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The Pharisee’s Fire Sermon: Terror, Perpetual War, and
the Holy Empire in Bush’s Second Inaugural Speech
by Lila Rajiva
January 26, 2005

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Not 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 and life.


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 sleeve nonchalantly.

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 well-known lines:

Dies irć, dies illa,
Solvet sćclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibyllâ

The day of wrath, that day
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 Romans.

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) Edwards wrote,

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 his sight.

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 actions:

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.

Perpetual War

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 get them.

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)

Super-hawk James 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

In neo-conservative 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 terrorists.” (28)

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 ground.” (30)

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.

Holy Empire

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:

“Self-government 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.”

Starting with 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 hypocrisy.

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 dictatorial Shah.

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 resign.

1961, Zaire, the CIA assassinates democratically elected Patrice Lumumba, leading to four years of chaos.

1963, Dominican Republic, the CIA replaces democratically elected Juan Bosch with a military junta.

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 Review Press. Copyright (c) 2005 by Lila Rajiva

Other Articles by Lila Rajiva

* The Ideology of American Empire
* 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
* Iraqi Women and Torture, Part II: Theater That Educates, News That Propagandizes
* Iraqi Women and Torture, Part I: Rapes and Rumors of Rape
* Nicholas Kristof's Fox Pas(s)
* Putting Conservatives on the Couch: Transactional Analysis and the Torture Apologists
* The New Post-Colonial Racism
* Eyeless in Iraq: The L.A. Times and the Fog of War