and convert Iraqis must bolster the Muslim perception of the invasion as an alliance of “Jews and Crusaders.” Bush claims to be unable to restrain him because of concern for civil liberties, but his reluctance may have more to do with the contribution that evangelicals like Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson have made to his election. And in private too, Bush has revealed his own conviction that his presidency is a mission given to him by God.
Was the abasement at Abu Ghraib crafted to sear the religious conscience? Was the Iraq invasion part of a master plan of crusading Christianity and Judaism? Religious language seems to drench the administration. “Rods from God” is the name for the bundles of tungsten rods fired from orbiting platforms that hurtle down to earth at 3,700 meters per second and destroy even underground targets anywhere on the planet at a few minutes’ notice. David Frum, until last year a speech writer for Bush, claims in a recent book that he heard a staff member say to Bush’s chief speech writer, Michael Gerson, “Missed you at Bible study.” Christian fundamentalists who have the President,s ear include the Apostolic Congress, affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church, which in addition to its missionary work in Israel (illegal under Israeli law),is active in the increasingly Christian work of pro-Israel activities in the United States. In an interview with the Village Voice, its leader, Pastor Upton, claimed that he had coordinated the directing of 50,000 postcards to the White House to oppose the Middle East “Road Map, ” the plan which aims to create a Palestinian state. NSC Near East and North African Affairs director, Elliott Abrams, sits down regularly with the Apostolic Congress to assuage their fear that Israel might give up any of its Biblical claims to land.
Bush also has strong connections to apocalyptic millennialists like Tim LaHaye, one of the authors of the Left Behind novels, who believes that a world-wide conflagration centered in the Middle East will be the prelude to the return of Christ. Before his thousand year rule over the world, however, millennialists believe that select believers will be taken up directly to heaven in a Rapture. Other fundamentalists like the dominionists are more concerned with the present day than the apocalypse and seek to remake the United States as country under Biblical law, focusing on the expansion of Christianity as a power. What all these groups have in common, however, is support for the Iraq war, a belief that Islam is false, and faith in Zionism. Christian Zionists advocate the unconditional support for Israel, the return of all Jews to Israel, the legitimacy of the West Bank settlements, a greater (Eretz) Israel that spreads from and includes Jerusalem with the Temple of Solomon rebuilt on the present site of the sacred Al-Aqsa mosque. The power of this pro-Israeli lobby ensures that Israel receives 3-8 billion dollars annually from the US in aid and military assistance and that House members on both sides are neutered on the subject of Israel. In March 2004, Senator Inhofe stated in a speech on the Senate floor that he supports Israel because God said so. It was the same Inhofe who claimed that he was more outraged by the outrage over Abu Ghraib than over the treatment of the prisoners. “They’re murderers, they’re terrorists, they’re insurgents. Many of them probably have American blood on their hands. And here we’re so concerned about the treatment of those individuals.” Should we draw a connection between Inhofe,s Zionist beliefs and his view of Iraqi prisoners?
Christian Zionists constitute a vocal 3 million of America’s 98 million evangelicals and with the 30 million other Christians who have Zionist beliefs of some kind have long been the mainstay of U.S. support for Israel, operating through such political groups as the powerful Council for National Policy, which was founded by LaHaye, a former head of the Moral Majority, and has included John Ashcroft, Ed Meese, Ralph Reed, the editor of The National Review, Robertson, Falwell, Grover Norquist, and Oliver North among its members. Ashcroft has been reported as saying: “Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith where God sent his son to die for you.” Jerry Falwell has told the CBS news program “60 Minutes” that Muhammad is a “terrorist.” The only non-Jew ever to receive the Jabotinsky medal for services to Israel, from the militant Zionist’s ardent disciple, Menachem Begin, Falwell was even permitted by President Reagan to attend NSC briefings while best-selling Armageddon author, Hal Lindsey, was allowed to speak on nuclear war with Russia to top Pentagon strategists. (Born again zionist – mother jones sept 2002) Lindsey,s 1970,s best-seller, the Late Great Planet Earth is responsible for bringing to world wide fame the dispensationalist view that since the return of the Jews to Israel, history has been unfolding according to Revelations. In recent years, these and other evangelicals have targeted as their priority a swath of the world dubbed “the 10/40 window” (North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia between 10 degrees and 40 degrees north latitude) for conversion. Fundamentalists routinely mischaracterize Islam as idolatry, paganism, or a cult. One former leader of the Southern Baptist Convention has even called the prophet Muhammad a “demon-possessed pedophile.”
