The Politics of Death

“History, we don’t know. We’ll all be dead.”

George W. Bush to Bob Woodward, on how history will judge his Iraq war

Death is different things in different focuses-a natural end, a punishment for sin, a tool of sacrifice or domination. Morality can be constructed on refusing to inflict death or on inflicting it. Recently US politicians have embraced both positions. In the case of Terry Schiavo, the Florida woman declared brain dead, the US Congress and the President intervened to prevent her death by removal of a feeding tube. In Iraq, the US Congress and the President ordered the deaths of thousands of soldiers and civilians by authorizing war. In both cases the legislations about death were justified as correct and good. Death was deemed an evil to be avoided in the Schiavo case and a necessary evil to accomplish good ends in the Iraq war. In the Schiavo case, the President called for extreme restraint in allowing a braindead woman to die; in the war initiative he sought the deaths of Saddam Hussein’s regime and accepted the collateral killing of thousands of innocents.

Both Bush’s moves in the Schiavo case and in the Iraq War polled first as politically acceptable, then later as unacceptable. Bush’s comment to Woodward about historical judgment treats history like a poll. His analysis is political. Politics is present tense. The leader acts to hold political power, which is the end or shaping moral principle. The language is about winning. From Bush’s political point of view being a war president worked, and he boasted that winning a second term proved he was right, that the American people agreed with him about the Iraq war. Election might signals right. Sophocles’ Antigone disputed that very point-saying winners have power, but power doesn’t make right.

Most people think of America as on the side of Creon the tyrant not Antigone the martyr on the issue of political power. Creon is the ruler who says ‘what I say goes, don’t bury your rebellious brother’ while Antigone pleads a duty higher than ruler’s law. She says that if her brother who sided with Creon had been killed, she would bury him also. The right of family burial supercedes political veangeance. When people discuss Antigone’s courage they usually frame her conflict as family versus government allegiance. But Sophocles’ play really places the sharper conflict. Does political might make right, does it justify the death penalty, can the commander-in-chief do anything with impunity? In American Westerns the law is enforced by the marshall who carries the gun. Judge Roy Bean puts his rifle on the court bar and refers to it as the supreme court. American Westerns are full of heroes loathe to kill but pressed to do it to save white women or menaced towns or law and order. The willingness to impose death is not just cowboy American either. As Stokely Carmichael observed, violence is as American as apple pie. Our history is full of death-waging brutality-toward Indians and slaves and sweat shop workers and one another. Like much Iraq history which looked to the lugal or big strongman, Americans mostly elect presidents willing to kill, who uphold the death penalty and preach strong defense for the country.

At the same time, our culture imagines itself as kindly. We justify the violence we do as grudging, necessary, correct, and good. To the outsider, America may appear wildly hypocritical. We kill and terrorize while claiming to extirpate killing and terrorism. The righteousness may be wearing thin. That’s what I make of Bush’s comment to Woodward. I don’t think he meant that history’s judgment is far away or inscrutable. I think he simply says it doesn’t matter to him. It isn’t even worth the usual rationalizations and protestations of faith.

The rationalizations of the Iraq War-weapons of mass destruction and imminent danger­proved faulty. The protestations of faith morphed from killing the evil ones to freeing the oppressed to democratic nation-building. World opinion indicted Bush, and only a few argue that if democracy prevails in the Middle East he’ll be seen as a bold leader. But Bush’s political position remains cogent. He’s a war president. Death-dealing is power-raw and real. We’re alive and using it. In history we’ll all be dead-who cares about long-term judgment? The politics of death is amoral-you can construct it positively or negatively. It’s real meaning is power now.

Bush’s strength is in draping this with relentless pious sunniness: War is hard but good; the sacrifices are noble; the cause is just; the nation is united behind our brave soldiers; hope is rising; we rule. His is not a delusion of religion. It is a delusion of politics. More dangerous.

The politics of death are pragmatic and amoral. As Machiavelli observed, the ability to inflict death signals absolute power. Americans have not only sought politicians who support the death penalty and are willing to wage war or at least to threaten it, they also approve political assassination. Just as most advanced societies move away from the death penalty and seek to avoid war, America’s current political climate permits the death penalty and embraces war as its duty.

Karl Rove summed it succinctly: “Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.” Rove’s response is the opposite of Christ’s counsel to turn the other cheek when struck and not to resist evil. Rove’s is the politicizing response which turns power to rule and assert dominance.

He maps moral categories of good and evil to an amoral separation between the strong who are willing to kill and the weak who seek peace. Embracing the infliction of death becomes the test to identify the righteous, cleansing, and strong. But it’s a pose; the real battle is about politics, about Republicans defeating Democrats, conservatives trouncing liberals. Political righteousness is even thinner than religious. It’s also more fickle.

Bush reveals the fault or the hypocrisy of American ideals. Our great and tolerant and individual-affirming government ideal of life and liberty sometimes turns to death and force.

Truth is, life precedes liberty. You cannot be free unless you’re alive. So the politics of death are always at odds with the ideal. Great energy is expended to fudge this. The Battle Hymn of the Republic is a fine example:”As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” The stirring analogy is faulty and confuses agency. Christ who would not kill and suffered death is equated with the soldier charged to kill and slain for national goals. The killing part-Christ doesn’t, the soldier does-completely disappears. It merges via death into noble self-sacrifice and messianic divinity. The Battle Hymn of the Republic asks the same willing life sacrifice that bin Laden asks of his suicide bombers. Both ask warriors to kill and be killed for a cause.

It is precisely at this intersection of taking life that political positions invoke or become religious positions because inflicting death is an absolute act.

It is true that we shall all be dead. The religious idea is usually that this realization should make us act better, though Ecclesiastes says it’s what drives us mad and makes us act badly. You can argue it either way. But a politics of death counsels seize the day, let others think about judgment. History, who knows, we’ll all be dead.

It is careless. And heartless. And cruel. Deliberately.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at:




















DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: