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Eulogizing "America": Bush, Reagan and State Terror

The cowboy image of Reagan and Bush gives comfort to white folks that cling to a romanticized patriarchal, racist and imperialist "American" past, when 'civilized' men 'protected' their women by keeping them domesticated and conquering 'savages' as they expanded the borders of the 'homeland'.
Brian Klocke

Terror and the State

We who are concerned about social justice have many things we need to mourn for and grieve over but the recent death of Ronald Reagan is not one of them. The significant lasting terror of 9-11 is not the threat of 'asymmetric' groups like Al Qaeda that do not have massive armies. Rather it is the repressive terror of states that use our fear of an external 'other' and a dramatic spectacle of violence to mask the increasing use of structural violence by the state domestically and internationally.

Image by Mike MosherThe number of civilians killed in the retaliatory bombing of Afghanistan surpassed that of 9-11 and the number of civilians killed so far in the current occupation and war against Iraq nearly quadruples the number killed on 9-11. Even more terrorizing than civilian deaths is the slow death of more than 900,000 Iraqis killed (UN estimates) by 10 years of sanctions imposed by Western nations. This, says the conservative Foreign Affairs journal, is more people murdered than by all "weapons of mass destruction" throughout history.

The English origin of the word terrorism was used to describe the actions of a state under the Jacobins "Reign of Terror" in the 1790s in France that killed about the same number of civilians that the U.S. has killed in Iraq over the last 2 years. Webster's dictionary defines terrorism as the use of force or threats to intimidate, especially as a political policy. The official U.S. state definition of terrorism was introduced by Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, greatly expanding its scope:

The unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

The current Bush administration has kept this definition while more frequently using another that conveniently omits state actors of terrorism:

The term 'terrorism' means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

Creating Subjects

Max Weber defined the state as having a monopoly on the "legitimate" use of violence and Pierre Bourdieu expanded the definition to include a monopoly on the use of symbolic violence. Communications scholar Herbert Schiller notes that, "One of the most tested and effective means of keeping order in the ranks comes from definitional control — the ability to explain, and circulate, the governors' view of reality, local or global." Similarly Louis Althusser argues that the state constructs subjects that follow the ideology constructed by state apparatuses such as the media. Antonio Gramsci explained that the hegemonic power of a state constructs a "common sense" that serves to cloak and protect the power of ruling elites. Having "good", obedient subjects is crucial to modern "democratic" states, for the use of force shifts from being a primary means of social control to a secondary means. Since the nation, as Benedict Anderson says, is an "imagined community" or an artificial construction, a state must use not only coercion, but at times force and even terror to recreate the borders that physically and symbolically define, contain and restrain its subjects. The creation of borders, of good and bad subjects becomes clearer during times of national crises and during electoral contests.

The repressed are not easily fooled so a state must constantly present itself and its leaders as being of and for the people, or in other words in the best interests of the nation. The electoral campaigns and White House PR of Ronald Reagan and George W, Bush have presented them as Washington outsiders, common folk. The image handlers of Reagan and Bush were able to get broadcasted scenes of Reagan and later Bush riding horses in casual and often western wear. Both read speeches that could be understood by someone with an 8th grade reading level. Bush, much more so than Reagan, comes from a long line of wealthy families with strong political connections.

American Terror

The cowboy image of Reagan and Bush gives comfort to white folks that cling to a romanticized patriarchal, racist and imperialist "American" past, when 'civilized' men 'protected' their women by keeping them domesticated and conquering 'savages' as they expanded the borders of the 'homeland'. The "savage frontier" myth that a particular dark barbarian group only understands force, cannot be reasoned with and presents a danger to the homeland became combined with the ideology of "manifest destiny" and "white man's burden" in the foreign policy of the Reagan and Reagan re-incarnated (Bush) administrations. The ideology of manifest destiny and white man's burden creates a belief that 'we' are a nation chosen by God and history to rid evil from the world and to extend our goodness and our superior culture (freedom and capitalism) to the rest of the world, by force if necessary.

Reagan initiated the 'original' "war on terrorism". At its height the Reagan administration vetoed a United Nation's resolution condemning terrorism because it implicitly condemned the state terrorism of colonialism and imperialism by reaffirming, "the inalienable right to self determination and independence of all peoples under colonial and racist regimes and other forms of alien domination [such as occupation]." Reagan-esque state terrorism like Bush's terror of the "War on Terrorism", including the torture of Iraqi prisoners is not defined as terror by the elites but as "self-defense" in the righteous crusade against "terror". The logic is we are good and they are evil, and our evil means justify our good ends. Thus Reagan called the terrorist Contras of Nicaragua the "moral equivalent of our (America's) founding fathers," and labeled himself a Contra. He also called the Afghan mujahadeen, from which Al Qaeda was birthed, "freedom fighters".

Reincarnating Reagan

At home and abroad, Reagan's reign has created terror in the lives of impoverished and marginalized communities while increasing the power of ruling classes and expanding the coercive and military power of the state. Reagan's body may be dead but his legacy and ideology is embodied in a reincarnation known as George W. Bush, who sees his vision of a mythic patriarchal and racist "America" as the 'hope of humanity'.

Reagan's "crusade for freedom" was to rid the world of communism and Bush's "crusade for freedom" is to rid the world of terrorism. Both wealthy, white, male, Christians have created the largest national deficit and highest military spending in history while drastically cutting back on social services and enacting tax cuts for wealthy corporations and individuals. Both initiated new nuclear development programs and pushed the militarization of space through the "Star Wars" program and its Bush-era sequel. Both also touted the "War on Drugs" abroad and at home and greatly expanded the prison-industrial complex (to disappear 'bad subjects'). Both have supported repressive governments and dictators around the world and massively deregulated health, safety and environmental protections. Both have flagrantly violated international law and supported terrorists.

Yet in the mass media's relentless coverage of Reagan's timely death, the image of Reagan has been transformed from an indictable criminal to a mythic "American" hero. The leading liberal newspaper, the New York Times had a front-page article paying homage to "a graceful and gallant man". Media outlets throughout the nation, as 'good subjects' have emphasized Reagan's optimism and enthusiasm for "America's" future at a time when our true national and global security has perhaps not been worse.

After 9-11, the Bush administration encouraged good subjects to turn their grief into support for an avengeful war. After Reagan's death, the Bush administration has created a national spectacle, a state funeral, and has reincarnated the imagery and ideology of Reagan in its electoral campaign. In their eyes, a good subject follows the rules, a good subject does not doubt that "father knows best" or point out injustices. A good subject believes in the mythical "America". Bush is encouraging "America" to lay "to rest an era of division and self-doubt," — words from his eulogy to Reagan. But we who believe in social justice must question and lay to rest this destructive vision of "America". As 'bad subjects', we must not believe in the creed "my country right or wrong" but in "my country — right its wrongs." May "America" rest for eternity as we continue the struggle for global justice with godspeed.

Brian Klocke is a recent Ph.D. in the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and has taught courses in Gender Studies at CU Boulder.

Copyright © 2004 by Brian Klocke. Image by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.