Was the abasement at Abu Ghraib intended to exorcize the possessed? The man who was responsible for directing the re-opening of Abu Ghraib prison under the U.S., Lane McCotter, selected for the job by John Ashcroft, resigned under pressure as director of the Utah Department of Corrections in 1997 after a schizophrenic inmate died while shackled naked to a restraining chair for 16 hours. Yet Cotter was also selected to train guards at Abu Ghraib. Perhaps some of the prison bosses in Iraq, like some of the guards, were inclined by religion and temperament to see their charges as in need of punishment or therapy.
Certainly the silence of many fundamentalist Christian leaders on Abu Ghraib was stunning. World magazine was quick to defend Rumsfeld, labeling the torture the “perverse acts of a few.” Chuck Colson and Gary Bauer called for the vindication of America’s military through the swift punishment of the “bad apples” involved. An article on the American Family Association web site briefly condemned the atrocities, then spent the rest of its space on the unwillingness of the “liberal media” to display pictures from the Fallujah burnings.
It is not too much to see in this reaction the frame of reference for administration policies or to suggest that some evangelical,s beliefs about Muslims might coincide with politicians who for other reasons might find detention and torture the best response to a recalcitrant population. For those to whom terrorism is either religious extremism or violent heresy, the rooting out of that heresy may take such medieval forms as the scourging of the body in which the heretical spirit lodges. In this way, apocalyptic Christianity joins with the corporate-state in the disciplining of flesh. and the prisoner posed in the Vietnam like a hooded Christ ultimately recalls us uncannily to both the Inquisition of Catholic Spain and the witch-hunts of the Puritan forebears of America.
But are Bush,s policies driven largely by the rise of the fundamentalist right? Don Wagner, an expert in fundamentalism believes that the current hard-line pro-Israel movement in the U.S. draws its strength from these evangelicals and is “predominantly gentile.” But he may be placing the cart before the horse. It is true that Christian Zionists are numerically powerful, but a look at history quickly lets us know that their rise in importance in American politics coincided with the desire of Jewish Zionists to broaden their constituency and goes back to the late 60,s and 1970s to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the Arab defeat, and then during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 an oil crisis caused by an embargo by OPEC, the oil cartel, of the western nations that supported Israel in that war. As oil prices sent shock waves into the Western economies and apprised them of the power of Arab nationalist sympathy for Palestine, other new intellectual currents in Western thought were also strengthening support for that power – feminism, third world nationalism, anti-colonialism, environmentalism, and a peace movement aimed at de-nuclearizing the world, under the impact of which Western Europe, including the U.K. and Japan, began to rethink its reflexive support for Israel. The Soviet Union, which already in the early 1960s had begun to support the Palestinian cause militarily, supported the Arabs in 1967 even as Soviet Jews openly demonstrated for Israel. The Soviet government as a socialist body officially committed to anti-imperialism and anti-nationalism was forced to clamp down on them as well as other dissidents providing the context for agitation among diasporic Jews in the US against Soviet emigration policy. Despite being couched in terms of human rights, this American pressure had not much to do with the oppression of other dissident ethnic groups for a refusenik was by definition a Soviet Jew who had been refused the right to emigrate. Legislation such as the Jackson-Vanik amendment linked trade with Russia to freedom of emigration for Soviet Jews. In 1975 the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 3379, condemning Zionism as “racist” by 72-35 and it became transparent that Israel,s time as a race-based settler state was marked.
Only at this point did neo-conservatives make their transition from the left to the right, claiming they had seen the light on communism and the need for US military muscle to keep the world safe from appeasers. They had come to realize that American military and financial aid as well as a favorable population ratio in the settler state was the best bulwark against any future transformation of Israel from a Jewish state into merely a state for Jews. The Arab womb was the real weapon of mass destruction they feared.
It was at this time that US support for Israel, until then equivocal, moved to the center of American foreign policy. The rise of this Israel-centered foreign policy was therefore neither logically necessary nor spontaneous but the result of a sustained campaign born from fear that the U.S. too might ultimately follow its own interests and cultivate good relations with the Arab world at the expense of Israel. With Arab countries beginning to exhibit political clout, Israel began systematically organizing the influential and wealthy diaspora in the west, labeling any perception of similarity between Nazi and Zionist policies as “communist” and fostering a general intellectual reaction against the emergence of the post-colonial world.
