James Carroll Puts Bush's
Religious Crusade Against Terrorism Into Historical Context
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
The Crusades are a religiously justified violent campaign against
a whole other civilization ... All of this culminates in the horrible
religious wars of the 17th Century, which were the crucible out of which
democracy was born. The reaction of Enlightenment figures, to the horrors
of these religious wars, was to say religion simply can no longer be
the defining note of the state. Thank goodness, thereís this ingenious
movement to separate the church from the state, so that states guarantee
the religious freedom of individual citizens by remaining religiously
* * *
James Carroll is an author and an Op-Ed columnist with
the Boston Globe. Since 9/11, he has published in that newspaper's
pages a steady stream of thoughtful analyses of what's going on with this
country's foreign policy. Many of those columns are now collected in the
new book, Crusade:
Chronicles of an Unjust War, a BuzzFlash premium.
As James Carroll eloquently explains in the book, when
Bush came out of hiding after the 9/11 crisis to face Americans and a
world audience, his first utterances framed the situation as "war"
and as a "crusade." Bush could have said, instead, that
America would uphold the rule of law and bring renegade terrorists to
justice. But he rejected that interpretation and course of action. He
rejected the law and order framework, and in so doing, he committed us
to an unwinnable, actually mythic contest between good and evil -- a violent
crusade. He set us on a course that repeats the mistakes of his Christian
soldier forebearers of a thousand years ago. Here, we consider history
and the destructive path that is now our "war on terror."
* * *
BuzzFlash: In the introduction to your
you remind us that, shortly after 9/11, George Bush used the term "crusade."
At the time, BuzzFlash also took note of that. It was kind of like an
iceberg that appears momentarily and then quickly is submerged beneath
the sea. And yet you took great note of it and the symbolic importance
and what it probably really meant. What did he say and why did you think
that was so important?
James Carroll: Well, as I recall, his comment was somewhat
offhand. The exact phrase which I cite in Crusade
is "This crusade, this war on terrorism." To me, that was almost
as revealing as if he had deliberately conjured the word. My assumption
is that, in his conscious mind, he used the word "crusade" there
as a synonym for struggle. My assumption is that he didnít have a conscious
historical reference. I donít think thatís the way he thinks, from all
we know of his train of thought.
But nevertheless, for me, thatís even more significant,
because the way the word "crusade" is embedded in the English
language is a hint of how deep this historical catastrophe goes in the
DNA of our culture. Itís a little bit like the word "cabal,"
which is a negative word for conspiracy, which comes, of course, from
Kabala. So there are these words in the English language which, if you
look at them twice, point to very problematic moments in history. And
"crusade" is certainly one of those.
BuzzFlash: That word seemed to embody so much, given
his commitment to Christianity, the fact that heís supporting so-called
pro-Christian judges, and the role of the radical right Evangelical movement
in his administration and party. People like Lt. Gen. William Boykin,
deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence have called this, in
essence, a holy war.
James Carroll: Yes, and of course, he wouldnít find it
a negative word. I mean, thereís a major film thatís just been released
that I gather is a celebration of the Crusades ["Kingdom of Heaven"].
In the American and European dominant memory, the Crusades is a positive
event. You have to look at it from the other side to understand how deeply
troubling it was.
BuzzFlash: You write about the the beginning of the Crusades
as a rather dramatic departure for Christianity.
James Carroll: It was. Remember, there were seven or
eight Crusades, depending on how you count, the first beginning in 1096,
and the last in the early 13th Century Ė so over a couple hundred years.
The positive story of the Crusades is that they were chivalrous attempts
to win back for Christian Europe the Holy Land -- the sites of the life
of the story of Jesus, and take them back from the infidel. Of course,
whatís really at work in the Crusades is Europeís desperate response Ė
quite threatened response Ė to the growth of Islam. The Crusades are a
religiously justified violent campaign against a whole other civilization
that defines itself differently. The Crusades are most notable, in my
view, for Christian history, for being the first time the Church formally
defined a work of violence as a source of salvation. You could go to heaven
if you got in the Crusade.
BuzzFlash: And, today, you can go to heaven if you die
in a jihad, so ...
