THIS BOOK ENDS FAR FROM WHERE IT STARTED: THE TRAIL THAT began in the Old World—the Levant—ends in the New. This is not an arbitrary conclusion, for the United States has been involved with the world of Islam from the first years of its independent existence. There were trade agreements signed with the North African pashas from the 1790s, and a short war in 1805, when the Stars and Stripes were raised over a captured Tripolitanian citadel. Later in the nineteenth century the history of American relations with the Ottoman Empire developed quite differently from those of the European states, largely because of the success of American missionaries among local Christians.
The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, founded in 1810, became effective in winning converts in the Ottoman heartland, especially among local Armenian Christians.1 The board poured money and resources into sustaining these Christian communities, often isolated clusters within a larger Muslim population. Missionaries became a powerful influence on U.S. foreign policy, providing a constant flow of information on conditions in these distant “mission fields.” Significantly, they secured the appointment of U.S. consuls in many areas of the Ottoman lands, and consuls and missionaries together presented an image of oppression and atrocity; much of this evidence was effortlessly transmuted into savage anti-Ottoman (and anti-Muslim) propaganda.
The killing of Ottoman Christians in the 1890s and the mass murder of 1915, both events profusely and horrifically documented, had a long-lasting effect on American perceptions of the Middle East. This modern savagery reinforced the older and more remote memories that have appeared in earlier pages.2 The Armenian slaughter stimulated a galvanic reflex, similar to the British response to the Bulgarian atrocities of 1875–76, described in chapter 1. Henry Morgenthau, U.S. ambassador at Istanbul from 1913 to 1916, told the engineer of atrocity Mehmed Talaat Pasha:
You look down on Christian missionaries but don’t forget that it is the best element in American society that supports their work, especially their educational institutions. Americans are not mere materialists, always chasing money—they are broadly humanitarian and interested in spreading justice and civilisation through the world … Our people will never forget these massacres. They will look upon it as nothing but wilful murder and will seriously condemn all the men responsible for it … You are defying all ideas of justice as we understand the term in our country.3
The Armenian massacres affronted the founding principles of the United States. Morgenthau was describing his nation’s yearning to become the “virtuous republic,” created from the 1770s with aspirations much higher than mere moneygrubbing materialism. But he knew that this ideal coexisted in the same body politic as the rapacity, acquisitiveness, and brutality that he abhorred. Like the Roman god Janus, his nation had two faces—one sometimes noble and the other always ignoble—and both faces were presented to the world.
The young United States was like no other state that has ever existed in the history of the world. Recent comparisons with other imperiums, ancient and modern, are both futile and misleading.4 But though it is rich and successful today, it is worth recalling that the United States was born out of revolutionary violence and much blood. The grimmer realities of that revolution are remembered less than the fine words about nation and liberty which still resound. Jefferson, of course, knew the brutal facts, but he kept them for private letters rather than his public rhetoric: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”5
This new nation was quick to manufacture its myths and heroes. When the first president, George Washington, died in 1799, Congress’s eulogy began, “To the memory of the Man, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” It genuinely reflected popular feeling, a sentiment objectified in the enormously popular print by John James Barralet in 1802. This presented a kind of apotheosis, as the First Citizen was borne up to heaven by Time and Immortality.6 Later, in 1865, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the painter Constantino Brumidi decorated the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., with a vast fresco. There, “the first President sits in majesty, flanked on the right by the Goddess of Liberty and on his left by a winged figure of Fame sounding a trumpet and holding a palm frond aloft in a symbol of victory. Thirteen female figures stand in a semi-circle around Washington, representing the thirteen original states. On the outer ring of the canopy, six allegorical groupings surround him, representing classical images of agriculture, arts and sciences, commerce, war, mechanics, and marine.”7
Like all national histories, the American past has always been artfully nipped and tucked to meet the needs of the moment. Underlying that serene surface presented by Brumidi lies what you would expect to find: vain ignorant men, greed, crass stupidity, and vaunting self-interest, much as in other nations. This is the other face of the United States. Yet, unusually among nations, there has also been a serious attempt to think and behave ethically, to honor the nation’s founding myth. Among the long list of American presidents and statesmen, we can find a few who successfully joined reason with realpolitik, showing how power could be exercised without remorse, and also without rancor. While hatred and maledicta were deeply embedded in the new nation, there were those who set their faces against it. This was what Abraham Lincoln meant, in his first inaugural, by “the better angels of our nature.”