It is this secular history that provides the context for the emergence of the anti-Arabisn whose visible face we see in the extraordinarily demeaning images of Abu Ghraib. Using their preeminence in Hollywood, the media, government-related lobbies, law firms, and academia, the diaspora began a campaign to dehumanize and demonize the Arab, and wanting for allies, began to make common cause with the defense industrial complex, and more dangerously, with the Christian right. Dangerous, because aside from their support of Israel, Christian Zionist theology entails the eventual conversion or destruction of the Jews and under Geneva Conventions, the forced destruction of a people,s way of life and beliefs is also genocide. In 1980, the wooing of the right received the official sanction of the Israeli government and an “International Christian Embassy” in Jerusalem was established whose function was and remains to coordinate worldwide Christian support for Israel and its policies and which raises funds to help finance Russian Jewish immigration to Israel and settlement in the West Bank. Enter Christian Zionism to the center stage of American politics.
But reading history in these terms lays one open to the charge of anti-Semitism, for many would argue that Zionism is merely the Israeli version of the same territorial claim that all other nations make without any criticism. Why should one see in Zionism anything anti-Arab, unless the intent is to de-legitimize the Jewish homeland? After all, many non-Jewish commentators take as hard-line a position on the Palestinians as Jewish Zionists – among them Cal Thomas, Michael Novak, Bill Bennett, and George Will. Thomas, who has even called for the expulsion of the Palestinians from Israeli territory, is of course a Christian Zionist, but Novak and Bennett are both Catholics and Will is an Episcopalian. Some would say that their voices are an indication that Zionism in America is merely the expression of support for the natural security concerns of an ally.
That argument is not tenable on several counts. First, the record indicates that on certain issues the American media apparently takes its cue from the Israeli lobby and does not operate with genuine independence but in a prearranged concert.
Edward Hermann, author of several influential works on the American media, describes instances of Israeli scripting of media language on important issues. In 1979, when Israel was under world pressure to end the “redemption of the land” program, the Jonathan Institute in Israel brought US officials and journalists like Bush, Will, Senators Jackson and Danforth, the historian Paul Johnson and others together to set the tone: the PLO was to be labeled a terrorist group tied to Moscow and Israel was to be portrayed as the victim. In Washington in 1984, the same script was reiterated to Secretary of State George Shultz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Senator Moynihan, Daniel Schorr and Ted Koppel of NBC. Hermann argues that the Israeli lobby in America, no longer satisfied with the pro-Israeli slant of the NYT, WP and CNN, now seeks to actually black-out inconvenient facts or viewpoints with the charge of anti-Semitism. Elected officials who dare to criticize Israel, from Republican Senators Percy and Findley to black representatives Hilliard and McKinney, have been thwarted in their bids for office. On campus, the campaign for divestment of stock in Israel has been dubbed “anti-semitic in effect, if not intent” by Harvard President Lawrence Summers.
Publicists simply toe a line enforced by the Israeli lobby and to regard them as having an equal power outside their conformism on Israel is unsupported by the facts. The influence or beliefs of the Christian right can be denounced – and is so routinely – without heads rolling but any imputation of a pro-Israeli bias is liable to call down an avalanche of letter-writing orchestrated by the Anti-Defamation League, the B,nai Brith and a host of Jewish groups whose influence on Capitol Hill is the elephant in the room that everyone acknowledges and no one talks about. Jewish Zionists have made an alliance of convenience with the Christian right, but there is little doubt who the senior partner is. In any case, Jewish groups themselves boast of their influence, and as Michael Kinsley puts it, “you shouldn’t brag about how influential you are if you want to get hysterically indignant when someone suggests that government policy is affected by your influence.”
