Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

IS OSAMA BIN LADEN THE LORD OF THE RINGS?

As I was mining deep in the recesses of www.whitehouse.gov, I unearthed this gem:

Reporter: Does [bin Laden] have political goals? The President: He has got evil goals. And it's hard to think in conventional terms about a man so dominated by evil.

Is Osama bin Laden really the Lord of the Rings?

That question ran through my head for three hours, as I watched a fellowship of brave warriors battle the forces of evil. Was I watching The Lord of the Rings, or network coverage of the war on terrorism?

The villains have no political goals, for only human beings can have political goals. These inhuman forces do evil simply for its own sake. They are the cosmic principle of evil: dark, dark, dark. You dare not think of them in conventional terms, lest you be accused of taking their side.

All that stands between us and this implacable darkness is a small band of ordinary guys doing extraordinary deeds in their unconventional hit-and-run style. Always vastly outnumbered, they never lose a battle and hardly ever a single life. Are they really that good? Or is it just because they embody the cosmic principle of goodness? Their devotion to honor, decency, and each other is exemplary. And they invite us to come back to the theater next Christmas to see them defend the oh-so-white city, where we all hope to live peacefully ever after.

If youíve seen the movie and followed the war news, you can no doubt extend the list of parallels.

This is dead serious. How many dead, in Afghanistan alone, the Pentagon will make sure we never know.

The president's job is to hide the fact that bin Laden does have political goals. He wants U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia, an end to bombing and sanctions in Iraq, and no more U.S. support for Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. More broadly, he wants to curb U.S. influence in the Muslim world.

How many American lives are worth losing, to maintain our powerful influence in the Middle East and throughout the Muslim world? If that became a matter of public debate, the Bush administration and its war might be in real trouble.

So the administration dehumanizes the enemy, casting bin Laden as the dark prince of evil. Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union "the empire of evil." But at least he admitted that the Soviets had a political vision for which they waged cold war. Bush dares not even go that far. He can only call us to a war against Sauron and the evil forces of Mordor, a war with no end in sight. If we believe in his mythic vision, we can not even begin to think about the political issues involved.

The shocking fact is that most Americans do seem to believe in it. Have we watched too many movies pitting pure shining good against the mindless metaphysical principle of evil? Is there a seamless infotainment web stretching from Lord of the Rings to the nightly news?

Or does the immense success of Lord of the Rings and all its imitators point deeper, to the thousands of years that humans have told stories about absolute good fighting absolute evil? The vast Christian lore of God against Devil is only one corner of this much vaster, world-wide legacy of myth and legend -- the same legacy that bin Laden himself draws on so successfully.

So far, at least, the lure of simplistic myth has worked for the Bush administration like a charm. A mere hint that El Qaeda might have political motives sets off panic alarms among the patriotic citizenry. To raise any political question is to think about the enemy in conventional terms; i.e., to treat them as human beings, not inhuman orcs doing Sauronís bidding. That thought would open up too many disturbing doors in the public mind. Easier to call it treason, set the mind at rest, and go to the movies.

This is the peace movementís greatest challenge. As long as the enemy is cast as an inhuman force of cosmic evil, we can not raise public consciousness about alternatives to war. The pro-war forces know that and count on it to keep the war going. We must insist, over and over, in every way we can, as loudly as we can, that the contest is political, not mythic or metaphysical. The victims of this war are dying in the real world, not the Hollywood dream factory.

We can and should condemn the use of violence to gain political ends. We can and should debate the validity of Islamist political principles and goals. Many of us will wholeheartedly oppose them. But first we must help to stop the killing. To do that, we must insist that even the people whose principles and goals we most oppose are human beings, not monsters from Mordor.


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