I must admit that watching the debate between Bush and Kerry confused me a bit. I was struck by both performances. The press accounts seem to concur that Kerry won and gained more from the debate because he suddenly appeared comfortable, concise and presidential. I was mesmerised, in a kind of perverse fascination by, Bush.
He appeared flustered and irritated at times, for sure, but his direct, strong, simple appeal and absolute confidence was remarkable. He shone in his “We will win” and his “I’m gonna get ’em” moments. It took me back to some remarks by Steve Almond in his KtB feature, The Gospel According to Dubya.
I understand that the events of 9/11 scared our citizens; that we need to protect ourselves, and oppose terrorism. These are, frankly, truisms. What Bush has done is to use 9/11 to mobilize our worst impulses. This was most vividly illustrated in the response of the convention crowd. At any mention of the war in Iraq, they began to boom, U.S.A.! U.S.A.! But the war in Iraq, any war, is not an occasion for celebration. It is an occasion for profound sorrow, an abject failure of humanity.
The public fear instilled by 9/11 (along with the endless terror alerts) has allowed Bush to ignore the most noble of Christ’s teachings, the pleas for mercy and tolerance, and to indulge instead in prophetic grievance. In opposing Islamic fundamentalism, Bush has relied on his own brand of fundamentalism. He has rendered the moral chaos of the world in black and white.
Many find this comforting. It spares us from having to consider why terrorists target us, and how our policies might actually foment hatred. It allows us to believe that affixing a bumper sticker to an SUV is an act of patriotism, or to feel that we are we are receiving the Good News by watching Christ’s life reduced to a slow-motion snuff film.
The crowds that were shouting their indiscriminate approval at the convention were obviously party faithful and the audience that Bush needed to pitch to in the debate had to extend beyond this group. While the faithful’s vision is channelled through Republican or Christian ideology, I suspect there is a broader secular, unaffiliated group to whom this rhetoric also plays well.
Fundamentalism and an apocalyptic viewpoint may be most prevalent amongst born-again Christians and neocon-hawks but I suspect one of the new elements in the political landscape post 9/11 is the growth of a kind of fear based secular fundamentalism.
While secularism calls for religious tolerance – all faiths and non-faiths are welcome citizens of civil society – it does not call for being brought into religious wars between fundamentalist factions. I think that Bush and many of his supporters are engaged in a religous war – us against them – two fundamentalist factions. We must oppose both factions – and go to the real root of the problem: fundamentalism at its core.