AXIS OF EVIL
Early in the 2012 campaign Mitt Romney questioned whether President Obama’s order to strike against Osama Bin Laden was in fact a bold decision noting that “even Jimmy Carter would have given that order”. That off-the-cuff remark deliberately tapped into the general perception of Carter as largely ineffectual and unassertive. If even Carter would have approved such an attack, no special credit was due Obama.
Romney’s response illustrates the fact that we frequently resort to shorthand in our public conversation, tapping into a lexicon of names and incidents from the past, which are commonly identified with failure, evil, even tragedy. There is, it seems, a ready repository, even when not entirely accurate, from which to draw. Historical memory is uncommonly acute in these instances, though why such unfortunate memories remain embedded in our minds is not entirely clear. Though it’s a stretch to believe that people “Remember the Maine”, doubtless most can identify the Titanic disaster a century ago.
Our survey first takes us beyond our borders where historical examples abound. Whatever the circumstances, referencing Hitler or Stalin is undeniable shorthand for monstrous behavior and evil personified. There are not many shadings either when Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein are mentioned, both considered irredeemable tyrants, enemies of freedom at home and determined antagonists of the United States. Osama Bin Laden, though he led no nation, nevertheless represented an abominable fanatic committed to ceaseless violence under the guise of religious fervor.
Pearl Harbor surely stands for perfidy most heinous. Munich represents a policy most reprehensible and a potent charge of spineless capitulation. Close behind is 9-11, the horrific attack on our homeland that killed thousands and exposed Americans to the painful potential of suicide attacks. The Bay of Pigs also belongs here to remind us of our repeated failures to topple the Castro regime. Linked to it in some ways is the Tet Offensive in Vietnam which, despite actual events on the ground, led Americans to question official assurances that victory was in sight.
Back home we have access to an array of dismal developments. The Great Depression represented a startling challenge to our belief in the inevitability of economic growth and wellbeing. McCarthyism in the 1950s taught us how a demagogue could stampede a society into repressive measures. The Savings and Loan crisis of the late ‘80s was a wake-up call alerting us to the potential for great harm when banks were allowed to operate free of the usual restraints. The same was true of the elaborate pyramid scheme devised by Bernie Madoff who managed for years to escape detection. But then his schemes were dwarfed when the Housing Bubble burst exposing financial flimflam of vast proportions.
Watergate demonstrated the abuses of Presidential power while Monica Lewinsky exposed a president whose personal defects kept him from fully realizing his potential. Natural disasters, generally unavoidable became catastrophic when combined with human failure. Hurricane Katrina revealed the inadequacies of flood control measures while BP’s massive oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico reminded us of the deadly consequences of human error.
Turning from error to violence, the United States has had more than a few shocking outbursts beyond the obviously high profile assassinations of Lincoln, the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. The Oklahoma City Bombing opened a window into the paranoid world of anti-government elements while the Unabomber demonstrated how a disenchanted loner-turned- terrorist could keep an entire society in the grip of fear. Columbine represented mass murder by young people of young people, a horrendous outburst that led Americans to wonder and worry about the violent impulses within the youth culture.
Pearl Harbor, Unabomber, Bay of Pigs, Katrina, Madoff, Watergate, Castro… these people and events have not faded away. Rather, they have become durably evocative, stored in our national memory bank, available for use whenever we wish to alert and warn contemporaries about the darker shades of our past.