These noble beliefs were not held by saints and scholars detached from the realities of life, but by leaders who faced the ultimate political test of war and lesser conflicts. It is easy to be ethical in the abstract, but the United States has in the past produced presidents who succeeded without recourse to the corrupting language of hate and evil. How and why they did so is the subject of this last chapter. The three I have chosen—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt—were closely interlinked. The young man John Hay, who was one of Lincoln’s secretaries, and listened as he delivered his address at Gettysburg, later served in his old age as Theodore Roosevelt’s trusted and revered secretary of state. Theodore Roosevelt presided at the wedding of his niece Eleanor, whom he gave away in marriage to his distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and Franklin idolized his older kinsman Theodore. None of these were weak or irresolute men. Not one of them flinched at taking the harshest decisions, yet to adapt Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite phrase, they succeeded while speaking softly. This might seem counterintuitive, for the harsh tones of the demagogue seem so much more potent and effective. Yet they knew better, and I hope to explain why. How they succeeded has a direct bearing on the politics of the twenty-first century.
ON MARCH 4, 1861, AT A MOMENT OF SUPREME CRISIS IN THE NATION’s history, the recently elected President Abraham Lincoln gave his first inaugural. He concluded by directly addressing those who were determined to secede from the Union:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Realpolitik made it clear that civil war was likely if not inevitable, but on this most public occasion Lincoln insisted on speaking in terms of reason. The “better angels of our nature” existed on both sides of the divide between union and secession. He asserted, and spoke of, a common humanity and nature. He did not openly demonize his opponents, although he abhorred their actions. A little over two years later, in his address delivered on the battlefield at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, he again declined to contrast an evil enemy with his own “brave men, living and dead, who struggled here.”8
This magnanimous tone was a matter of careful judgment.9 Lincoln personified the enemy as if in a mirror, human like himself, fallible and capable of error. He abhorred vituperation, but for practical and political reasons. The ranks of the secessionists were no more uniform or monolithic than his own supporters. He believed that Confederate diehards were a minority in the South, and that once the war was won, he could rebuild a new and united society with the support of the uncommitted majority. In his second inaugural, he was implacable in continuing the war “until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” But he also insisted that this was “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Lincoln’s rhetorical skill, his plain speaking, was to lay the grimmest necessities of war alongside the insistent voice of reason. It was this combination, each element bound indissolubly to the other, that rendered his message so potent. Conversely, he exposed the limits of maledicta.
Lincoln’s pragmatism was rooted equally in the harsh reality of politics and in an acute understanding of human nature. He knew what was said and how it was said limited (or expanded) the political possibilities for the future. The two later presidents recognized the same pragmatics. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt reported the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he condemned it with cold contempt as an “unprovoked and dastardly attack,” as “treachery,” and spoke of “December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy.”10 Unlike Lincoln, FDR sometimes selected a harsher register. In April 1943 he described Japanese executions of American aviators a year earlier as “barbarous,” talking of Japanese “depravity” and of “killing in cold blood.” The Japanese, he declared, were “savages.”11
In each case he chose his public words with the greatest care: the head ruled the heart. Out of the public eye, maledicta actually corresponded much more closely to the president’s personal feelings about the nation’s enemies than the measured tone of his Pearl Harbor speech. In private he told his secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr., formerly a farmer and stockbreeder, in words reminiscent of Spanish speculations on the Morisco problem centuries before: “You have either got to castrate the German people or you have got to treat them so that they can’t go on reproducing the people who want to continue the way they have in the past.”12 But in his set-piece speeches like the State of the Union, Roosevelt eschewed the harshest language of atrocity and evil. He chose instead a public idiom of reason and argument, seeing it as appropriate for the effective conduct of a war in a democratic society.
His cousin Theodore, TR, had been the youngest-ever president, taking office (as vice president) after the murder of President William G. McKinley in 1901. The elder Roosevelt is hard to pin down. He was a polymath: articulate, with a frantic zest for life, a war hero. But if we wanted a single word that embraced all his aspects it might be “word-smith.” Being an author extended across every period of his life: from the sickly youth; the unsuccessful rancher; the great white hunter; the feisty young politician in New York to the mature, bull-like Rough Rider, Colonel Roosevelt, commanding his own regiment of volunteers; and ultimately the leader of his nation.13 Roosevelt never stopped writing. Between 1882 and 1918, he published more than twenty substantial works, plus a mass of shorter works, articles, pamphlets, speeches, letters, and journalism.14His natural domain was words.
