The recent rise in the fear of what a President of the United States called the ‘Axis of Evil’ is a general umbrella term. Like an earlier President’s remark about ‘the Empire of Evil’, referring to the Soviet Union, it has wider implications once it circulates through the media.
The evil is envisaged as a threat to all civilized values. It is believed to threaten the State and all aspects of a society, just as witches or Jews or heretics were thought to menace the foundations of Christian morality in the past.
Some think the threat is sufficiently serious to justify the dismantling of the protections for ‘terrorists’. A vast conspiracy is feared and this tends to be fuelled by the moral panic that is whipped up. This movement appeals to those whose power and prestige is enhanced. They may, as with the great witch-hunters of the past, feel a glow of satisfaction and passionately believe that they are protecting their God and their country.
Looking back after the event, as we can now do with witch hunting, we may well come to feel the same about the current panic. People may conclude that the action of the State in countering terrorism is undermining the very values it claims to protect.
Beliefs in Satan, witches and the Axis of Evil are a perpetual, irrefutable, justification for sweeping counter measures. We are used to the temporary and drastic suspension of normal legal protections and processes during a limited war. In the Second World War, for example, suspected aliens were rounded up and imprisoned without trial, all citizens immediately lost many of their rights, freedom of speech was severely curtailed, loyalty to the State became paramount. Serious criticism was discouraged as being close to treason. If you are not fully for us, it was argued, you must be against us. The State was justified in bullying, lying, deceiving, swooping down, spying on anyone. Truth is said to be the first casualty of war; the freedom and rights of individuals are the second.
Afterwards there may be apologies, as there were, for example, to the large numbers of innocent Japanese rounded up and locked away in America after Pearl Harbour. But that is afterwards. War itself usually spells an end to liberty and equality before the law.
Yet wars, at least the typical wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, had one compensation. They tended to be bounded. There was a period of war and civil liberties and the normal processes of law were suspended. But then there was peace and the luxury of freedom could again be afforded by the State and was demanded by a citizenry who had not forgotten its earlier freedoms. People even persuaded themselves that this is what they had been fighting for, even if they had had to abandon the rights and freedoms temporarily.
The ‘Axis of Evil’, whether al-Qua’ida, or the satanic cults of witches, is rather different. This is a world linked to certain tendencies within Christianity and Islam. Those involved on both sides of the struggle believe that there is someone out there who is trying to undermine their way of life and whose motives they cannot fathom. These unseen folk are Evil, whether they are the feared western capitalists or Islamic fundamentalists. They are believed by many to be in league with the Devil.
The defenders of ‘our’ way of life believe that Evil never sleeps, is always plotting, always invisible, irrationally consumed with a desire to destroy ‘our’ rational, sane, orderly, pleasant way of life. It lurks menacingly, ‘reds under the beds’ as the communists were once described, or, to use a more modern metaphor, the ‘monster’ hiding in the wardrobe of the frightened child in ‘Monsters Inc’.
Just as in the past witches were thought to hide behind the outward smiles of neighbours, terrorists are believed by some to conceal themselves as ‘students’ in our universities. Evil will use any weapons, of single or ‘mass’ destruction, curses, the poisoning of wells (a well known technique ascribed to witches and Jews in the past), and pestilences (biological warfare against animals and humans) and plagues of caterpillars or locusts.
There may be temporary victories, but there can be no truce or termination. We must fight continuously, for evil is hydra-headed. Cut off one of its manifestations, for instance the Taliban in Afghanistan, and it will spring up again elsewhere. Worst of all, it is not just an external threat, as are the conventional enemies, the Germans, the French, the British or whoever we were fighting against in the wars between nation-states. The minions of the Evil One are in our midst, or so it is alleged.
We are told that terrorism feeds on envy, in the envy of poor immigrants for their hosts, of impoverished Third World people who cannot accept that the fact that they earn one hundredth of what a westerner in many affluent societies earns is perfectly fair. The poison lurks in the devious practices of people who eat strange foods (not, as was supposed with Jews and witches in the past, babies and other sacrificial victims, but highly spiced and strange substances, or rubbishy fast food), who go through strange rituals (not satanic ones, but worshipping Allah or other Gods), who wear too few clothes (mini skirts) or too many (veils).
Of course there are differences between earlier panics and the present one. Witches, we know, could not actually harm people. A bomb, delivered by whichever side in the battle, kills and maims. The main point, however, is to realize from past experience that it is very easy to get into an almost unending vicious circle of fear. We would do well to remember a line from Edwin Muir’s poem. ‘We have seen Good men made evil wrangling with the evil, Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.’