James Carroll: Exactly. Itís the same mentality, the holy war
mentality, which is that the killing of the other is sanctioned by God,
and you're blessed if you die in the act of it Ė as we see expressly articulated
among extremist Muslims today.
But itís actually just an inch below the surface of the
culture of patriotic valor, the way in which we valorize our own war dead.
There is a kind of salvation and redemption offered by the act of dying
in a nationís wars. Itís one of the corruptions of a nationalist ideology,
if you ask me. And thereís a way in which it does really take firm root
in the European imagination with the Crusades Ė dying for the cause. In
those days, it was religiously defined as an act of salvation.
Also just at that time, Christian theology began to define the death of
Jesus in a new way. In 1096, the absolute beginning of the Crusades, the
most important theologian of the day, Saint Anselm, wrote a treatise called
"Why God Became a Man," which was a definition of the death
of Jesus as a sacred act of violence willed by God the father. And thatís
the Christian theology that holds sway today. We saw it on powerful display
with Mel Gibsonís film.
BuzzFlash: You do a wonderful job of weaving back and
forth between the historical Crusades and the history of Christianity,
and this war in Iraq and the war on terrorism. That word, which Bush used,
and then his aides quickly denied that he meant anything by it, really
meant a lot more than perhaps he even understood.
James Carroll: Of course. When that word is translated
into Arabic, the word ďcrusadeĒ in Arabic is rendered literally as ďwar
of the cross.Ē
BuzzFlash: Putting aside what a horrible act of terrorism
9/11 was, I infer from reading your book and from the title of the book,
of an Unjust War, that weíve gotten ourselves into an extension
of the Crusades of Medieval times. Weíve gotten caught up in the same
James Carroll: The war against Islam is a war of one
civilization against another -- as Samuel Huntington articulated so explicitly,
before the war actually broke out, in his "Clash of Civilizations."
That thesis defines Christian, Western, European civilization as besieged,
especially by Islam.
That paranoid, Manichaean mindset has Europe in its grip
in some very powerful ways, and now the United States has joined it. This
21st Century war against Islam is the issue. The war in Iraq is making
America the enemy of Muslims. And radical Muslim movements are on the
upswing because of us. Because of us, not because of the jihadists from
In our lifetimes, Islam has been a dozen different things.
Islam in Indonesia, Islam in India, Islam in Bangladesh -- all very different
from Islam in Saudi Arabia or Iran. Islam in China is very different.
And yet all Muslims have reason now to suspect that theyíve been targeted
in this broad, sweeping war of civilization, articulated by Huntington,
and now really being waged by the Pentagon. Itís a terrible mistake, and
itís going to put its stamp on the 21st Century. Itís a nightmare.
BuzzFlash: You have people throughout the Administration
talking about this war in religious terms. Although it seems that Bush
was advised not to use any language of theology immediately after 9/11,
he did return to it in his various speeches about the war on terrorism,
basically saying ďfor the glory of God.Ē Other people -- as we mentioned,
General Boykin, and even the former administrator, the other day, at a
Catholic college -- have said in essence that this was part of a divine
James Carroll: That is really American, in a way. It
isnít just Bush. Donít forget, there was a solemn national commemoration
immediately after 9/11. It was televised. There was an "ecumenical"
service in the National Cathedral. That, in itself, which, at the time,
no one questioned, was such an act of Christian hegemony! That solemn
ceremony should have been in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall.
Thatís the holy ground that Americans can all claim to be a part of. That
it took place in a Christian cathedral with the iconography of Christ
on the cross all over the place was so wrong.
Imagine those images being broadcast around the world.
It was a fulfillment of exactly what the terrorists had tried to stimulate
by their attack on us. At the time, there was no comment about this. And
there was Jewish and Muslim participation in the Cathedral, which there
shouldnít have been. Non-believers -- Jews, Muslims, Hindus -- should
have all made an issue of it, right on the spot. This solemn commemoration
must not take place in a Christian church.
BuzzFlash: You make the point that the first Crusades
marked a turn in Christianity.
James Carroll: Right.