For all his impetuosity, Theodore Roosevelt achieved an inner discipline, and nowhere was this more evident than in his language. Many things that he said or wrote now seem outrageous or provocative, but they most often occurred in conversation or in a private letter. His abhorrence of profanity was Victorian, but this natural restraint was also well judged. In public he spoke to engage the hearts and minds of his audience. Part of his political success lay in widening his appeal and constituency, and this was achieved as much by what he said as by what he did.
All these three presidents—Lincoln and the two Roosevelts—understood the power of the word to secure the support and allegiance of a mass electorate. The modern media-orientated presidency began with Theodore Roosevelt, who was supremely aware of the need for an effective public image.15 But Lincoln also fully recognized the power of the press, while FDR, with his use of radio, pushed presidential communication with the people into a new dimension. These three exemplars knew what they wanted to say, and they said it.
THE CONTRAST BETWEEN THEN AND NOW IS COMPELLING. THE TWO days of infamy in the history of the United States—December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor and September 11, 2001, in New York and Washington, D.C.—were tragedies on a similar scale. At Pearl Harbor 2,390 died and 117 were wounded, while about 3,000 died in the attacks on September 11. Yet the two presidents—FDR and George W. Bush—spoke very differently about the two events. Roosevelt spoke first to a hurriedly summoned session of Congress on December 8, 1941.16 On the next day he spoke to the nation in a Fireside Chat by radio. FDR used a tone of studied control. He did not mock the enemies of America nor did he belittle them. Rather he spoke with an icy neutrality:
We may acknowledge that the enemies have performed a brilliant feat of deception, perfectly timed and executed with great skill. It was a thoroughly dishonorable deed, but we must face the fact that modern warfare as conducted in the Nazi manner is a dirty business. We don’t like it—we didn’t want it—but we are in it and we are going to fight it with everything we have got.17
Roosevelt found the right idiom to steel his people: he was measured, implacable, and utterly determined. We should contrast this with President Bush’s reaction to tragedy in 2001, when he told the American people:
I have spoken to the vice president, to the governor of New York, to the director of the FBI and have ordered that the full resources of the federal government go to helping the victims and their families, and to conduct a full-scale investigation to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act.18
This confused amalgam of tortuous bureaucratic prose and the wholly off-key “folks” to describe mass murderers has continued through the president’s further statements, up to the present. In part, his problem is technical: President George W. Bush is not a natural public speaker. However, modern technology can usually help even the most inarticulate to improve their performance. The difficulty is not just with presentation, for the president’s mixed messages derive not from incoherent speech but from conflicting registers.
In the nearly 150 years since Lincoln was elected president, the means and modes of communication have been transformed. Yet the essence of winning an audience remains the same. Lincoln and the two Roosevelts all perfected the art of speaking individually and intimately to every individual in their audience. Today, reading the Gettysburg Address, or listening to recordings of TR and FDR, it is impossible not to be drawn. Theirs was a rhetorical skill, which they had honed and practiced like preparing for a battle. Words were their weapons, and like many martial arts, their success came from an absolute control. By contrast President George W. Bush (and his father before him) both exemplify the opposite. Neither has ever seemed entirely in control of what he says. Sometimes their tongues seem to take on a life of their own.19
Under normal circumstances, this might not be a disadvantage. Many people find it difficult to speak in public, and hearing a political leader stumble sometimes makes them seem more honest, human, and endearingly fallible. But in conditions of crisis, this tolerance vanishes: the endearing frailty suddenly becomes a weakness. For the second President Bush, the “crusade” episode that I described in the last chapter was a first significant example of misspeaking. That off-the-cuff comment reverberated around the world, although its impact at home was much less dramatic. A second slipshod utterance was little remarked outside the United States. But at home, in a changed political environment, it produced a storm of criticism and possibly damaging consequences.
