having had a chance to listen to the inaugural speech (1),
I read it in transcript and was struck like everyone else by those ominous,
symmetrical allusions to fire in it:
“After the shipwreck
of communism came years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of
sabbatical -- and then there came a day of fire.”
“By our efforts, we
have lit a fire as well -- a fire in the minds of men.”
“It warms those who
feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this
untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.”
In Bush’s religio-political
theater, fire isn’t a damp metaphoric squib but a powerful symbol, the
leitmotif of the soaring neo-conservative soundtrack -- fire consuming the
twin towers, fire as inspiration, and then fire as “freedom” crackling over
the globe, warming its friends and incinerating its enemies.
This isn’t vague
bombast. The meanings are precise and meant to resonate with deep-rooted
themes in American culture.
In the Gospel, cloven
flames descend at Pentecost and the disciples burst out in unknown
languages. Pentecostal preachers still call this “speaking in tongues.”
(2) This is fire “lit in the minds of men,” inspirational.
But when fire descends on Sodom and Gomorrah (3), it burns
the sinful cities to cinders. Fire warms and burns, inspires and destroys
and its double potency is what makes it the object of man’s first fear and
wonder, his first religion. From the Egyptian sun gods Ra and Amon
(4) to the Vedic fire-god Agni (5) or the
Greek Hephaestos (6), fire is the divine source of warmth
But it’s the terrible
destructive power of fire more than its fecundity that inspires religion.
The “untamed fire” to which Bush refers pulses with the force of divinity.
The Bush team, high priests of the American state, are also magi conjuring
with signs and wonders in the sky. They experiment with tactical nuclear
weapons; they call down firebombs that melt flesh in excruciating envelopes
of flame; they write their will in fireworks in the skies that terrify whole
populations. The 21,500-pound Massive Ordnance Air Burst (MOAB)
(7) is the largest conventional bomb in history and was built as much to
induce paralyzing fear as to destroy. Napalm-like MK-77 firebombs
(8) have been used against Iraqi forces and a Pentagon
official who confirmed the use defended it as legal and necessary. The MK-77
is filled with a mix of incendiary chemicals different from napalm but
causes the same sheet of fire that penetrates dug-in infantry positions.
“The generals love napalm,” (9) a soldier was quoted as
saying. “It has a big psychological effect.” Recent accounts from Fallujah
describe civilians incinerated by a napalm-like cocktail of poisonous
gases. Two major military theorists of the administration -- Albert
Wohlstetter (10) Andrew Marshall (11) --
make protracted nuclear war the centerpiece of their strategic thinking. For
Charles Krauthammer(12), a prominent Bush publicist,
“power is its own reward.” and classicist Donald Kagan (13),
father of the prolific neo-conservative ideologue Robert Kagan, adds,
“People worried a lot about how the Arab street is going to react. Well, I
see that the Arab street has gotten very, very quiet since we started
blowing things up.”
To the Bush team
absolute power confers virtue and perfect virtue wears fiery terror on its
Take Bush’s phrase,
day of fire, which seems at first a curious way to describe the attack on
the twin towers which literally produced as much smoke as fire. It’s a
profoundly evocative phrase and calls to mind, intentionally I am sure, some
Dies irć, dies illa,
Solvet sćclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibyllâ
The day of wrath, that
which will reduce the world to ashes,
as foretold by David and the Sybil
Dating back to the 14th century, the Dies
Irae (14) is a Latin hymn used in Roman masses for the
dead, of which Verdi’s and Mozart’s are famous examples and the Day of Wrath
it talks about is Judgment Day when the final reckoning of the soul is made.
As the hymn states, dies irae is prophesied both by the Hebraic and pagan
traditions of the west, by the Jewish King David as well as by the Hellenic
Sybil, prophetess of Cuma and the most popular oracle consulted by the
Bush’s Day of Fire is
a subliminal invocation of this prophetic western tradition. We’re invited
to reprise the attack on New York as an inaugural of fire, a commencement of
apocalyptic days, a quickening of history into the end times of judgment.
