The Bush Crusade
By James Carroll
At the turn of the millennium, the world was braced for terrible
things. Most "rational" worries were tied to an anticipated computer
glitch, the Y2K problem, and even the most scientifically oriented of
people seemed temporarily at the mercy of powerful mythic forces.
Imagined hobgoblins leapt from hard drives directly into nightmares.
Airlines canceled flights scheduled for the first day of the new year,
citing fears that the computers for the traffic-control system would
not work. The calendar as such had not previously been a source of
dread, but all at once, time itself held a new danger. As the year 2000
approached, I bought bottled water and extra cans of tuna fish. I even
withdrew a large amount of cash from the bank. Friends mocked me, then
admitted to having done similar things. There were no dances-of-death
or outbreaks of flagellant cults, but a millennial fever worthy of
medieval superstition infected the most secular of cultures. Of course,
the mystical date came and went, the computers did fine, airplanes flew
and the world went back to normal.
Then came September 11, 2001, the millennial catastrophe--just a little
late. Airplanes fell from the sky, thousands died and an entirely new
kind of horror gripped the human imagination. Time, too, played its
role, but time as warped by television, which created a global
simultaneity, turning the whole human race into a witness, as the awful
events were endlessly replayed, as if those bodies leaping from the
Twin Towers would never hit the ground. Nightmare in broad daylight.
New York's World Trade Center collapsed not just onto the surrounding
streets but into the hearts of every person with access to CNN.
Hundreds of millions of people instinctively reached out to those they
loved, grateful to be alive. Death had shown itself in a new way. But
if a vast throng experienced the terrible events of 9/11 as one, only
one man, the President of the United States, bore a unique
responsibility for finding a way to respond to them.
George W. Bush plumbed the deepest place in himself, looking for a
simple expression of what the assaults of September 11 required. It was
his role to lead the nation, and the very world. The President, at a
moment of crisis, defines the communal response. A few days after the
assault, George W. Bush did this. Speaking spontaneously, without the
aid of advisers or speechwriters, he put a word on the new American
purpose that both shaped it and gave it meaning. "This crusade," he
said, "this war on terrorism."
Crusade. I remember a momentary feeling of vertigo at the President's
use of that word, the outrageous ineptitude of it. The vertigo lifted,
and what I felt then was fear, sensing not ineptitude but exactitude.
My thoughts went to the elusive Osama bin Laden, how pleased he must
have been, Bush already reading from his script. I am a Roman Catholic
with a feeling for history, and strong regrets, therefore, over what
went wrong in my own tradition once the Crusades were launched.
Contrary to schoolboy romances, Hollywood fantasies and the nostalgia
of royalty, the Crusades were a set of world-historic crimes. I hear
the word with a third ear, alert to its dangers, and I see through its
legends to its warnings. For example, in Iraq "insurgents" have lately
shocked the world by decapitating hostages, turning the most taboo of
acts into a military tactic. But a thousand years ago, Latin crusaders
used the severed heads of Muslim fighters as missiles, catapulting them
over the fortified walls of cities under siege. Taboos fall in total
war, whether crusade or jihad.
For George W. Bush, crusade was an offhand reference. But all the more
powerfully for that, it was an accidental probing of unintended but
nevertheless real meaning. That the President used the word
inadvertently suggests how it expressed his exact truth, an unmasking
of his most deeply felt purpose. Crusade, he said. Later, his
embarrassed aides suggested that he had meant to use the word only as a
synonym for struggle, but Bush's own syntax belied that. He defined
crusade as war. Even offhandedly, he had said exactly what he meant.
