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Pure evil

Bush on the devil’s work in Iraq

George W. Bush yesterday visited the troops at Fort Irwin, California. The Iraq war became necessary after 9/11, he said, because “what changed on September the 11th is oceans can no longer protect the people in the United States”. Oceans, huh? Maybe this is the real reason why George is so relaxed about global warming. Sea-level rises might destroy a few coastal cities, but they’ll make the oceans bigger, and perhaps restore some of that magical protective power that large expanses of water had in days of yore, before the invention of boats, or intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Why can the US not leave Iraq? Because “The enemy that had done us harm would be embolden.” Right, right. The enemy is currently rather shy and retiring. Imagine how much worse things would be if they were embolden. But never fear, we can defeat them with the force of our beliefs:

In the long-term, we must remember that freedom is universal, and the best way to defeat an ideology – and make no mistake about it, these extremists believe things – for example, they don’t believe you can worship freely; they don’t believe you should speak your mind; they don’t believe in dissent; they don’t believe in human rights. We believe in the right for people to worship. We believe in the dignity of each human being.

All those human beings we have blown up and tortured – rest assured that we always believed in their dignity while we were blowing up and torturing them. Pedants might carp that, having told his audience that the “extremists believe things”, Bush went on only to enumerate various things that they apparently don’t believe. Well, never mind what they do actually believe – who cares? The real problem with them compared to us is that when they blow people up, they are not believing in human dignity at the same time:

I was amazed by the story of the extremists who put two children into a automobile so that they could make it into a crowded area – then they got of the car and blew up the car with the children inside. It only hardens my resolve to help free Iraq from a society in which people can do that to children, and it makes me realize the nature of the enemy that we face, which hardens my resolve to protect the American people. The people who do that are not people – you know, it’s not a civil war; it is pure evil.

Well, here is a crux. And transcripts can be deceptive, so let us please give Bush the benefit of the doubt. Rather than saying such vicious murderers are “not people” at all but rather animals or demons, it may be more likely that Bush was going to say something else – eg, they are not people who believe in human dignity, or deserve food handouts, or something similar – and then changed tack mid-sentence, as he often does, thinking on his feet as usual.

On the other hand, I realise that this intepretation is somewhat challenged by the fact that George did go straight on to say that what is happening is “pure evil”, so much worse and more frightening than your everyday diluted or adulterated evil. George’s ethical calculus is refreshingly simple: a passionate belief in human dignity provides an impregnable moral armour that sanctions any conceivable act. If, on the other hand, you do not hold such a belief at the front of your mind while killing people, then you are “pure evil”. This simple way of looking at the problem suggests a simple solution. The only way to fight an apocalyptic surge of pure evil is with total war, sanctioned by God:

I believe liberty is universal. I don’t believe it is just for the United States of America alone. I believe there is an Almighty, and I believe the Almighty’s gift to people worldwide is the desire to be free. And I think, if given a chance, people will seize that moment.

One can hardly argue with George on this point. After all, if freedom includes the freedom to blow people up, then the “moment” has already been gratefully seized by all sides.

  1. 1  Richard  April 5, 2007, 3:07 pm 

    Hey – have you heard the story of the extremists…?

    1) while we’re on theological ground, are you aware of Michael Sells’ Mystical Language of Unsaying? It’s on apophasis; a “mode of mystical discourse… “speaking away”… [which] embraces the impossibility of naming something that is ineffable by continually turning back upon its own propositions and names” – it might be an intriguing mirror/rationalisation of unspeaking, rendering the actual object of discourse ‘ineffable’ by refusing to speak about it.

    2) I’m slowly realising that Bush’s frequent mis-speaking works as a rhetorical strategy – you have to give him the benefit of the doubt when he says something outrageous because his apparently poor language competence results in his listeners not knowing what he actually meant. It’s almost equivalent to Orwell’s duckspeak in effect, although it’s achieved by different (and here’s the clever bit: seemingly simple) means. You’ve probably already covered this in your book, which I must finish sometime soon.

  2. 2  Alex Higgins  April 5, 2007, 5:18 pm 

    “…for example, they don’t believe you can worship freely; they don’t believe you should speak your mind; they don’t believe in dissent; they don’t believe in human rights. We believe in the right for people to worship. We believe in the dignity of each human being.”

    Interestingly, in his juxtaposition of our beliefs with the run-through of the extremists’ non-beliefs (“We believe…”), Bush does not affirm that he believes in free speech, dissent or human rights.

    Which, of course, he does not.

    Actually, Human Rights Watch has noted before the President’s affirmations of belief in concepts like freedom and liberty (which historically have been stretched to incorporate every form of oppression), while he pointedly does not endorse the more specific term “human rights”.

    The emphasis on freedom of worship as the defining freedom represented by the United States is, of course, a gesture to the fundamentalist Evangelical base of the Republican Party.

    The part about belief in the dignity of each human being, aside from being risible, (John McCain? Valerie Plame? John Kerry? Howard Dean? Can see you Rove and Cheney fretting over Joe Wilson’s dignity?), echoes the nasty insincerity of one of Reagan’s speeches in which he committed himself to the dignity of even the humblest peasant:

    “For we Americans believe with you that even the humblest campesino has the right to be free”.

    Reagan’s statement followed an endorsement of the Nicaraguan bishop, Paul Vega’s, view that:

    “We [opponents of the Sandinstas] are defending the right of man to be.”