In the sermons of
Jonathan Edwards (15), Cotton Mather (16)
and the other great Puritan preachers of America, judgment day is a paroxysm
of fire and despair. In 1741 in the most famous of hell and brimstone
sermons, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” (17)
The God that holds you
over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect
over the fire, abhors you,” “he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in
Heaping up rhetorical horrors, Edwards
describes a spectacular torture intended to impress the angelic realm with
the power of the almighty in an early form of shock and awe:
You shall be tormented in the presence of the
holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb; and when you shall be in this
state of suffering, the glorious inhabitants of heaven shall go forth and
look on the awful spectacle...
Edwards suggests that
this divine horror show is about many things, from the just punishment of
man for the vileness of his nature to the furnishing of a salutary example
to sinners and saints, but it’s pretty clear from his text that what he
revels in most is the absolute differential in power between his spiteful
deity and the pitiful creatures who are “dry stubble”, “chaff”,
“grasshoppers”, “spiders”, and “worms” in comparison. What inspires his awe
is man’s total subjection to overwhelming power and the “exquisite horrible
misery” it inflicts.
That first adjective
tells us that there’s something aesthetic at work here that goes beyond
ideas of mere justice.
“He will have no
regard to your welfare, nor be at all careful lest you should suffer too
much in any other sense, than only that you shall not suffer beyond what
strict justice requires. Nothing shall be withheld, because it is so hard
for you to bear.”
One part of this
aesthetic of superfluous suffering is straightforward. Fire overawes us not
only for its power to do evil and good but also for its supernal beauty.
After all, the indwelling fire of God, the Holy Spirit, is feminine not only
in Christianity but in the mystical texts of Judaism where she is the
Shekinah (18), the divine glory, which guides the
Israelites as a pillar of fire at night and a cloud by day and hovers over
the Ark of the sacred covenant between Israel and God. The similarity of
Shekinah to Shock and Awe, I suppose, is simply one of those peculiar
un-meanings which sometimes points us where meaning refuses to take us.
But fire as the visual
correlative of absolute power has another aesthetic, one a lot more
disturbing, in which it's precisely the abjection of the victim that's
pleasurable and invites a gloating triumph:
He will crush you
under his feet without mercy; he will crush out your blood, and make it fly
-- no place shall be thought fit for you, but under his feet to be trodden
down as the mire of the streets.
There’s a sadistic
pleasure in inflicting pain, a gratuitous, wanton blood lust running through
this pornographic picture of suffering that lends an ecstatic tone, a
rapture, if you will, to the whole piece. It’s echoed in Bush’s words and
As president, Bush
pumped his fist in the air and muttered, “feels good,” just minutes before
publicly announcing the start of the war on Iraq. As a governor, he
snickered while mimicking a plea for mercy from a repentant multiple killer,
Carla Faye Tucker, who had been sentenced to death. (19) As a child, he led his
friends in shooting frogs with BB guns and would even “put firecrackers in
the frogs and throw them and blow them up,” recalled Terry Throckmorton,
a close friend of Bush. And
despite denying it for a year, FBI memos released in December from a Freedom
Of Information Act Request by the ACLU indicate that he signed executive
orders directly authorizing the torture of prisoners. (20)
How can power be
conceived as absolute, virtuous, beautiful, and supernal and yet at the same
time also unnaturally cruel? The answer lies in the philosophical dualism
driving Bush’s political thinking and underlying his use of fire imagery.
In the dominant forms
of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Plato’s spirit-matter dualism expresses
itself not only in the separation of God from nature, but also of man from
nature and man from his own self. For dualistic man, nature - his own as
well as the lavish universe outside him - exists only for the sake of his
“inner” and “spiritual” self. Nature is a “fallen” image of the perfect
world of the spirit. Despite this, however, in traditional Christianity, as
formulated by Augustine and Aquinas, there's no evil principle inherent in
nature itself. (21) Evil is simply a lesser form of the
good, an absence of good. Evil is part of a continuum with good, not
radically separated from it.
Bush’s imagery of fire
develops this traditional Christian dualism into something quite different,
something closer to the religion of ancient Persia, Zoroastrianism, where
fire has a central role and where good and evil are localized and embodied.