The second reason the anti-Semitic charge founders is evident from the language of the debate on Palestine which shows something quite different from simply nationalist concerns. Which nationally influential ultra-right Christian group in America, for instance, could get away with couching its appeals in the nakedly racial language used by some influential Zionists in Israel? Jewish ultra-nationalists like Gush Emunim are not simply nationalists but assume instead that that Jewish people “are not and cannot be a normal people,” because “their eternal uniqueness” is “the result of the covenant God made with them at Mount Sinai” which transcends the “human notions of national rights.” This refutes entirely the classical Zionist claim that only by emigrating to Palestine and forming a Jewish state there can the Jews become like any other nation. According to Rabbi Aviner of Gush Emunim, “while God requires other normal nations to abide by abstract codes of ‘justice and righteousness’, such laws do not apply to Jews.” When the Israeli Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) refused to donate or receive blood transfusion from non-Jews, because their blood is “impure,” they were supported by many distinguished Israeli rabbis, including former Chief Rabbi, Mordechay Eliyahu. With religious parties representing 25% of the electorate, ultra-nationalists and fundamentalists heavily influence the Israeli government, especially Ariel Sharon’s right-wing Likud. Gush Emunim members, who constitute a significant percentage of IDF’s elite units, reportedly exhibit greater brutality toward Palestinians, a brutality justified by the twin senses of historical persecution and incipient crisis that attends Jewish exceptionalism. To such exceptionalists, criticism of Israel is inextricably linked with a desire to destroy Jewish people. Criticism invokes the holocaust. Neo-conservative publicist David Horowitz, for example, refuses to accept any Israeli accountability in Palestine, “The Middle East struggle is not about right versus right…it is about the desire (of the Arabs) to destroy the Jewish state.” Moreover, it is not only ultra-nationalists but many other Jews, both conservative, as Berg was, and reform, who are deeply committed to the Zionist dream of reestablishing the Jewish dream of Eretz Yisrael. For all of them “Aliya [the return to Israel] is the highest expression of Zionist fulfillment, because it allows for the most direct involvement in shifting Jewish values from the realm of theory into the practice of statehood.”
Zionism is an ideology of blood and soil and the ideology of even secular Zionism involves “Jewishness” even though there is no racially pure separate group of Jews. The most powerful and numerous group – the Ashkenazi – are ethnically Eastern Europeans from Khazar who converted in the middle ages. It is the Sephardic Jews and Arab and Christian Palestinians – second-class citizens in Israel – who actually share the blood of the original Jews of the Bible. For this reason even while many religious Jews reject Zionism, secular Zionism itself needs religion for its raison d,etre for there is no real tie of blood to which they can otherwise appeal. Among secularists, political Zionists like Theodore Herzl may have once thought of Argentina and Uganda as possible choices for the Jewish people, but after 1905, only Palestine, the Biblical land, was considered. Similarly, cultural Zionism does not conceive of simply a state for the Jews but a Jewish state, one where Hebrew learning, culture, and Judaic studies are central. Even Labor Zionism manages to marry the socialism of the kibbutz movement to Jewish consciousness.
You would not know these things from the American media, however, which characterizes Israel as a western liberal democracy in which all citizens are equal before the law and treats Zionism as any other nationalism, tacitly condoning the existence of a “Jewish” race-based state, while nevertheless repudiating the notion of a white or Christian state in America.
Charles Krauthammer writes in the Jewish World Review:
“Kofi Annan’s personal representative in Iraq now singles out the policies of the world’s one Jewish state, and the only democratic state in the Middle East, as “the great poison in the region.”
While the Los Angeles Times even editorializes that “Israel must remain a Jewish state.” (Oct 11, 2004)
Consider the policies of this bulwark of secularism, human rights, and democracy: Employment, housing, and access to services follows a discriminatory pattern with Ashkenazi Jews from Europe getting the best, Sephardic – Middle Eastern – Jews the next, followed by Moslem, Druze and Christians, many of them the original inhabitants, and at the bottom “Israeli Arabs,” that is, Palestinians within the 1948 borders. By the Law of Return, Israel must accommodate any Jews from anywhere who might at any time migrate to Israel but cannot accommodate the indigenous Palestinian population which fled Israeli terror in 1948 if they wished to return. Israeli identity cards can list the official ethnicity of a person – Jewish, Arab, Druze … – but not the nationality – Israeli. Since 1967 to date, Israel has arbitrarily detained over 630,000 Palestinians. In 1989 alone, Israel detained 50,000 Palestinians, representing 16% of the entire male population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip between the ages of 14 and 55. By contrast, that same year, out of a total African population of 24 million in South Africa, no more than 5,000 or 0.2% were detained for security offenses under apartheid. Palestinians have the highest rate of incarceration in the world – approximately 20 percent of Palestinians in the occupied territories have, at one time, been arbitrarily detained by Israel.
Without knowing this history, we cannot follow the trail of blood that leads from Iraq to Palestine, from the torture at Abu Ghraib to the practices of the IDF. And not seeing that trail, we think of Abu Ghraib as error, or incompetence, or folly when it was none of these. It was not a matter of “security” or “law and order,” but a part of a war on the population, a war in which torture had a specific role, the same role it has in Gaza, to intimidate the population into submission.
Yet having said this, it is also true that Zionism as a racial and political ideology of itself is not unique and does not operate alone in a vacuum and that therefore as an analytic tool it becomes somewhat elusive. Simply put, Zionism explains why some of the prominent players acts as they do, but it does not fully explain why, for one thing, what they do finds a receptive audience and is effective. The real question is why the language of religious chuavinism that masks itself in a discourse of superior civilization has such purchase with the American public.
THE LANGUAGE OF AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM
We understand this only when we look at America,s own history of exceptionalism. Zionism finds a responsive chord because America itself is convinced of its unique national destiny, a belief that powerfully influences its foreign policy. “Manifest destiny,” as it is termed, ultimately also has religious roots that can be traced to the Calvinist doctrine of the elect, those 144,000 souls who are predestined for salvation not because of their inner righteousness but because the worldly success that accompanies their deeds is seen as a mark of providential favor. Today this exceptionalism is no more purely religious but a secular ideology as well; it is the American civic religion.
In this secular religion, to believe oneself “favored” rather than “blessed” is to believe that one’s essence rather than one’s acts set one apart. One’s status as the chosen, whether American or Jewish, is thus derived from the success, not the rightness, of one’s acts; from the power that makes one’s representations alone real and others, unreal. It is this power to which the will of our enemies is irrelevant that is behind both the shock and awe bombing of Iraq and its virtual counterpart, the pornographic torture of prisoners. Thus a senior Bush aide states in a much quoted exchange, “That’s not the way the world really works anymore… We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality… We’re history’s actors.., and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Abu Ghraib is the end result of this solipsism of the Promethean state that is shared by both Zionist as well as non-Zionist American actors.
Both secular and religious exceptionalists also share a unique relationship to the law that suggests that law and legal institutions are themselves implicated in the policies of Abu Ghraib and clarifies why it may not be possible to look to them alone for salvation.
Both groups share the heritage of covenant theology which reads holy scripture as the record of legal contracts between God and man, a heritage which both privileges the law while simultaneously also promoting a sense of not being subject to it. The written contract binds us, but the interpretation of that contract remains with the state whose favored status has been granted by the law. Take for instance a January 9, 2002 memo from the Justice Department. It refuses to find international law applicable to President Bush in his detention of Al Qaeda or Taliban members but it finds the same law applicable to terrorist suspects and insists that they can be prosecuted under it. Perhaps this is only common hypocrisy, but one can also see it as inextricably bound up with the Promethean doctrine of an American state beyond law because it embodies the very contract between God and man that undergirds all law. We can see in it a parallel to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, resonant in American religious history, which recognizes the Bible as the Word of God not primarily because of logical or historical arguments but by the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit,s “internal testimony,” a mystery which is ultimately impenetrable to rationality. In the Promethean state the thin veil of reasoning that the law normally draws over state action has been rent and power radiates alone. Unchecked by any countervailing force it is by virtue of that fact touched with the divine.
From covenant theology also derives the literalism of the brand of nineteenth century evangelism – dispensationalist – that Falwell and Roberts practice which permeates even secular culture. Dispensationalists read the final book of the Bible, Revelations, as a literal account of a post-war progression to a world-consuming conflagration, Armageddon. In doing so, they discount the importance of reason, learning, or social consensus in their interpretations in favor of what they see as a literal reading of the Biblical text. Parallel to this is their reading of the unfolding of human history as also a literal record where that text transparently reveals itself. Dispensationalists, who like to make an ought of is, are thus Hegelians. Like Fukuyama, they too see the winding-down of history, although in their version it ends in apocalypse.
Fundamentalists lend another trait to secular culture, a distaste for any mediation between God and man, whether through priesthoods of men or through the elaborate rationality of philosophy. This distaste would lead one to infer that they also have an aversion for the regulations of contracts and laws. But paradoxically in a popular culture filled with anti-intellectualism, the written Constitution like the written scripture holds a privileged position. The paradox might only be apparent. Just as fundamentalism disdains mediation, an anti-intellectual culture might find an oral tradition based on a continuing interpretative dialogue between past and present actually less attractive than the fixed guidelines of a written contract, whether made between one nation and another or between nations and God. In other words, the mechanism of the constitution, like the text of scripture or the language of law, could actually become a convenient tool to avoid working out the ongoing difficulties of the political world and to elude rather than meet its demands. Politics ultimately demands mastery over reality whereas the law requires only external conformism to certain specified criteria. So, the mechanism of the law not only tends to relieve us of the burden of competence, it ultimately fails to check aggression. Instead, aggression expresses itself not outside law, but through it. Scriptural and legal limits come to mark the boundary beyond which feelings of empathy or compassion need not run. Those not chosen become, in Kipling,s words, the lesser breeds without the law. The literalism of the Armageddonists, their faith that the Biblical text they read translates directly into events unfolding in history, is bound up completely with this sense they have of enacting history as subjects and being set apart through history and through law from those others whose histories and beings are objects to be written or acted upon.