BuzzFlash: The Crusades were an attempt to seize the
holy ground where Jesus was crucified, but it went from a glorification
of the resurrection as the hope of Christ, to a glorification of the death
of Christ. As you said earlier, it glorified violence because God took
the violence upon himself, as a way of redemption for man. The crucifixion
represents this. This may explain some of the indifference to violence
by the Bush Administration -- the torture at Abu Ghraib, and the continuing
killings in Iraq.
James Carroll: Yes.
BuzzFlash: Perhaps you know the Lancet study in Britain last
year estimated that as many as 100,000 civilians had been killed. And
now sixteen hundred American soldiers. But in Christian theology there
is, in a way, redemption through violence.
James Carroll: Absolutely. And thereís also a prurience
an inch below the surface of all of this. Gibsonís film is revealing.
It was pornographic. The celebration of violence in that film was pornographic.
It was appealing to the prurient. Likewise, an inch below the news coming
from Iraq, there is a very prurient obsession with violence and sex.
The Abu Ghraib scandal was the most clear manifestation
of this. The way in which Americans are invited to imagine the sexual
license that those guards took upon themselves is really quite disturbing.
Thereís a way in which all of this is of a piece -Ė the sexual harassment
in the military is an issue thatís tied to this. Thereís a way in which
the war of men against women is being waged in some awful way here. Can
we ask, why is it that the two people most gravely faulted for the Abu
Ghraib scandal are both women? This poor young woman, for all of her terrible
behavior -- Lynndie England -- and the only high-ranking officer to be
disciplined for Abu Ghraib was a woman. What is going on here? How in
the world does that happen? I would say that all of this is revealing
some very deep-seated psychosis, and itís not unconnected to the Crusades.
This kind of behavior was licensed and sanctioned beginning with the Crusades.
The other large thing to have in mind, of course, is the way in which
the war between Israel and Palestine is at the center of all this, and
the reemergence of Jerusalem as a point of world conflict. All of this
is a reenactment of what happened during the Crusades. The anti-Jewish
pogroms in Europe began in 1096, carried out by Crusaders who were on
their way to attack Muslims. So when Western Christians mobilized against
one enemy, they mobilized against both enemies. Thatís happening now as
BuzzFlash: Those who participated in the Crusades received
indulgences. The Church wiped the slate of sin clean for those
who "joined up," and priests who were alongside the Crusaders
could also offer absolution.
James Carroll: There were spiritual rewards for this
act of war.
BuzzFlash: So you kind of got gold stars on the religious
James Carroll: Thatís one way to put it.
BuzzFlash: These werenít just attempts to regain the
land. These ended up being massive slaughters in many cases.
James Carroll: Itís true. And they were not only slaughters
against Islam. Eventually the crusading spirit becomes omnidirectional.
Soon enough, Latin Christians were attacking Eastern Orthodox Christians.
And then Latin Christians were attacking heretics in their own midst.
So the later Crusades were against the Albegensian Cathars in the south
of France. Because in the crusading time, internal dissent is not allowed
either, and so all of this goes hand in hand with the Patriot Act and
the new emphasis on uniformity in the United States of America.
BuzzFlash: Well, once you begin to create a self-enclosed
world of faith, and you license people to kill for that world view, then
this led to the separation of a northern Protestant Europe versus a southern
Catholic Europe. As youíve just said, if you feel that you need to kill
for your belief, and your Christian belief becomes a little bit different
than the other personís, youíll kill them too.
James Carroll: Thatís exactly right. All of this culminates
in the horrible religious wars of the 17th Century, which were the crucible
out of which democracy is born. The reaction of Enlightenment figures,
to the horrors of these religious wars, was to say religion simply can
no longer be the defining note of the state. Thank goodness, thereís this
ingenious movement to separate the church from the state, so that states
guarantee the religious freedom of individual citizens by remaining religiously
neutral themselves. And of course itís not an accident. This all goes
with the crusading spirit. But that, too, is under siege today.
BuzzFlash: We post a lot of stories on BuzzFlash about
the Bush Administration having basically dropped the ball more times than
we can count on really protecting the United States from terrorism, in
terms of port security, airline security, chemical plant security, nuclear
power plant security, availability of weapons. When they went to Iraq,
they didnít protect the nuclear material that had been stored there under
the UN weapons inspection program. The Bush Administration wasnít particularly
interested in funding to any great extent the disbanding of the old Soviet
nuclear missiles. They overlooked Abdel Qadeer Khan in Pakistan, who was
the person who provided nuclear material to Libya, North Korea and Iran,
among other nations. Pakistan pardoned him and allowed him to keep his
profits from his sales, and the U.S. didnít object.