The good follow a solar deity and have fire as their symbol while the evil
follow a serpent god; the battle between the two divides all creation. In
this pre-Christian monotheism, the world is torn by perpetual war, evil is
embodied in a devil, man has free will, and there is a physical
resurrection, a day of judgment, and a fiery hell. Zoroastrian beliefs
influenced the Old Testament and Talmud (22) when the
exiled Israelites came under the rule of the Babylonians and the Persians,
and many think that the name of the Jewish sect that professed the new
beliefs, Pharisee, is a transcription of Pharsi or Persian.
(23) Apocalyptic Christianity, with its emphasis on the Old Testament,
converts this deeply ethical Indo-Aryan dualism that was meant to be a tool
of spiritual self-mastery into something more fatalistic and literal than
the original teachings. The apocalyptic version grafts the dualistic moral
struggle onto history itself and searches for its resolution in the drama of
states and nations. It’s from here that Bush’s combative, militarized
political vision springs and it’s also from here that the fiery cruelty of
his policies stems. He knows who the evil are and he’s certain he’s going to
Two of these mutant
dualistic beliefs have powerfully manifested in Bush’s policies:
Eternal strife as the
condition of existence
With the War on Terror
replacing the Cold War and before it the World War against Fascism, the US
enters its 7th decade of post-war militarism. In the corporate body of
mainstream American politics, there's no serious alternative to the
militaristic vision of America.
“The great objective
of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations,” runs the
inaugural speech echoing Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, who has declared the
war on terror a “long, hard, slog.” (24)
“This is a long, long
war,” said Bush during the second presidential debate. (25)
Woolsey has called the new war “the long war of the 21st century” and “World
War Four” and has argued that it “will last for decades. For the younger
people…it will be to your generation what the Cold War was to mine. It will
probably last the rest of your life.” (26)
Today no other nation
can match the United States in overall military spending. Its military
budget of over $400 billion is more than the combined defense expenditures
of every other country in the world. (27) Since no
external enemy could possibly pose a threat justifying this level of
militarization, it becomes reasonable to suggest that what drives it is not
security but aggression.
Evil as what
defines the self
dogma, perpetual war is inseparable from the pure evil of the enemy.
Just after 9/11 Bush
called terrorists “evil-doers” and declared, “Every nation and every region
now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the
On January 29, 2002 he
made the much-publicized speech in which he lumped Iraq, North Korea and
Iran into an “axis of evil.” (29)
On September 23, 2003
he affirmed the “clearest of the divides … between those who seek order and
those who spread chaos…. Between these alternatives there is no neutral
It’s because Bush’s
theo-political vision can’t articulate America in positive terms that it has
to articulate it in negative ones, defining it against what it’s not and
because his vision is so radically dual, those definitions have be “pure”,
uncontaminated by radiation from the other.
But where does he get
this purist vision of the American state? The inaugural has a profoundly
disturbing answer wrapped in what seems at first like the usual pabulum:
relies, in the end, on the governing of the self. That edifice of character
is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained
in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the
words of the Koran and the varied faiths of our people.”
uncontroversial assertions about character and communities, Bush goes on to
found the nation's life directly on religion, starting with the Old
Testament followed by the New Testament and then the Koran. Leave aside the
fact that agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, Wiccans, Hindus, deists, pagans,
and those of any number of other persuasions are uncomfortable to see
themselves shunted aside in a specious moral hierarchy by state-sanctioned
monotheism, what about the founding fathers who were themselves
conspicuously rationalistic? Until now, we’d thought that the founding law
of this country was the constitution, but it turns out that those were only
“the laws of the land.” America, the state, gets its founding constitution
in a fiery blaze directly from Mount Sinai. Not only does Bush give the nod
to monotheism as the predominant religion of the new theocratic state, the
Mosaic Law is at the head.
That’s the clue to the
purism of the newly baptized American state, which relentlessly hunts out
the non-self to destroy it. The Mosaic fire is God’s own Law, double-edged
like a sword, purifying the good and incinerating the evil. When holy Law
itself founds the nation, why bother with the constitution, the uniform code
of justice, or international law?
The Bush vision of
freedom and democracy conflates them with the American state conceived
virginally, unmixed with ambiguity, and intolerant of shades of gray.