On the morning of July 2, 2003, the president told a group of journalists gathered in the White House that he would take a couple of questions. The first was an easy lob: “What is the administration doing to get larger powers, like France and Germany and Russia, to join the American occupation there [in Iraq]?” It needed a soft and emollient answer: something along the lines that the whole world should be helping the coalition to get Iraq back on its feet. But for some reason the president took a different tack:
Well, first of all, we’ll put together a force structure who meets the threats on the ground. And we’ve got a lot of forces there, ourselves. And as I said yesterday, anybody who wants to harm American troops will be found and brought to justice. There are some who feel like that if they attack us that we may decide to leave prematurely. They don’t understand what they’re talking about, if that’s the case.20
The reporters, satisfied with this reply, assumed he had finished and hands went up for further questions. But the president had more to say. He relaxed visibly, leaned forward toward them, and continued.
Let me finish. There are some who feel like—that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring ’em on. We’ve got the force necessary to deal with the security situation … We’ve got plenty tough force there right now to make sure the situation is secure.21
This was George W. Bush in his Teddy Roosevelt mode, waving the big stick and laying down the law to the nation’s enemies. But it was a gross mistake, for he had willfully ignored the first half of Roosevelt’s favorite adage: “Speak softly.”
The earlier “crusade” remark had caused a stir in Europe and the Middle East but was soon forgotten at home. “Bring ’em on,” conversely, unleashed a torrent of negative comment all over the States. The graphic artists saw their opportunity. Dennis Draughon published a cartoon that showed the president at the podium saying, “Bring ’em on,” to an audience of coffins, each draped in the Stars and Stripes and captioned “U.S. casualties in Iraq.” Another had the C-17 transports filling up with coffins after his ill-chosen words.
Copyright © 2003 John Trever, Albuquerque Journal. Reprinted by permission.
The most historically resonant cartoon was John Trever’s in the Albuquerque Journal. He drew George W. Bush at the podium, declaiming, “Bring ’em on!” Beside him is the Stars and Stripes. But behind on the wall is a huge portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, labeled “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Covering his eyes with his hand, TR grimaces, with a look of disbelief and pain at this pointless and incompetent gaffe.
But why should an American president, “the most powerful man in the world,” need to “speak softly”? Almost a century earlier, Theodore Roosevelt had explained to a large crowd in Minnesota what the mysterious adage meant:
A good many of you are probably acquainted with the old proverb “Speak softly and carry a big stick—you will go far.” If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble; but neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power.
Great powers needed strong military forces—the big stick. But possessing this power allowed them safely to use soft (diplomatic and appropriate) words. During his presidency, Roosevelt had settled disputes by quiet diplomacy, secret and open threats of force, but never by all-out war. Bush reversed Roosevelt’s priorities, using force where words and threats might have sufficed.
The gulf between the two men is not just a matter of time and very different generations. TR reveled in words, matched his expression precisely to his aspirations and policies. He recognized that time, place, occasion, and audience all determined how he should express his message. President Bush, surrounded in the modern style by advisers, speech-writers, and policy wonks, is not in control of what he says.
WORDS MATTER, AND THEY HAVE WINGS. SHORTLY BEFORE HIS DEATH in 1975 Mikhail Bakhtin wrote in the final paragraph of his last essay that there are “immense boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings” which at some future moment “are recalled and invigorated in renewed form—in a new context.” His final word on his life’s work was: “Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming.”22 In writing this book, I have been struck by the accuracy of his prediction: that words and ideas can be as fearsome and dangerous as zombies, unwelcome revenants. By a curious coincidence, in the same week of October 2003, words spoken by both the prime minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir bin Mohammad, and by a senior U.S. general, William G. Boykin, deputy undersecretary for military intelligence, intensified antagonism between Islam and Christendom. What they said rather than what they did resounded around the world, and while neither man set out to antagonize, it was the inevitable consequence of the words they chose to use.
What did they say? In a long and wordy disquisition to the World Islamic Conference, Mahathir denounced Muslim passivity:
Some would have us believe that … our life is better than that of our detractors. Some believe that poverty is Islamic, sufferings and being oppressed are Islamic. This world is not for us. Ours are the joys of heaven in the afterlife. All that we have to do is to perform certain rituals, wear certain garments and put up a certain appearance. Our weakness, our backwardness and our inability to help our brothers and sisters who are being oppressed are part of the Will of Allah, the sufferings that we must endure before enjoying heaven in the hereafter. We must accept this fate that befalls us. We need not do anything. We can do nothing against the Will of Allah.
