Bush's ingestion of images from
popular culture might have shaped his perception of the terrorist
attacks and suggested appropriate responses to them or he might
just have used the vocabulary of the "savage war" to
explain his decision in terms that would resonate favorably with
the American people. I'm not sure which thesis is more frightening.
Bush's "Savage War"
by John Denvir
Movies not only entertain,
they instruct. Films help shape our interpretations of the significance
of new events and suggest appropriate responses. In other words,
films help create the "slots" into which we place new
events, each slot calling for a different response. For instance,
members of the Bush administration were shocked by the Al Qaeda
attacks on the World Trade Center and quickly had to determine
the attacks' significance and plan an appropriate response. Should
the United States interpret the attack as an outrageous crime
whose perpetrators must be found and prosecuted to the limits
of the law or as an act of war that merited a military rather
than a legal response? Was the attack more like the terrorist
bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City or the Japanese
attack on Pearl Harbor?
President Clinton had interpreted the earlier attack on the World
Trade Center as a horrendous crime, not an act of war. There
are indications that Secretary of State Colin Powell was at first
also thinking of the attacks in terms of the "crime "
slot. Powell was in Peru attending a conference of foreign ministers
when he heard of the attacks and he told the assembled diplomats
"you can be sure that America will deal with this tragedy
in a way that brings those responsible to justice." But
President Bush immediately interpreted the attack as an act of
war. He later told reporter Bob Woodward that his first reaction
was "They had declared war on us, and I made up my mind
at that moment that we were going to war." I believe that
that mythic images drawn from films might have influenced this
crucial "slotting" decision.
Just as there are "law" movies like To Kill A Mockingbird
that implicitly argue that the disciplined logic of law provides
the best template for dealing with social conflict, there are
other "lawless" films that argue that law incapable
of handling certain conflicts and, therefore, violence is society's
necessary recourse. These "lawless" films present a
negative view of law, identifying it with weakness, femininity,
corruption, and impersonality. The weakness of law requires reliance
on the efficacy of "honorable" violence. And since
life copies art just as art copies life, perhaps we should not
be surprised if this same preference for lawless, honorable violence
influenced political decisions like the American response to
Consider the image of law portrayed
by Don Siegel's Dirty Harry. Dirty Harry shows
us a society in law is so weak that that violence has infiltrated
the rule of law itself, blurring the distinction between legal
and lawless violence. Dirty Harry tells the story of how
a maverick police detective Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) saves
San Francisco from the violence of a vicious sociopath named
Scorpio who has murdered several local women. From the outset
Harry makes it clear that he is engaged in a "dirty war"
with incarnate evil that justifies any effective method. Cruising
through the red light district, he comments to his partner, "I'd
like to put a net over the whole bunch of them." He finally
captures Scorpio with a gunshot and elicits a confession from
him by means of torture. Harry feels proud of a job well done,
but that is not a view shared by the film's representative of
the rule of law, District Attorney William T. Rothko (Joseph
Summer). Rothko illustrates the inability of the law to deal
effectively with the type of incarnate evil the homicidal sociopath
represents. Rothko is a captive of the rule of law, so constricted
by procedural requirements that he has no time or energy to protect
Callahan is called to the District Attorney's office after the
killer's arrest expecting an expression of gratitude. Instead
Rothko informs him that the suspect will be set free because
Callahan has not followed all the technical rules the U.S. Supreme
Court has laid down for the arrest of alleged wrongdoers. Rothko
pompously reminds Callahan that "the defendant has rights,"
but the audience instinctively feels he is not talking about
rights, but rules that must be slavishly followed irrespective
of context. Callahan replies that he is more interested in the
rights of the women the defendant has already killed and the
others he will kill when released. Rothko is unmoved; Callahan
has not obeyed the law, a comment to which Harry replies "Then
the law is crazy". The audience is likely to agree. Law
as represented by Rothko is both cold and ineffective, the product
of a tired bureaucracy that has given up on its mission to protect
Harry Callahan in contrast is both hot-blooded and, as Scorpio
discovers at the end of the film, deadly effective in his pursuit
of justice. Played by The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
star Clint Eastwood, Callahan is an icon of machismo feared but
respected by colleagues and criminals alike. Unlike lawyer Rothko,
Harry takes evil personally. It's a fight to the death. He knows
that criminal suspects are scum and he hopes that they will "make
his day" by provoking his deadly wrath. Once you know that
your adversary is not only guilty, but evil, then the procedural
obstacles the law sets up to conviction do seem "crazy."