American freedom warms the good and incinerates the evil with napalm. The
good get the Geneva Conventions; the evil get Guantanamo. The good, Israel,
gets to keep its nuclear arsenal; the evil, Iran, gets to lose them. The
good, Pakistan, gets military aid; the evil, Syria, gets bombed. Confusing
what's good with what's good for the corporate-state might sound like
cutting-edge Straussian sophistication but to most people it's old-fashioned
And hypocrisy was
exactly the charge hurled at the legalistic Pharisees, Bush’s theological
ancestors, whom Jesus charged, “cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but
inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence…. full of hypocrisy
and lawlessness.” (31)
Since World War II,
when has the American state not been engaged militarily somewhere? When has
the American state not been without an absolutely evil enemy?
“History has an ebb
and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by
liberty and the author of liberty,” says the new pontiff, echoing
Zarathustra again as he affirms that history has broken out of the ancient
cosmic cycle of eternal rise and decline and is marching toward an ultimate
triumph of the good. But marching toward what?
“It is the policy of
the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and
institutions in every nation and culture,” he insists.
But in the period that
he characterizes as spreading democracy, here are some of the democratic
movements subverted by the secret action of the United States:
1948, Italy, the CIA
corrupts democratic elections.
1953, Iran, the CIA
overthrows the democratic government of Mossadegh and replaces it with the
1954, Guatemala, the
CIA overthrows the democratic government of Arbenz.
1958, Hungary, the US
incites but then abandons the democratic uprising that is then crushed by
the Soviet Union.
1957-1973, Laos, the
CIA tries to overthrown the democratic government almost every year, and
then failing that, bombs Laos into a country of refugees.
1959, Haiti, the US
military installs the murderous dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
1961, Ecuador, the
CIA- backed military forces the democratically elected President Velasco to
1961, Zaire, the CIA
assassinates democratically elected Patrice Lumumba, leading to four years
Republic, the CIA replaces democratically elected Juan Bosch with a military
1964, Brazil, the CIA
overthrows democratically elected Joao Goulart and replaces him with a
military junta whose death squads are trained by the CIA.
1965, Indonesia, the
CIA over throws the democratically elected Suharto and replaces him with the
mass murderer Sukarno, who kills between 500,000 and 1 million civilians
with the CIA in the role of informant.
1971, Bolivia, the CIA
overthrows President Juan Torres, leaving chaos and terror in his wake.
1973, Chile, the
CIA overthrows the democratic government of Salvador Allende, which is
followed by the brutal General Augusto Pinochet.
1974, Australia, the
CIA topples the democratic left-leaning government of Edward Whitlam.
1975, Cambodia, the
CIA overthrows popular Prince Sihanouk and paves the way for the rise of the
murderous Pol Pot regime that kills millions of its own people.
1990, Haiti, the CIA
overthrows the popular government of President Aristide. (32)
This abbreviated list
ignores the US involvement in Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iraq and many other
coups, civil wars, assassinations, and other subversions of democracy, not
just abroad but even in the US itself. The list also ignores what's happened
in the former Soviet Union and many of it former communist allies where the
comfortable narrative of freedom has been marred by the criminality and ugly
economic chaos of the new politics.
The Pharisees of the
new American corporate-state like to preach the law when it’s on their side
but the truth is they rip it to shreds whenever it opposes them. The
dangerous brushfires they light around the globe threaten to usher in
decades of bloodshed and violence masquerading as liberation and
peacekeeping. Stripped of its democratic platitudes, Bush’s fire sermon is
nothing more than a war-like invocation to his fire-god, a dangerous and
hypocritical manifesto of arbitrary state-terror.
Lila Rajiva is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, Maryland.
She has taught music at the Peabody Preparatory, and English and Politics at
the University of Maryland and Towson University.
Her new book,
The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US Media, will be published in March-April 2005 by Monthly
Copyright (c) 2005 by Lila Rajiva
Other Articles by Lila
The Ideology of
* Tsunami Cover
Up? NOAA and the Flood
* Iraqi Women
and Torture, Part IV: Gendered Propaganda, the Propaganda of Gender
* Iraqi Women
and Torture, Part III: Violence and Virtual Violence
Women and Torture, Part II: Theater That Educates, News That Propagandizes
Women and Torture, Part I: Rapes and Rumors of Rape
Kristof's Fox Pas(s)
Conservatives on the Couch: Transactional Analysis and the Torture
* The New
* Eyeless in
Iraq: The L.A. Times and the Fog of War