Osama bin Laden was already understood to be trying to spark a "clash
of civilizations" that would set the West against the whole House of
Islam. After 9/11, agitated voices on all sides insisted that no such
clash was inevitable. But crusade was a match for jihad, and such words
threatened nothing less than apocalyptic conflict between
irreconcilable cultures. Indeed, the President's reference flashed
through the Arab news media. Its resonance went deeper, even, than the
embarrassed aides expected--and not only among Muslims. After all, the
word refers to a long series of military campaigns, which, taken
together, were the defining event in the shaping of what we call
Western civilization. A coherent set of political, economic, social and
even mythological traditions of the Eurasian continent, from the
British Isles to the far side of Arabia, grew out of the
transformations wrought by the Crusades. And it is far from incidental
still, both that those campaigns were conducted by Christians against
Muslims, and that they, too, were attached to the irrationalities of
If the American President was the person carrying the main burden of
shaping a response to the catastrophe of September 11, his predecessor
in such a grave role, nearly a thousand years earlier, was the Catholic
pope. Seeking to overcome the century-long dislocations of a
postmillennial Christendom, he rallied both its leaders and commoners
with a rousing call to holy war. Muslims were the infidel people who
had taken the Holy Land hundreds of years before. Now, that occupation
was defined as an intolerable blasphemy. The Holy Land must be
redeemed. Within months of the pope's call, 100,000 people had "taken
the cross" to reclaim the Holy Land for Christ. As a proportion of the
population of Europe, a comparable movement today would involve more
than a million people, dropping everything to go to war.
In the name of Jesus, and certain of God's blessing, crusaders launched
what might be called "shock and awe" attacks everywhere they went. In
Jerusalem they savagely slaughtered Muslims and Jews alike--practically
the whole city. Eventually, Latin crusaders would turn on Eastern
Christians, and then on Christian heretics, as blood lust outran the
initial "holy" impulse. That trail of violence scars the earth and
human memory even to this day--especially in the places where the
crusaders wreaked their havoc. And the mental map of the Crusades, with
Jerusalem at the center of the earth, still defines world politics. But
the main point, in relation to Bush's instinctive response to 9/11, is
that those religious invasions and wars of long ago established a
cohesive Western identity precisely in opposition to Islam, an
opposition that survives to this day.
With the Crusades, the violent theology of the killer God came into its
own. To save the world, in this understanding, God willed the violent
death of God's only beloved son. Here is the relevance of that mental
map, for the crusaders were going to war to rescue the site of the
salvific death of Jesus, and they displayed their devotion to the cross
on which Jesus died by wearing it on their breasts. When Bush's remark
was translated into Arabic for broadcast throughout the Middle East,
the word "crusade" was rendered as "war of the cross."
Before the Crusades, Christian theology had given central emphasis to
the resurrection of Jesus, and to the idea of incarnation itself, but
with the war of the cross, the bloody crucifixion began to dominate the
Latin Christian imagination. A theology narrowly focused on the brutal
death of Jesus reinforced the primitive notion that violence can be a
sacred act. The cult of martyrdom, even to the point of suicidal valor,
was institutionalized in the Crusades, and it is not incidental to the
events of 9/11 that a culture of sacred self-destruction took equally
firm hold among Muslims. The suicide-murderers of the World Trade
Center, like the suicide-bombers from the West Bank and Gaza, exploit a
perverse link between the willingness to die for a cause and the
willingness to kill for it. Crusaders, thinking of heaven, honored that
Here is the deeper significance of Bush's inadvertent reference to the
Crusades: Instead of being a last recourse or a necessary evil,
violence was established then as the perfectly appropriate, even
chivalrous, first response to what is wrong in the world. George W.
Bush is a Christian for whom this particular theology lives. While he
identified Jesus as his favorite "political philosopher" when running
for President in 2000, the Jesus of this evangelical President is not
the "turn the other cheek" one. Bush's savior is the Jesus whose cross
is wielded as a sword. George W. Bush, having cheerfully accepted
responsibility for the executions of 152 death-row inmates in Texas,
had already shown himself to be entirely at home with divinely
sanctioned violence. After 9/11, no wonder it defined his deepest urge.
But sacred violence, once unleashed in 1096, as in 2001, had a momentum
of its own. The urgent purpose of war against the "enemy outside"--what
some today call the "clash of civilizations"--led quickly to the
discovery of an "enemy inside." The crusaders, en route from
northwestern Europe to attack the infidel far away, first fell upon, as
they said, "the infidel near at hand"--Jews. For the first time in
Europe, large numbers of Jews were murdered for being Jews. A
crucifixion-obsessed theology saw God as willing the death of Jesus,
but in the bifurcated evangelical imagination, Jews could be blamed for
it, and the offense the crusaders took was mortal.