So when youíre conducting a war thatís based on a world
view that has its basis in a faith that believes in the clash of civilizations
Ė a Christian civilization versus the Islamic infidels -- and the Islamic
side of it sees the Christians as the infidels -- and if thatís the war
youíre waging -Ė is that war going to have different strategic goals than
a war on terrorism?
James Carroll: As Iíve argued from the beginning of this
terrible period, we make a mistake in responding to terrorism with the
rhetoric and language and reference of "war." Terrorism should
be treated as a criminal problem, not a problem of warfare. That doesnít
mean that our response to it doesnít need to be massive, international,
forceful, even violent, but it needs to be a police response, not a war
response. And this is a basic division among people in their response
to the war on terrorism. The terrorists are glorified by declaring them
a national war enemy. And we play right into the script written by Osama
bin Laden, whom we have turned into a mythic figure.
Look whatís happened. This astounding phenomenon, this massive military
power, the United States of America, which spends more on its military
than all the other nations in the world combined, depending on how you
count -- weíre absolutely stymied by an impoverished, well-armed, but
poorly organized group of rag-tag misfits whoíve come together from a
dozen different nations, without any overt structure of command. This
group of people has stymied the United States of America? Thatís what
war has gotten us. Itís unbelievably stupid.
BuzzFlash: And Bush has failed to get his man -Ė he promised
dead or alive -Ė Osama bin Laden. Heís failed to get (if he exists) the
mythical Al-Zarqawi. And he fails to get the anthrax killer.
James Carroll: Of course.
BuzzFlash: The major targets, the terrorist "masterminds,"
seem to be smarter than the White House because theyíre eluding the White
James Carroll: True. We went to war against Afghanistan because
it was a training ground for terrorists. Ironically, now theyíre really
getting good at suicide bombing. Theyíre really getting good at disruption
and mass murder. Have our actions have created hundreds and hundreds more
of these people? Whatever comes, they will spend the rest of their lives
at war with America.
BuzzFlash: Your book is far too eloquent and persuasive
to try to summarize, but, certainly, we feel reconfirmed that what we
have is in essence a clash of civilizations. Your book is not by mistake
Ostensibly, the Bush administration says it is fighting terrorism.
But, really, it has created a different kettle of fish altogether.
James Carroll: Youíre absolutely right. And our children
are going to be dealing with this. Bush has set in place a conflict which
will last for generations. Itís criminal that, in the middle of this terrible
mistake, there was an American election held, and this momentous issue
was not debated.
BuzzFlash: There seems no sense of national
outrage, other than on the Internet and in some of the progressive press.
Just recently, Pat Robertson, who was a supporter of President Bush, said
on national TV that he thought the "activist liberal judges"
were worse than Osama Bin Laden, which is just astonishing. Couple that
with what he and Jerry Falwell had said after 9/11 Ė that basically this
terrorist attack was retribution from God for Americaís sins Ė that is
crusade talk. These are things that Bush accuses the other side of saying,
nonsense like this. And yet weíre hearing it from supporters of Bush,
and it almost goes unnoticed. The media has not been particularly adept
at exposing the mistruths that the Bush Administration used in leading
us into the war into Iraq.
James Carroll: Yes, and I would say neither was the political
opposition. I think one of our big problems is that we lack a political
opposition. It isnít just the press. The Democrats have been feckless,
and you saw it in the Schiavo case Ė the way in which the Democrats refused
to stand up to the Republican abuse of that case. Now, certain things
are unfolding. We see some stiffening of spine around the nomination of
Bolton, which is encouraging. And if the Democrats are successful in stopping
the Bolton nomination, I would hope that would be a turning point and
that Democrats might reclaim their political nerve. Weíll see it, obviously,
in the upcoming appointments and the fights over who is to replace Rehnquist.
