The State Religion

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

Grab your flak jackets because there’s “trench warfare” on the campaign trail, as would-be commanders-in-chief prove their mettle not merely by persuading people to vote for them but by “demolishing” their opponents — because the leader of a country as powerful as the United States of America must, above all, be someone who’s tough and ruthless, right? Like George W. Bush.

We may be a nation that goes shopping after the terrorists strike — we may have more to fear from obesity than Osama bin Laden — but suddenly it’s an election year and we, or at least the media, are preoccupied with threats to our security that have the complexity of comic-book bad guys.

“Military power . . . functions in America the way state religion has functioned in other societies,” James Carroll writes, in an excellent piece this week in the Boston Globe on the myth of national security. The central dogma of this religion, which no candidate dare question lest he or she be damned for heresy, is “that an extravagant social investment of treasure and talent in armed power of the group offers members of the group escape from the existential dread that comes with life on a dangerous planet.”

This is the nub of our national impasse, as we spin our wheels between the past and the future, not daring to let go of the myth of militarism that, while it may bind us together emotionally as a nation, at the same time destabilizes and pollutes our world and makes us increasingly less safe — to the point of threatening our very survival.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could at least talk about such matters at the level of a presidential debate, as though we really were a democracy?

Instead, we get fluff and faux-outrage: Here’s a photo of Barack Obama wearing a turban! Pssst, he’s one of them, he’s one of them, the subtext whispers — and whispering is what counts in our timid, gossip-driven, easily manipulated semi-democracy.

“World governments focus too much on fighting terrorism while obesity and other ‘lifestyle diseases’ are killing millions more people,” begins a recent story in Agence France Presse, on the fifth annual conference of the Oxford Health Alliance, held this week in Sydney.

“An estimated 388 million people will die from chronic disease worldwide over the next 10 years, according to World Health Organization figures quoted by the alliance,” the story continues, prompting one reader to respond on the Common Dreams Web site, where the story was posted, with a list of “Things More Dangerous Than Terrorism.”

The reader’s list included: global warming, economic disaster (including neo-liberalism), environmental and workplace contamination, poverty, bigotry, a police state. All of us could spend the next hour expanding such a list: auto accidents; domestic gun violence; rape; spouse and child abuse; war itself and its attendant, lingering horrors (depleted uranium poisoning, unexploded munitions, post-traumatic stress disorder); injustice of all sorts; lousy schools; road rage; lack of impulse control.

Feel free to keep the list going. My point is not that I expect a president to “protect” me necessarily from any of the above, so much as show a capacity to prioritize these and other dangers, grasp root causes and project awareness, intelligence and not “toughness” but courage — a moment of silence, please, for this quality that seems so often MIA in the political arena — in dealing with them.

I repeat: “Toughness” and strength through militarism speak to the myth of nationalism but will get us only deeper into the quagmire that President Bad Example has bequeathed us as his legacy. We won’t stop terrorism with shock-and-awe bombing, torture and pre-emptive global bullying. Almost everybody knows this by now, but our presidential candidates still genuflect before the almighty defense budget, varying only in the fervor they are able to project.

This is scary, is it not — that we might wind up with More of the Same as our next commander-in-chief, simply because we lack the capacity to step outside the stagnant mythology of macho nationalism.

“Preachers warn of hellfire to offer rescue from it, which is available to those who submit,” writes Carroll. “This feedback loop of damnation-salvation-submission serves the people by offering meaning, and it serves the elite by protecting the structure of power. In religion, all of this is overt. In presidential politics, it is implicit.”

In obeisance to the myth of national security, we have squandered trillions of dollars invading and occupying Iraq. We’ve broken a country, killed as many as a million Iraqis, created 4 million internal and external refugees, thrown the Middle East into chaos and incurred global animosity.

Maybe obesity is still a greater threat to Americans than terrorism, but if we stick to our “mission,” terrorism will close the gap.