Then he specified the enemies:
There is a feeling of hopelessness among the Muslim countries and their people. They feel that they can do nothing right. They believe that things can only get worse. The Muslims will forever be oppressed and dominated by the Europeans and the Jews. They will forever be poor, backward and weak. Some believe, as I have said, this is the Will of Allah, that the proper state of the Muslims is to be poor and oppressed in this world.
But is it true that we should do and can do nothing for ourselves? Is it true that 1.3 billion people can exert no power to save themselves from the humiliation and oppression inflicted upon them by a much smaller enemy? Can they only lash back blindly in anger? Is there no other way than to ask our young people to blow themselves up and kill people and invite the massacre of more of our own people? …
It cannot be that there is no other way. 1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews. There must be a way. And we can only find a way if we stop to think, to assess our weaknesses and our strength, to plan, to strategise and then to counterattack.
For Mahathir, the enemies of all Muslims were the West and a “Jewish plot.”23 Blind force was useless against these powerful foes, and he called for a united effort to defeat them.24 His long speech was applauded politely.
In the same week, the story broke in Los Angeles that General William “Jerry” Boykin, a much-decorated fighting soldier recently promoted to a senior high-profile post in the Pentagon, had been unmasked as a zealous neo-Crusader. More and more details were uncovered. In January 2003, speaking of a captured Muslim warlord he had met in Somalia in the 1990s, he had said, “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.” Regarding a later speech by General Boykin at a church in Boring, Oregon, one eyewitness wrote:
On June 21, 2003 we were invited by a friend and neighbor to attend a celebration “… to honor those who have served in our country’s armed services” at the Good Shepherd Community Church … The pastor stood up and introduced a Major General William G. Boykin … Boykin has a slight southern drawl and an obvious sense of humor, both of which makes him an effective speaker …
Boykin showed us a few slides from the recent war in Afghanistan, made a joke about sending some of the prisoners on a “Caribbean vacation,” a reference to the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A bit crude and possibly offensive to some, but still nothing out of the ordinary.
General Boykin then showed a picture of Osama bin Laden and commented “This is not our enemy.” Another slide of Saddam and again “This is not our enemy.” Kim Jung Il was also described as “not our enemy.”… General Boykin explained that “our real enemy is Satan.”25
It was one of many such events. At one, a videotape was made. General Boykin later apologized, and claimed his views had been taken out of context. They had: what was appropriate for a gathering of like-minded evangelical believers sounded like the words of a bigot to the wider world.26 But Boykin can have had no illusions that his meetings would remain secret. He became a star speaker on the evangelical circuit, often in full uniform, speaking at church after church. Each time he added a little to his presentation. Standing in the pulpit of the First Baptist Church at Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, he showed a slide of a strange black mark over the Somali capital, Mogadishu, in 1993. “This is your enemy,” he told his audience. “It is the principalities of darkness. It is a demonic presence in that city that God revealed to me as the enemy.” As I read this I was reminded of the sickly Opicinus de Canistris in 1335, who appeared in chapter 8. He, like General Boykin, saw the dark shape of the devil over the land. But, of course, he was a cleric with a clouded mind, not a senior commander in the United States Army.
Mahathir and Boykin have responded differently to widespread criticism of their words. Some political leaders of the Islamic world claimed the prime minister was misunderstood. It is true that the few words concerning the West and the Jews were inevitably taken out of the context of a much longer speech, allowing many interpretations of his overall message. But many of his own countrymen regard him as a reprehensible individual, and during the twenty-two years of his authoritarian rule, his bigotry, his dictatorial and vindictive character have been widely condemned. This was a secular politician’s speech, carefully crafted for its audience. It was his swan song as a prime minister, yet also staked his claim as a leading sage of the Islamic world. Mahathir knew the power of the word and exploited it ruthlessly.27
Boykin, by contrast, did not court publicity. He was caught by the relentless spotlight of the press in a highly compromising position. Preaching in uniform about Satan and the devil’s work, he exercised his right to free speech, to audiences of a like mind. Yet had he used his right to free speech in advancing racism or (like Mahathir) anti-Semitism, very few of his supporters would have come to his defense. To that degree, free speech in public by a paid employee of the U.S. government has its limits, and Boykin foolishly overstepped the unmarked boundary. In his public response he apologized to those who “might be offended by what he said” but his words could not magically become unsaid and their effect wiped from human memory. The Reverend Allen Brill, founder of the Right Christians, saw precisely what Boykin had done. His perspective was drawn from something he did every week: delivering a sermon. He knew the temptation to score a cheap hit on someone his audience would dislike: for example, a Bible class composed of upstanding heterosexual married couples might be unusually receptive to a powerful discourse on the “sinfulness” of homosexuality.