So, you know, my simple wish is for a Democratic opposition. There was
no political opposition on this question. There still isnít even now,
which is outrageous.
BuzzFlash: You talk a bit about your father
as a career military officer stationed in the Pentagon. You comment that
now is a time, similar to what Daniel Ellsberg once said, for people of
conscience to stand up and protest what is essentially a dictatorial administration
in terms of policy and foreign policy. And you use your father as an example.
Can you explain what happened during the Vietnam War with your father?
James Carroll: My father was director of the Defense
Intelligence Agency in 1969, its founding director.
BuzzFlash: You said he stood up in protest.
James Carroll: He was one of those who raised questions
about the intelligence claims being put forward in the Nixon administration
about Soviet "first strike" capabilities, which they used as
a justification for the anti-ballistic missile system. My father wasnít
a peace maker by any means. He simply refused to affirm that there was
intelligence to support the Administrationís claims to support nuclear
BuzzFlash: He suffered in terms of his career?
James Carroll: At the end of his career, yes.
BuzzFlash: This is similar to analysts who have resisted
Cheney's efforts, and Bolton's, to force them to modify intelligence to
meet a predetermined goal. As the 2002 "Downing Street memo,"
says, "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
James Carroll: Exactly. The political corruption of intelligence
is an old problem we have. Itís not new with the Bush Administration.
BuzzFlash: As in the case of your father,
weíre not talking about peaceniks or apologists for world power. Weíre
just talking about people who will say that what youíre trying to get
us to say is not the truth.
James Carroll: Thatís what is wrong with our intelligence.
The truth is punished. We certainly see that in recent times.
BuzzFlash: Let's get back to the crusade issue. What
do you see as a way out of the cycle, where we have entered a crusade
against another religion and another culture? It is disguised in the terms
of a struggle for democracy and a struggle for freedom, when itís really
an attack on a different civilization and different religion, and perhaps
even tied into some of the more extreme supporters of Bush who are interested
in end times theory and rapture and that sort of thing. What does the
average American do in a sea of misinformation?
James Carroll: We have a tremendous precedent -- and
this should give us enormous hope and empower us -Ė which is the story
of what happened during the Cold War, when there was also a theological
demonizing of the other, and when military budgets were out of control,
and when we brought the world to the brink of disaster, all based on theological
claims made for America, the innocent, against the Soviet Union, the evil
empire. And that Manichaean nuclear standoff, portrayed as a battle of
good against evil, was dispatched peacefully because of the will of popular
forces on both sides of the Iron Curtain, beginning in 1980 with the Nuclear
You canít underestimate the importance of the Freeze movement
in the United States, and broadly across the world, the anti-bomb movements.
That did have a tremendous effect. It prepared Ronald Reagan to be responsive
when Gorbachev came along. And Gorbachev was able to turn against the
bomb himself because, on his own side of the Iron Curtain, the ground
had been prepared by the so-called democracy movement, beginning with
Solidarity in 1979.
So these great movements of popular resistance actually
had an effect. And it was a basic refusal to demonize the other side.
Even while Ronald Reagan was calling the Soviet Union the evil empire,
there were thousands and thousands of Americans and Europeans reaching
out across the boundary to understand the full humanity of people on the
So thatís what we have to do. Muslims, for example, in the
United States of America, living side by side with other people, are a
tremendous resource for us. You canít demonize Muslims if we live next
door to them. And there are more Muslims in the United States than there
are Episcopalians, and perhaps even Jews. So this notion that Muslims
are only in the east, and this is a clash of civilizations, ignores the
fact that Western civilization now includes many Muslims. So you break
down these boundaries. Just refuse to think in such Manichaean terms.
I think that a lot of people are doing that.
BuzzFlash: James Carroll, thank you for this wonderful
book, and thank you for your time.
James Carroll: You honor me, and I really wish you well
at BuzzFlash. Thank you so much.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
* * *
Crusade: Chronicles of
an Unjust War, James Carroll, A BuzzFlash Premium
CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS, Samuel P. Huntington, 1993
What Activists Can Learn from
the Nuclear Freeze Movement, Lawrence S. Wittner
James Carroll's recent op-ed columns are at :
Bibliography on James Carroll (Brandeis University)