The serial killer Scorpio must be more than prosecuted; he must
be exterminated. There is no room for doubt in Harry Callahan's
mind. He knows that when law is too rule-bound to obtain justice,
it is only natural that society call on the legal vigilante to
get the job done. What Harry does not realize is that a legal
vigilante is more dangerous than a sociopath criminal because
there is no legal check on his violence. A "lawless"
state has much greater capacity for violence than a hundred Scorpios.
To approach the question of popular films might influence public
policy decisions like Bush's response to 9/11/ I think we first
have to determine exactly how images in popular culture interact
with society. Simply stated, images drawn from popular culture
both inform our perceptions of new events and shape our list
of possible responses to them. This is what I call the "slotting"
function of popular culture.
Richard Slotkin in his classic Gunfighter Nation studies
how popular films both reflect and motivate social action. He
also sets out a particular myth drawn from popular culture that,
as we shall see, neatly tracks much of what we know of how the
Bush "war" decision was actually made. Slotkin calls
it the "savage war" metaphor. Throughout the 20th century,
American popular culture has often relied upon the metaphor of
a "savage war" to mediate the tensions between America's
democratic ideology and its imperial destiny.
The " savage war" myth can be unpacked to show several
related components. First, it always involves a battle to the
death between two races, one primitive and one civilized. Usually
it is a battle between the "civilized" white settlers
and the "primitive" red Indians. Secondly, The battle
is provoked by an atrocity committed by the primitive race; the
primitives commit a massacre or make captives of civilized innocents,
usually women or children. This savage act demonstrates that
the group is beyond the moral pale, evil incarnate, and therefore
no attempt at compromise is acceptable. Once begun, the battle
is to the death so no quarter can be given.
The primitive race initially has the advantage over its civilized
foe for two related reasons. First, it retains a ruthless capacity
for violence that has been drained from its civilized foe and
also is not hampered in its tactics by civilized codes of behavior,
like law, that impede effective action. The tide of battle turns
when the civilized race turns to "the man who knows Indians";
this hero bridges the cultural gap by combining the civilized
virtues of his race with the primitive capacity for lawless violence
of his foes. The denouement is a victory for the civilized race
that has been spiritually and morally regenerated by its symbolic
infusion of primitive energy.
It is easy to see ( as Slotkin does) Dirty Harry as 1970's
urban variant on the "savage war" theme. There is a
war between the "good" people of San Francisco and
their "degenerate" foes. The battle begins with Scorpio's
sadistic kidnapping and killing of young women. District Attorney
Rothko represents how the civilized society is unfairly disadvantaged
in this war, both because of irrational legal codes of behavior
(U.S. Supreme Court decisions) and a morally flabby mindset that
refuses to engage the enemy on his own terms. Harry Callahan
is clearly "the man who knows Indians". He not only
acts to further the civilized goal of protecting the innocent,
but has no qualms about using whatever tactics, no matter how
violent or illegal, necessary to achieve success.
When we read Bob Woodward's insider account of how President
Bush and his colleagues reacted to the 9/11 attacks, it is impossible
to ignore the parallels between actual events and the "savage
war" narrative. First, we have the "atrocity;"
the massacre of three thousand innocents in the World Trade Center.
