James Carroll, author of
In your past books such as
the bestselling Constantine's Sword and National Book
Award-winning memoir An American Requiem, you have
closely examined Catholicism and its affect on your own life.
How has your previous work informed your columns in your new
I never imagined that my
background in religion would become too politically relevant. To
understand the new impulses of the U.S. government under George
W. Bush, it helps to grasp the implicit (and sometime explicit)
religious purpose. This is partly a matter of Bush's good-vs-evil
absolutism, his assumptions about America's vocation as a
special instrument of divine justice, and his belief in the
saving power of violence. These are all themes one sees in a
fundamentalist Christian worldview (like Mel Gibson's). I come
at these questions out of a Catholic tradition, one that is
suspicious of fundamentalism, conscious of the universality of
"sin," and unlikely to attribute special virtue to any nation.
That's not to say that Catholicism does not fall into
triumphalism of its own, but the main thing I bring from my
religious background to political reflection is a sense of the
urgent importance of self-criticism. America has not been a
particularly self-critical nation lately.
Your father was an Air Force
general, while you were an antiwar chaplain. How do you think
your background has affected your viewpoint on the war on
Because I grew up in the
military, coming of age at the height of the Cold War and during
the Vietnam War, the question of war and peace is central to me.
I saw at close hand how, once wars are launched, they always
lead to unintended consequences. My father was obsessed, like
many of his generation, with the dangers of nuclear war. I
learned from him that if human beings don't change the way they
resolve conflicts -- finding non-violent alternatives -- the
world is doomed. That is why my life of war-objection is not a
repudiation of my soldier-father, but a fulfillment of what he
had concluded about his own experience.
Once President George W.
Bush said, "this crusade, this war on terrorism" you began to
devote your Boston Globe columns to chronicling this
shift in American meaning and purpose. Why was that phrase so
It was dangerous mainly for the
way it had to fall on the ears of Muslims and Arabs. To them the
Crusades were yesterday, and they were decidedly a religious
war, waged by the Christian West against the whole house of
Islam. Crusade is a match for Jihad. When a small number of
Islamic extremists, like bin Laden, are seeking to ignite a
religious war with the West, it plays right into their plans to
respond in kind. President Bush, from the very start of the 9-11
crisis, has been playing according to a script written by Osama
bin Laden. When Bush used the word "Crusade" to define his
purpose, his handlers cringed, but our radical Islamic
adversaries rejoiced. Events have shown, of course, that Bush
meant exactly what he said. His war is a crusade.
In several of your columns
you make the startling comparison between Bush's war in Iraq and
the crusade launched by Pope Urban II in 1095. What role has
religion played in the Bush administration?
When the mantra becomes "God
bless America," the question has to be asked, What does God
think of other nations? The tradition of American "exceptionalism"
is an old one, but Bush has consciously brought it to the fore
again, a claim to special favor for America in the eyes of God.
The trouble is that this certainty of religious justification
always leads to trouble -- with America wreaking havoc against
those who are less "blessed" than we are. Tragically, it
underwrites our most violent impulses. In Iraq, we began by
aiming to rid the world of God's enemy, Saddam Hussein. But now
we are at war with a group we call "insurgents." Who are they?
Why are we killing them? Why are they killing us? This war makes
no sense. Yet somehow, like the pope in 1095, we believe that
"God wills it!"
What can we learn from
reading your past columns, which span a defining three and a
half years in American foreign policy?
This book is an inadvertent
record of the changes that swept into American life after 9-11.
We should not forget how we came to this moment -- how, for
example, the Congressional impulse to enact the Patriot Act,
with all that it threatens to do to the Constitutional
tradition, was driven by panic tied to Anthrax attacks. The
government encouraged the idea that the Anthrax attacker was
tied to Al Qaeda. That connection (like Saddam's connection) was
totally non-existent -- yet the fear of it changed America.
There have been a dozen such turning points -- dramatic, but
false -- over the last three years. By returning to what one
American observed at the time, all Americans can remember what
was lost. This is not a polemical exercise -- but simply a walk
through the public record. The United States government has
betrayed its people again and again over the last three years.
By recalling these events and questions in detail -- the details
that shape the columns I wrote, the questions they prompted at
the time -- readers can see our period whole, grasping what is
at stake in the debate going forward.
Do you think religion is
playing a bigger and bigger role in American politics or has it
always affected presidential decisions?
The last time religious
impulses so defined American responses was during the early Cold
War. The so-called Truman Doctrine effectively defined the
conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union is
religious terms, with "Reds" labeled as evil. Communism was
always "godless." Because the U.S. saw itself in an ontological
struggle against a transcendent force for wickedness -- instead
of, say, a normal political contest with an imperialist
adversary -- we found ourselves going everywhere in the world to
oppose the enemy, which was only one thing -- "Communism." Thus,
we failed to see the differences between China and Moscow,
between Mao and Ho Chi Minh, between Stalin and Tito. The result
was terrible wars, a dangerous arms race, a division of the
globe that has impoverished the vast majority of human beings.
Today, "Communism" is no threat, but we are doing something
similar with "terrorism," defining it univocally and
transcendentally -- religiously.
In your epilogue to the
book, you argue that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ
serves as a "big-screen-icon version of George W. Bush's war."
Can you explain this further?
Among the many things to object
to in Mel Gibson's film (its anti-Semitism, its twisting of the
Gospels, etc.) nothing is more to be feared than its celebration
of the connection between God and violence. God is portrayed as
willing the savage violence inflicted upon God's son -- as if
the only way God's offended justice could be satisfied was by
the most extreme shedding of blood in history. This is a strain
in Christian theology that came powerfully into the Church in
the Middle Ages (during the Crusades, in fact), but the Church
has been working hard to leave it behind. Gibson's film is a
throwback -- but so are the policies of the Bush administration.
George W. Bush rushed into war because he implicitly believes in
the purifying power of violence. The same trait underwrote his
readiness to preside over the Texas death machine -- capital
punishment as a kind of human sacrifice that puts the world
aright again. The irony is, of course, that people who claim to
revere the memory of Jesus put his execution at the service of
the new executions of others. If Jesus were alive today, he
would not be in Hollywood or in an executive office: he would be
on death row some place.
What do you think the future
holds if Bush is elected for another term?
President Bush has assaulted
the tradition of civil liberty at home and trashed the
international order abroad. He has violated solemn treaties (the
ABM, the Geneva Accords, etc.) has tossed alliances aside, has
corrupted American intelligence services, handed the reins of
power over to right wing ideologues. He has treated facts as if
they do not matter. He has promulgated a new doctrine of
Preventive War that has turned the United States into an
aggressor nation. He has abused his responsibility as
commander-in-chief by sending young men and women into harm's
way for no good reason. The sacred traditions that have made
America great are at risk. If Bush is re-elected, then
procedures should begin at once aiming toward his impeachment.