It is this sanctified contempt for the other that is at the heart of Abu Ghraib and militates against any reading of it as a war-crime of errant individuals. The half-a-dozen reservists are no more than scape-goats in a program of racial and religious abasement that was conceived as completely legitimate. The photographs horrify precisely because they express this sense of legitimacy very much as the post-cards of the 1920s depicting laughing crowds watching Negroes being lynched convey their perfect acceptability at the time.
Such sanctified terror is rooted not only in Zionism then but equally in the sectarian beliefs of fundamentalist Christians that feed many elements of the Promethean ideology. From Biblical righteousness, the Promethean sense of the state as virtue incarnate; from Christian dominionism, the impetus to expand; from apocalyptic ruminations, the Promethean obsession with terror. And through all of these runs an unexamined sense of supreme moral satisfaction, a Puritan certainty about the nature and precise physical location of evil in the other that is translated not simply in the messianic language of Americanism but even in the shibboleths of liberalism. Evil is outside, out there in the world, radically disordered, deserving of eradication. To fully understand Abu Ghraib, therefore, we need to shatter the linguistic policing behind which torture masquerades as “national security,” “necessity,” and “protecting our freedoms”; we need to free ourselves from the control of the singular language of Babel, the empire of universal law and reason. We need to comprehend the extent to which the totalizing discourse of reason itself masks those local meanings and sufferings in which humanity resides.
When we do so, what appears behind the mask is a confusion of meanings that evades easy categorization. A study of hundreds of communications by Bush, Ashcroft, Powell, and Rumsfeld between September 11, 2001 and spring 2000 found four characteristics common to them – a set of Manichean distinctions between good and evil and security and danger; a description of the war on terror as a “mission”; conflation of the will of God and the export of freedom and liberty by America; and claims that dissent is a national and global threat. Quasi-religious language is deployed here on behalf of exceptionalism but the exceptionalism is only superficially crafted to appeal to religious sentiment. Underlying the religious veneer, the language is intensely inflected with attachment to the soil and fear of its violation and echoes the Zionist ideology of soil. We find repeated terms and phrases, such as “homeland” with its distinctly Germanic flavor and “we fight them there so we don’t have fight them here.” Not ethical or spiritual religion, but a state-religion, a religion of territory and power speaks in these words.
I have termed this ideology Promethean for its refusal to submit to objective criteria of the good or the just while claiming to represent them. Not so much abrogating law as assuming the function of law-giver, the new messianism uses the language of law for its content – human rights, justice, liberty – but its framework is intensely revolutionary. In public, then, Zionism in America, Christian or Jewish, does not speak its name but prefers to use the language of secularism and democracy inspirationally to press its claims. This is understandable. Overtly religious rhetoric has a poor chance of success in a country where even Christianity has many faces and where immigration is encouraged. The self-image of America today is of a melting pot and direct appeals to racial or religious chauvinism would shatter this image of multiculturalism.
In any case, those who believe in the unquestioned “goodness” of American force have included not only Zionist neo-conservatives (and Max Boot has admitted that Israel is the non-negotiable heart of neo-conservatism) but before them Cold War hawks who once saw in the spread of communism a similar radical threat to the West. What the decoding of language demonstrates is that despite its religious overtones, the rhetoric of American empire is fundamentally neither conservative nor religious in a traditional sense but expressive of an ideology of power in which religion has been consciously deployed. Subtle words and phrases appeal to the religious, evoke their support, play on their sympathies, and yoke the two strains of exceptionalism. Under the defense of civilization, a war of religion is invoked; but the rhetoric of religion itself conceals the more familiar language of territory and resources, the struggle of political interests.
What interests and for whose benefit? The Americanist language would suggest American national interest; the pervasive influence of Zionism would suggest Israeli. Of course, publicly if not privately, Zionists like to argue that there is no difference between the two. Ideology which grows more powerful as the total state accelerates smoothes over these discrepancies in words, these failures of meaning. It throws out vague threats to the “national interest” and postures aggressively behind the official narrative of a global war on terror by the universal empire. This is the propaganda discourse of Babel but what does Babel conceal? When the propaganda narrative of terror is pierced, what lies behind?
LILA RAJIVA is a free-lace journalist in Baltimore. Her new book “the Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media” will be published this spring by Monthly Review Press. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org