The lines are drawn between the opposing groups in stark terms,
not of race, but of ethnicity and religion. In an early meeting
with Congressional leaders, President Bush said of the Muslim
Arab terrorists that "they hate Christianity. They hate
Judaism. They hate everything that is not them." Secretary
State Powell soon joined in: "This is not just an attack
against America; this is an attack against civilization
Bush went even further in a talk at the National Cathedral Washington,
D.C.: " But our responsibility to history is already clear:
To answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." The
attackers were clearly beyond the moral pale, like Scorpio candidates
for extermination, not prosecution.
Woodward also reports that Bush felt Cllinton has shown himself
morally flabby when confronted with terrorist attacks. Consider
these comments by Bush about Clinton's decision to only launch
a cruise missile in response to the embassy bombings in 1998:
"The antiseptic notion of launching a cruise missile into
some guy's , you know, tent, really is a joke. "
" I mean, people viewed that as the impotent American
a flaccid, you know, kind of technologically competent but not
very tough country that was willing to launch a cruise missile
out of submarine and that'd be it."
" I do believe there is the image of America out there that
we are so materialistic, that we're almost hedonistic, that we
don't have values, and that when struck, we wouldn't fight back."
Besides the moral flabbiness, the Bush people were also upset
about the bureaucratic legal restraints on effective action.
CIA director George Tenet complained that in the pre 9/11 era
his agency had been "lawyered to death." Tenet felt
that after 9/11 " there can be no bureaucratic impediments
to success. All the rules have changed." President Bush
agreed: " I had to show the American people the resolve
of a commander in chief that was going to do whatever it took
to win. No yielding, No equivocation, No, you know, lawyering
this thing to death, that we're after them."
In the "savage war" myth, this is where the "
the man who knows Indians" appears, the bold hero who can
give the primitives a dose of their own medicine. And CIA Director
Tenet seemed ready to play the part. Here is how Woodward summarizes
the CIA proposal:
"At the heart of he proposal was a recommendation that the
president give what Tenet labeled 'exceptional authorities' to
the CIA to destroy al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the rest of the
world. He wanted a broad intelligence order permitting the CIA
to conduct covert operations without having to come back for
formal approval for each specific operation. The current process
involved too much time, lawyering, reviews, and debate. The CIA
needed new robust authority to operate without restraint. Tenet
also wanted encouragement from the president to take risks."
Specifically he wanted CIA authority to use the full range of
covert instruments, including deadly force. He also wanted to
financially support key foreign intelligence services to expand
the CIA"s reach. Tenet warned Bush that some of these groups
had dreadful human rights records with reputations for using
torture to obtain confessions. Woodward reports: "Bush said
he understood the risks." Perhaps CIA operative Cofer Black
best summarized the new virile attitude: "We're gong to
kill them. We're going to put their heads on sticks."
The "savage war" metaphor could have affected policy
in either or both of two ways. It could have been a motivating
factor or a technique of justification. Bush's ingestion of images
from popular culture might have shaped his perception of the
terrorist attacks and suggested appropriate responses to them
or he might just have used the vocabulary of the "savage
war" to explain his decision in terms that would resonate
favorably with the American people. I'm not sure which thesis
is more frightening.
But let me end with a caveat. The fact the images from popular
culture might have influenced our response to 9/11 does not demonstrate
that those decisions were wrong. It might be that "savage
war" metaphor encapsules important truths that we ignore
at our peril. Then again the "savage war" myth might
be no more than a story we tell ourselves to project our own
aggressive instincts onto a dehumanized "other" in
perpetuation of an endless cycle of reciprocal violence.
If this latter proposition is true, maybe it's time to move beyond
the "Man Who Knows Indians" to alternative heroic narratives.
One might be a more muscular view of law like that shown on Law
And Order, one where public safety and due process are not
seen as incompatible. Another might forego victim myths to see
us as part of a large world that we have helped and with other
will continue to create.
Posted January 9, 2004
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