“General Boykin,” said Brill, “appears to have succumbed to such a temptation. He now says that he never meant that his Christian God was bigger than the Somali warlord’s Muslim God … But that isn’t what he said at the time … But he didn’t get to be a general by failing to be attuned to what his superiors and others wanted to hear. That’s just the way life works. And he knew his audiences as he spoke to these prayer breakfasts and church groups too. He was aware of their feelings about Muslims and their political leanings, and he told them what they wanted to hear.”
In short, it was a cheap shot, just like Mahathir’s “sugar” of old-fashioned anti-Semitism to sweeten his bitter message to the Islamic conference. What should they both have done? Brill has no doubts:
General Boykin had a wonderful opportunity to aid our nation’s effort in the war on terror if he had emphasized how important it is for Christians to demonstrate respect for Islam and its adherents. Prime Minister Mahathir would have done well to go beyond his call for a Muslim renaissance to condemn the evil effects of anti-Semitism on Jews and Muslims.
Both failed to be leaders with integrity because of falling to the temptation of telling them [their audiences] what they want to hear.28
Which brings us back to Lincoln, and the better angels of our nature.
LINCOLN’S SPARE SIMPLICITY OF STYLE PLACED ENORMOUS WEIGHT upon his choice of words. I have always thought of the “mystic chords of memory [that] will yet swell the chorus of the Union” as binding every member of a huge crowd together as it rose to roar out words they all knew by heart. That rousing affirmation of nationhood I imagined would be the chorus to “Hail Columbia,” America’s de facto anthem in 1861:
Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.
But the chords of memory can also be understood in a less literal way. Perhaps Lincoln was saying that it was only common, shared memories of being American that could eventually bind the nation together again. He spoke with an undaunted certainty: even if civil war were to sunder them temporarily, those memories would be restored. By contrast much of this book describes memories that undoubtedly bind and unite but not in a good cause. The French poet Paul Valéry wrote, almost three quarters of a century ago, that “history inebriates nations … saddles them with false memories.” His words are the epigraph at the beginning of this book. Historical memory, for many oppressed minorities, is honored as a defiant act of resistance; but at the same time we now also know that memory, written and oral, is only at best a partial recollection. False memories, as this book has recounted, are often the means by which hatred is sustained or reinvigorated.29 Much of what describes the past today, particularly in popular formats—on television or in film—is a form of memory, oral rather than written, a concatenation of impressions. Few of the memorial connections I have described extending over many centuries conform to the paradigm of normal, documentary history. This gulf between history and memory is widening rapidly, and to our peril.30
JUST BEFORE WRITING THESE FINAL PAGES I WAS SENT A BOOK WITH (for me) an irresistible title. The joint authors of An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror—David Frum and Richard Perle—are figures in the shadows of the Bush administration. Now, they have produced “a manual for victory.” At first sight it seemed just one of many hurriedly assembled “tracts for the time.”31 But this one is more interesting than most such productions, because it is written in a kind of Orwellian Newspeak. In his novel 1984, George Orwell analyzed the language of his new society. Here words were divided up into three categories: the A, B, and C vocabularies. A words were those “needed for the business of everyday life—for such things as eating, drinking, working, putting on one’s clothes, going up and down stairs, riding in vehicles, gardening, cooking, and the like.” C words were scientific and technical terms. But Frum and Perle write mostly in B words.
The B vocabulary consisted of words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them … The B words were a sort of verbal shorthand, often packing whole ranges of ideas into a few syllables, and at the same time more accurate and forcible than ordinary language.32
For Frum and Perle, France fulfills the role of the evil and despicable Eastasia (or Eurasia) in Orwell’s parable, while political enemies, and others who engage in “thoughtcrime,” are disposed of on every page. One fine Newspeak rodomontade concludes the first chapter:
For us, terrorism remains the great evil of our time, and the war against this evil, our generation’s great cause. We do not believe that Americans are fighting this evil to minimize it or to manage it. We believe they are fighting to win—to end this evil before it kills again and on a genocidal scale. There is no middle way for Americans: It is victory or holocaust.33
The use of “holocaust” (without an initial capital) is pure Newspeak B. Neither author can be unaware of what “holocaust” means to a modern audience.34 In this context they elide the transient horror of terrorism with the unending horror of the Nazi exterminations. Is the alternative really “victory” or the careful, planned, systematic, efficient, and remorseless extermination of an entire culture? If that really is what they mean, there is not a shred of concrete evidence for it in the book. Yet if the language of An End to Evil is a string of neologisms, its structure, intention, and method are very old indeed.