The same dynamic--war against an enemy outside leading to war against
an enemy inside--can be seen at work today. It is a more complex
dynamic now, with immigrant Muslims and people of Arabic descent coming
under heavy pressure in the West. In Europe, Muslims are routinely
demonized. In America, they are "profiled," even to the point of being
deprived of basic rights. But at the same time, once again, Jews are
targeted. The broad resurgence of anti-Semitism, and the tendency to
scapegoat Israel as the primary source of the new discord, reflect an
old tidal pull. This is true notwithstanding the harsh fact that Ariel
Sharon's government took up the Bush "dead or alive" credo with
enthusiasm and used the "war on terrorism" to fuel self-defeating
overreactions to Palestinian provocations. But some of Israel's critics
fall into the old pattern of measuring Jews against standards to which
no one else is held, not even our President. That the war on terrorism
is the context within which violence in Israel and Jerusalem has
intensified should be no surprise. It wasn't "Israel" then, but
conflict over Jerusalem played exactly such a flashpoint role a
thousand years ago.
The Crusades proved to have other destructive dynamics as well. The
medieval war against Islam, having also targeted Europe's Jews, soon
enough became a war against all forms of cultural and religious
dissent, a war against heresy. As it hadn't been in hundreds of years,
doctrine now became rigidly defined in the Latin West, and those who
did not affirm dominant interpretations -- Cathars, Albigensians,
Eastern Orthodox -- were attacked. Doctrinal uniformity, too, could be
enforced with sacred violence. When the US Attorney General defines
criticism of the Administration in wartime as treason, or when Congress
enacts legislation that justifies the erosion of civil liberties with
appeals to patriotism, they are enacting a Crusades script.
All of this is implicit in the word that President Bush first used,
which came to him as naturally as a baseball reference, to define the
war on terrorism. That such a dark, seething religious history of
sacred violence remains largely unspoken in our world does not defuse
it as an explosive force in the human unconscious. In the world of
Islam, of course, its meaning could not be more explicit, or closer to
consciousness. The full historical and cultural significance of
"crusade" is instantly obvious, which is why a howl of protest from the
Middle East drove Bush into instant verbal retreat. Yet the very
inadvertence of his use of the word is the revelation: Americans do not
know what fire they are playing with. Osama bin Laden, however, knows
all too well, and in his periodic pronouncements, he uses the word
"crusade" to this day, as a flamethrower.
Religious war is the danger here, and it is a graver one than Americans
think. Despite our much-vaunted separation of church and state, America
has always had a quasi-religious understanding of itself, reflected in
the messianism of Puritan founder John Winthrop, the Deist optimism of
Thomas Jefferson, the embrace of redemptive suffering that marked
Abraham Lincoln and, for that matter, the conviction of Eisenhower's
Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, that Communism had to be
opposed on a global scale if only because of its atheism. But never
before has America been brought deeper into a dynamite-wired holy of
holies than in our President's war on terrorism. Despite the post-Iraq
toning down of Washington's rhetoric of empire, and the rejection of
further crusader references -- although Secretary of State Colin Powell
used the word this past March -- Bush's war openly remains a cosmic
battle between nothing less than the transcendent forces of good and
evil. Such a battle is necessarily unlimited and open-ended, and so
justifies radical actions--the abandonment, for example, of established
notions of civic justice at home and of traditional alliances abroad.
A cosmic moral-religious battle justifies, equally, risks of
world-historic proportioned disaster, since the ultimate outcome of
such a conflict is to be measured not by actual consequences on this
earth but by the earth-transcending will of God. Our war on terrorism,
before it is anything else, is thus an imagined conflict, taking place
primarily in a mythic realm beyond history.
In waging such a "war," the enemy is to be engaged everywhere and
nowhere, not just because the actual nihilists who threaten the social
order are faceless and deracinated but because each fanatical
suicide-bomber is only an instance of the transcendent enemy--and so
the other face of us. Each terrorist is, in effect, a sacrament of the
larger reality, which is "terrorism." Instead of perceiving unconnected
centers of inhuman violence--tribal warlords, Mafia chieftains,
nationalist fighters, xenophobic Luddites--President Bush projects the
grandest and most interlocking strategies of conspiracy, belief and
organization. By the canonization of the war on terrorism, petty
nihilists are elevated to the status of world-historic warriors,
exactly the fate they might have wished for. This is why the conflict
readily bleeds from one locus to another--Afghanistan then, Iraq now,
Iran or some other land of evil soon--and why, for that matter, the
targeted enemies are entirely interchangeable -- here Osama bin Laden,
there Saddam Hussein, here the leader of Iran, there of North Korea.