    The right of man “to be” might seem to be the vaguest affirmation of a commitment to human rights ever. And yet, Reagan’s Nicaragua policy clearly failed in even this limited respect, unless Vega’s sentence continued “…to be slaughtered by a mercenary army”.

    Reagan’s speech was of course not a call to let the men of Nicaragua be, but rather to unleash a heavily-armed paramilitary on them. It’s a rich tapestry of falsehood and unspeak.

  3. 3  Gus Abraham  April 5, 2007, 9:53 pm 

    Did he actually say Steven: “The enemy that had done us harm would be embolden” ?

    As our American friends might say “Yikes”.

  4. 4  Steven  April 5, 2007, 11:51 pm 

    The transcript says so, Gus, it must be true.

    Richard: Sells and Unsaying sound fascinating, I will try to look him up. I like your point 2), which I don’t really speculate about in the book, but sounds worryingly plausible. (If you can plough to the end you will find some stuff about “extremists”, though.)

    Alex: very interesting point that Bush never specifically invokes “human rights”. Keep these things as vague as possible (I love “to be”), and you can’t be held to anything in particular. I hadn’t really thought about their respect for the dignity of their political opponents, as you suggest, but it’s true that it is not much in evidence either. I suppose it’s a more obvious irony that the administration was so desperate not to be bound at Guantanamo by Geneva Common Article 3 and its outlawing of “outrages on personal dignity”.

  5. 5  Graham Giblin  April 6, 2007, 10:10 am 

    I have been screaming into what has seemed the wilderness for four years about the total hypocrisy of the US/UK/Oz claims to be liberating people by killing them, defending their human dignity by maiming them and destroying their livelihoods.

    John Howard said a couple of weeks ago that “the loss of life and injuries suffered by Iraqis and coalition forces was tragic”. As if there was no causal or moral connection between him and his two northern hemispherical friends and the death and destruction that has been visited on the people of Iraq. Almost as if it was coincidental. He continued by appealing to critics of the war to “honour Australia’s obligations to the Iraqis”. I am sure that the Iraqis are a bit fed up with John Howard fulfilling his “obligations” to them.

    I learned something from a post in a blog called Club Troppo (who have been very kind to me) which explains the difference between economic liberals and ‘hard’ (libertarian) liberals. The author, Fred Argy, says for economic liberals the end is “to increase aggregate utility of consumers” while ‘hard’ liberalism “involves a strong philosophical commitment to individualism, self-reliance and personal responsibility” so that “economic freedom is in clear conflict with distributional equity: economic liberal policies cannot be actively pursued without large and sustained inequality of income and opportunity”. It’s a bit like the “survival of the economically fittest”. All of a sudden George Bush (or his neo-con ideologues) came into focus. They are hard liberals who believe in anything BUT human rights.

  6. 6  Graham Giblin  April 6, 2007, 2:52 pm 

    …except, I might have said, the right to be responsible for no-one but oneself. Whatever one does to others, that is their problem. The Sudanese in Dafur bear personal responsibility for their own situation and should be more self-reliant.

  7. 7  Richard  April 6, 2007, 4:41 pm 

    Graham – this is really the heart of the matter of categorisation, though: Iraqis wish to be free and peaceful. They lose their Iraqi status when they become ‘insurgents,’ who are the purely evil enemy. There are three ways one can become an insurgent: by taking up arms against the US forces, by being shot by them, or by being a foreign national in Iraq, who is not a member of ‘coalition’ forces. So the only time Iraqis are killed it is tragic, because they were killed by the insurgents. It’s so simple.

  8. 8  Graham Giblin  April 8, 2007, 2:46 am is currently promoting the just-released The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Stanford Professor, Dr Philip Zimbardo, author of the famous “Stanford Experiment” which had similarities to the equally (in)famous Milgram Experiment. Both of these studies are necessary (I think) to any real understanding of Abu Ghraib and other atrocities.
    BuzzFlash says of The Lucifer Effect:

    Directly contrary to the Bush simplisitic mantra that there are evil people who have to be destroyed, it is “leaders” like Osama, Bush, Stalin, Cheney, Hitler, and Rumsfeld who have created environments that “nurture” and encourage evil.

    As his publisher, Random House, writes: “By illuminating the psychological causes behind such disturbing metamorphoses, Zimbardo enables us to better understand a variety of harrowing phenomena, from corporate malfeasance to organized genocide to how once upstanding American soldiers came to abuse and torture Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib. He replaces the long-held notion of the “bad apple” with that of the “bad barrel”–the idea that the social setting and the system contaminate the individual, rather than the other way around.

    It begins to put the notion of “pure evil” into context. Of course we now understand that the test for evil and extremism is that it “believes things”.

  9. 9  Steven  April 10, 2007, 9:29 pm 

    I wish to draw everyone’s attention, if they didn’t follow Graham’s own link, to Graham’s magnificent reply to a threatening missive from his own government, with particular admiration for his riff on “perspective customers”.

    That done, Graham – you might be interested in this post by Jason Thompson on Zimbardo.

  10. 10  abb1  April 16, 2007, 10:05 am 

    But isn’t this idea of belief/creed as the litmus test for good and evil – isn’t this a rather basic, trivial and ordinary pre-enlightenment concept? So, all this stuff is perfectly normal, exactly what you’d expect from any consistent ultra-reactionary.

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