Reclaiming the Soul of Our Country

By Louis Borgenicht

If we deconstruct the “war on terrorism,” we see that Bush disguises his insecurity as ours.
Ever since 9/11 we have been regularly reminded that the safety of America is at stake in the war on terror, as if this were a fight for the very soul of our country. Repeatedly we are warned that we must fight the terrorists “elsewhere” rather than fight them “over here.” This threat maintains the climate of fear in the minds of many Americans.

We need to understand a number of dangerously simplistic beliefs engendered by these perspectives and promulgated by the Bush administration:

1) The war on terror is a battle between good and evil. Thus terrorists are a fanatically driven monolithic force that must be eradicated militarily.

2) There are concrete ways to protect the United States from potential terrorism, for example, the efforts of the office of Homeland Security and the Transportation Safety Administration. This narrow view envisions threat only in the form of an individual or a dangerous package.

3) It is possible to eliminate the threat of terrorism, suggesting there are a finite number of “evildoers” and no nascent terrorists will arise when they are eliminated.

From a broader perspective, the safety of America now and in the future depends upon much more than the pure threat of terrorism. Our precarious economic stability, especially the plight of the indigent, is a prime indicator of how poorly we are meeting the promise of democracy. The massive national debt (well over $8 trillion), much of it resulting from the war on terrorism, is incomprehensible. Similarly our educational system’s inability to prepare our youth for life is a measure of our lack of commitment to their future. Our disregard for the environment has proven to be a threat to both our personal and global security. America’s inequitable health care system is yet another significant embarrassment to the welfare of our nation. Over 20 years ago, Dr. Victor Sidel published an article in Lancet, “Destruction Before Detonation: The Impact of the Arms Race on Health and Health Care.” He argued that the societal costs of the arms race might be more detrimental than a war. Social instability and institutional inadequacy, he said, could result in our country becoming less secure. As a result of the Bush administration’s fixation on the war on terror, we now find ourselves in a situation that Dr. Sidel thought would come from our fixation on nuclear weapons.

The notion that we need to fight the terrorists elsewhere rather than on our soil is problematic for a variety of reasons. Although the United States is seen as the ultimate evil by a number of terrorist groups and their supporters, we are not alone: Terrorism is a worldwide problem. Although we have become the focus for antipathy through our actions since 9/11, many other countries have borne the brunt of terrorist activities. The belief that our angst and loss is greater than any other nation’s is an example of political hubris.

Twenty years ago, Clara Park wrote an essay in “The Hudson Review” in which she commented about this form of cultural narcissism:

“There is an ugly arrogance in the insistence that our age, alone amongst all, is too terrible for comedy…realistic consideration of the life of the past, both in its day to day precariousness and its vulnerability to repeated holocaust, will show up our claims to unique misery as uniquely self-centered.”

In this light, Bush’s concept of a war against terrorism is both archaic and misconceived. The President’s persistent notion that we must achieve victory in Iraq for our national security, global prestige, and our position as political broker in the Mideast is similarly misconstrued. His vision is short-sighted and disturbingly concrete, as if there will be a finite end to a complex and uncertain problem that a majority of Americans see as an issue lasting for generations.

In his recent formulation of a new strategy, President Bush declared that “victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship.”

While he hedged his sense of victory in Iraq with this disavowal, his self-assured assertion that what is needed to be “successful” in Iraq is to add 21,000 troops to our forces there has met with both skepticism and guffaws. For the sake of our security he claims we cannot allow less than victory. But neither he nor anyone else has any idea of what that might look like. In a conflict so nebulous, intricate and wildly uncertain, the words seem hollow. They echo with false bravado, the symptom of insecurity.

Dr. Justin Frank, a Washington DC psychoanalyst, analyzed the president in “Bush on the Couch.” In this book, Frank traces the roots of the President’s insecurity to a deep seated fear of humiliation that results from feeling like an imposter: As a chronic underachiever, non-reader, and narrow-minded thinker who often takes his ideas from others, he became President despite his unfitness for the job.

For example, his foppish declaration from the deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln on May 2, 2003 that his mission in Iraq had been accomplished was a  public relations gesture that smacked of an attempt to transform his image: from one of incompetence to one of a dynamic commander-in-chief, victorious in war.

In reality, the President’s own insecurity is more dangerous to our national security interests than the loss of Iraq, whatever that might come to mean.

Lou Borgenicht is a Salt Lake City physician.

This article was originally published on January 31, 2007.