They are all essentially one enemy -- one "axis" -- despite their
differences from one another, or even hatred of one another.
Hard-boiled men and women who may not share Bush's fervent spirituality
can nonetheless support his purpose because, undergirding the new
ideology, there is an authentic global crisis that requires an urgent
response. New technologies are now making it possible for small groups
of nihilists, or even single individuals, to wreak havoc on a scale
unprecedented in history. This is the ultimate "asymmetric threat." The
attacks of 9/11, amplified by the murderous echo of the anthrax mailer,
the as-yet-unapprehended psychopath who sent deadly letters to
journalists and government officials in the weeks after 9/11, put that
new condition on display for all the world to see. Innovations in
physics, biology, chemistry and information technology--and soon,
possibly, in nanotechnology and genetic engineering--have had the
unforeseen effect of threatening to put in a few hands the destructive
power that, in former times, could be exercised only by sizable armies.
This is the real condition to which the Bush Administration is
responding. The problem is actual, if not yet fully present.
So, to put the best face on the Bush agenda (leaving aside questions of
oil, global market control and economic or military hegemony), a humane
project of antiproliferation can be seen at its core. Yet a nation that
was trying to promote the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,
especially nuclear weapons, would behave precisely as the Bush
Administration has behaved over the past three years. The Pentagon's
chest-thumping concept of "full spectrum dominance" itself motivates
other nations to seek sources of countervailing power, and when the
United States actually goes to war to impose its widely disputed notion
of order on some states, but not others, nations -- friendly as well as
unfriendly -- find themselves with an urgent reason to acquire some
means of deterring such intervention.
The odd and tragic thing is that the world before Bush was actually
nearing consensus on how to manage the problem of the proliferation of
weapons of mass destruction, and had begun to put in place promising
structures designed to prevent such spread. Centrally embodied in the
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, which had successfully and
amazingly kept the number of nuclear powers, actual as well as
admitted, relatively low, that consensus gave primacy to treaty
obligations, international cooperation and a serious commitment by
existing nuclear powers to move toward ultimate nuclear abolition. All
of that has been trashed by Bush. "International law?" he smirked in
December 2003. "I better call my lawyer."
Now indications are that nations all over the globe -- Japan, Saudi
Arabia, Argentina, Brazil, Australia -- have begun re-evaluating their
rejections of nukes, and some are positively rushing to acquire them.
Iran and North Korea are likely to be only the tip of this radioactive
iceberg. Nuclear-armed Pakistan and India are a grim forecast of the
future on every continent. And the Bush Administration -- by declaring
its own nuclear arsenal permanent, by threatening nuclear first-strikes
against other nations, by "warehousing" treaty-defused warheads instead
of destroying them, by developing a new line of "usable" nukes, by
moving to weaponize the "high frontier" of outer space, by doing little
to help Russia get rid of its rotting nuclear stockpile, by embracing
"preventive war" -- is enabling this trend instead of discouraging it.
How can this be?
The problem has its roots in a long-term American forgetfulness, going
back to the acid fog in which the United States ended World War II.
There was never a complete moral reckoning with the harsh momentum of
that conflict's denouement -- how American leaders embraced a strategy
of terror bombing, slaughtering whole urban populations, and how,
finally, they ushered in the atomic age with the attacks on Hiroshima
and Nagasaki. Scholars have debated those questions, but politicians
have avoided them, and most citizens have pretended they aren't really
questions at all. America's enduring assumptions about its own moral
supremacy, its own altruism, its own exceptionalism, have hardly been
punctured by consideration of the possibility that we, too, are capable
of grave mistakes, terrible crimes. Such awareness, drawn from a fuller
reckoning with days gone by -- with August 6 and 9, 1945, above all --
would inhibit America's present claim to moral grandeur, which is
simultaneously a claim, of course, to economic and political
grandiosity. The indispensable nation must dispense with what went
"The past is never dead," William Faulkner said. "It isn't even past."