In 1486 two Dominican monks, Kramer and Sprenger, wrote a tract against the great mortal evil of their day, what they saw as the most dangerous threat to human society. While Frum and Perle abominate the modern threat from terror or terrorists, the two monks in Cologne were obsessed with the more ancient threat posed by witchcraft and witches. Their manual, which they called The Hammer of Witches (Malleus Malleficarum), proved a best seller. Published for the first time in 1486, the Malleus appeared in thirteen editions between 1487 to 1520 and sixteen between 1574 and 1669. It remains one of the most malign texts ever produced, for it provided canonical and biblical backing for the idea of witchcraft and laid down the procedures for destroying the witches themselves. After the Reformation, their work continued to find equal favor with Protestants and Catholics alike.
A fifteenth-century manual against witchcraft and a twenty-first-century manual against terrorism read rather differently, but their methodology is strikingly similar. First, they both lay out the conditions and causes of evil; second, they detail how evil spread and how it can be defeated; and third, they present the operational necessities of a war on evil. There are other similarities. They castigate all who doubt or frustrate their great work. “Our vocation is to support justice with power. It is a vocation that has earned us terrible enemies” (Frum and Perle).35“There is in them [the enemies] an enormity of crime, exceeding all other” (Kramer and Sprenger).36 However, their similitude lies not so much in style, language, and method as in their ultimate objective, the destruction of an evil enemy. These modern authors’ purpose is not very different from their avatars; like Kramer and Sprenger, they wish to excise those whom they fear from human society, root and branch. This current assault on “evil” may be just a new variant of the witch craze.37
Killing witches ran its bloody course and eventually subsided. Can we halt a similar modern social panic in its tracks? History provides a suggestive parallel. Even at its apogee, in the seventeenth century, the idea of evil taking over a witch’s body was questioned, and undermined; gradually, the witch craze waned. As Chadwick Hansen succinctly put it: “Western civilisation stopped executing witches when the literate and balanced portion of its members stopped believing in their capacity to do harm.”38 The slow change was engendered through debate and argument, by a war of words, until eventually the very belief in witches became synonymous with a barbarous past.39 But Hansen then continued, ominously: “But new figures have arisen to take the spectral place in popular fears vacated by the witch.”40 That is, I believe, where we are now.
Malign ideas and utterances, maledicta, lie infectively in books, magazines, newspapers, in the ether, or on the Internet; they cannot effectively be constrained, censored, or controlled. But their virulence can be diminished, as Charles Maier suggests:
Perpetrators have a history as well as victims, but in what sense do they share a narrative? In fact, their narratives intertwine, just as all adversarial histories must … [These adversaries] will never write the same narrative, but historians … must render them both justice within a single story. This does not mean banally insisting that both have a point, or “splitting the difference” (which is a political strategy). It means listening to, testing and ultimately making public their respective sub-narratives or partial stories. To resort to a musical analogy: written history must be contrapuntal and not harmonic. That is, it must allow the particular histories of national groups to be woven together linearly alongside each other so that the careful listener can follow them distinctly but simultaneously, hearing the whole together with the parts.41
This is what normally happens over time: monolithic certainties tend to diminish, blur, or fade over the generations. Unless, that is, bitter memories are fostered, or as this book has suggested, deliberately revived.
Ultimately the real hope for a better future is, in Maier’s words, this process of “hearing the whole together with the parts.” The power of the word might, at first sight, seem much less reliable than relying on overwhelming military power, which Frum and Perle assure us is our best hope. Of course, might is always right on the battlefield. But as every empire has learned, over years and, ultimately, decades, exercising that kind of military effort in the long term carries an insupportable price, in both human and economic terms. Sustaining a long war often demands a reversion to maledicta—to the language of “crusade” and “evil”—and the attitudes that belong to it. But reviving the past comes at a cost: an ideology based on these atavistic responses will fail; and worse, in failing, may even slowly unravel the last two centuries of the West’s social, cultural, and spiritual development.