How Americans remember their country's use of terror bombing affects
how they think of terrorism; how they remember the first use of nuclear
weapons has profound relevance for how the United States behaves in
relation to nuclear weapons today. If the long American embrace of
nuclear "mutual assured destruction" is unexamined; if the Pentagon's
treaty-violating rejection of the ideal of eventual nuclear abolition
is unquestioned--then the Bush Administration's embrace of nukes as
normal, usable weapons will not seem offensive.
Memory is a political act. Forgetfulness is the handmaiden of tyranny.
The Bush Administration is fully committed to maintaining what the
historian Marc Trachtenberg calls our "nuclear amnesia" even as the
Administration seeks to impose a unilateral structure of control on the
world. As it pursues a world-threatening campaign against other
people's weapons of mass destruction, that is, the Bush Administration
refuses to confront the moral meaning of America's own weapons of mass
destruction, not to mention their viral character, as other nations
seek smaller versions of the American arsenal, if only to deter Bush's
next "preventive" war. The United States' own arsenal, in other words,
remains the primordial cause of the WMD plague.
"Memory," the novelist Paul Auster has written, is "the space in which
a thing happens for the second time." No one wants the terrible events
that came after the rising of the sun on September 11, 2001, to happen
for a second time except in the realm of remembrance, leading to
understanding and commitment. But all the ways George Bush exploited
those events, betraying the memory of those who died in them, must be
lifted up and examined again, so that the outrageousness of his
political purpose can be felt in its fullness. Exactly how the war on
terrorism unfolded; how it bled into the wars against Afghanistan, then
Iraq; how American fears were exacerbated by Administration alarms; how
civil rights were undermined, treaties broken, alliances abandoned,
coarseness embraced--none of this should be forgotten.
Given how they have been so dramatically unfulfilled, Washington's
initial hubristic impulses toward a new imperial dominance should not
be forgotten. That the first purpose of the war--Osama "dead or
alive"--changed when Al Qaeda proved elusive should not be forgotten.
That the early justification for the war against Iraq--Saddam's weapons
of mass destruction--changed when they proved nonexistent should not be
forgotten. That in former times the US government behaved as if facts
mattered, as if evidence informed policy, should not be forgotten. That
Afghanistan and Iraq are a shambles, with thousands dead and hundreds
of thousands at risk from disease, disorder and despair, should not be
forgotten. That a now-disdainful world gave itself in unbridled love to
America on 9/11 should not be forgotten.
Nor, given Bush's reference, should the most relevant fact about the
Crusades be forgotten -- that, on their own terms and notwithstanding
the romance of history, they were, in the end, an overwhelming failure.
The 1096 campaign, the "First Crusade," finally "succeeded" in 1099,
when a remnant army fell upon Jerusalem, slaughtering much of its
population. But armies under Saladin reasserted Islamic control in
1187, and subsequent Crusades never succeeded in re-establishing Latin
dominance in the Holy Land. The reconquista Crusades reclaimed Spain and Portugal for Christian Europe, but in the process destroyed the glorious Iberian convivencia, a high civilization never to be matched below the Pyrenees again.
Meanwhile, intra-Christian crusades, wars against heresy, only made
permanent the East-West split between Latin Catholicism and
"schismatic" Eastern Orthodoxy, and made inevitable the eventual break,
in the Reformation, between a Protestant north and a Catholic south.
The Crusades, one could argue, established basic structures of Western
civilization, while undermining the possibility that their grandest
ideals would ever be realized.
Will such consequences--new global structures of an American imperium,
hollowed-out hopes for a humane and just internationalism--follow in
the train of George W. Bush's crusade? This question will be answered
in smaller part by anonymous, ad hoc armies of on-the-ground human
beings in foreign lands, many of whom will resist Washington to the
death. In larger part, the question will be answered by those
privileged to be citizens of the United States. To us falls the
ultimate power over the American moral and political agenda. As has
never been true of any empire before, because this one is still a
democracy, such power belongs to citizens absolutely. If the power is
ours, so is the responsibility.
© 2005 James Carroll
James Carroll, a columnist for the Boston Globe, is at work on a television documentary based on his bestselling book Constantine's Sword. The above is adapted from the introduction to his new book Crusade, Chronicles of an Unjust War, a collection of his columns since September 11, 2001. This piece was found via Tom Dispatch.