The Potomac Sniper

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If you have been watching what passes for television "news," you have undoubtedly become aware that a sociopath is loose in Washington, D.C. He has been moving from one location to another, attacking and killing innocent victims. Whether he is possessed of a perverted sense of self-righteousness, or simply enjoys the feelings of power that come from terrorizing others, is as difficult to determine as is his agenda for future attacks. He apparently has a personal list of target areas for his deadly assaults, but just what his purposes are remain as unclear as trying to fathom when and where he will next attack.

Thus far, the "system" to which most of us have been conditioned to look for protection has been unable to put a stop to this man’s predatory dispositions. To the contrary, Congress recently authorized him to continue his deadly campaign, allowing him to return to one of the sites of his previous attacks, Iraq, for a more prolonged effort.

Is there any fundamental distinction to be drawn between George W. Bush and the "sniper" who has been emulating the president’s style in the suburbs of Washington? Why are so many of us terrified by the handful of killings perpetrated by the sniper, yet embrace the wholesale butcheries of President Bush? Were people to start flying pro-sniper flags from their cars — perhaps depicting someone in the cross-hairs of a rifle, or with a circled target on their chest — most of us would properly condemn such depraved expression. Why, then, do we not think it equally obscene to hoist American flags on the antennas of cars, and cheer on the government-run killings of no-less-innocent men, women, and children in foreign lands?

To answer this question, we must turn our attention to an area many of us are uncomfortable exploring: the unconscious mind. Far more than we care to acknowledge, our actions are influenced by attitudes and dispositions lying beneath our everyday consciousness. We identify ourselves with, and take direction from, various institutions that make up our "ego boundaries." By far, the deadliest entity with which most of us identify ourselves is the "nation state," a system that operates on threats, intimidation, and violence, to command obedience from its subjects.

In order to mobilize our energies on behalf of the state’s purposes, we must first find purpose and meaning in such commitments. To this end, the state presents us with an endless supply of enemies that appear as threats to our existence or well being. Without the specter of dangerous persons, groups, or conditions, most of us would be no more inclined to fight and die for the state than we would for the local Elks Club!

The "threats" that particularly agitate us are those that trigger the "dark side" of our unconscious minds. Each of us shares with other human beings the capacities not only for peaceful, creative, cooperative, virtuous, and loving behavior; but also for such undesirable attributes as dishonesty, violence, hostility, wickedness, and irresponsibility. While we are eager to embrace the more exemplary qualities of our humanness, most of us are distressed contemplating our "dark side."

Even though we lead praiseworthy lives and never resort to unprincipled or vicious behavior, most of us are troubled with the thought that we have the potential for such negative conduct. In an effort to relieve such discomfort, we often resort to the practice of projection, whereby we unconsciously attribute such traits to others. Observing that others may be manifesting the undesired qualities we fear lie within us, we condemn their motives or conduct, and urge decisive action to be taken against them in order to help rid the world of what we silently fear may be our own shortcomings.

Much of the criticism people have to offer of businessmen stems from such unconscious dynamics. Desiring great riches, but having been unable to acquire them, we condemn those who have realized success. We attack the wealthy for their "greed," not being aware that it is our own unsatisfied ambitions for material wealth that we are censuring. In order to help salve our sense of inadequacy, we add to our bill of particulars the charge that their success could only have been achieved by the employment of corrupt methods that we were too "decent" to have used. Ludwig von Mises explored this practice in his work, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality.

But it is in the world of international politics that we see some of the more dangerous expressions of projection. During my lifetime, I was told that America had to go to war against Germany because Hitler desired to "take over the world." Once that war ended, the Soviet Union became the designated enemy for the same reason: it wanted to "take over the world." Even the first George Bush alluded to this rationale for his one-sided "war" against Iraq. With no other major threats around to justify American incursions, it has become evident that American foreign policy has long been grounded in the practice of projection: it has been the United States that has wanted to "take over the world."

You can now see how projection gets tied into our "ego boundary" identities. When we identify our sense of being with an institution — e.g., the state — and later become aware of "dark side" practices engaged in by that entity, we are as desirous of disassociating such unwanted traits from "our" institution as when our individual character is called into question. Projection becomes the tool of unconscious choice for accomplishing this end.

When the United States sends its troops, bombers, and ships throughout the world to attack and kill other people, most Americans refuse to see "their" government as engaging in the suppression or slaughter of innocents: such unprincipled behavior is what other governments do. When America resorts to such methods, it is engaged in "peacekeeping," or the "preservation of order." When Lower Ruritania retaliates for such attacks, it becomes a "terrorist" nation.

As George Bush has made clear with his sandbox logic, the United States represents the forces of "good," while nations that do not abide by American policies are "evil." Bush carried such projection to its furthest absurdities when, shortly after the WTC attacks, he proclaimed the rest of the world as potential "terrorist supporters." "We" represent the forces of "good," while those who oppose "us" in any way are part of the "axis of evil"! Were we not inculcated in this same logic when, as children, we watched movies that helped us learn to identify American Indians as "savages" because they forcibly resisted the efforts of "heroic" U.S. cavalrymen who were trying to slaughter them?

Do you see how ego boundary identification can combine with projection to produce the thinking that allows us to judge similar acts differently on the basis of who is engaged in them? In a television interview, one policeman took offense at the use of the word "sniper" to refer to the Washington suburb killer. He reminded viewers that a "sniper" was a police or military marksman whose killings were part of "law enforcement." The rifleman being sought by the police, he went on, was nothing more than a "murderer." In such ways do we properly condemn the Washington, D.C. sniper, while rewarding government snipers — such as the one who killed Randy Weaver’s wife at Ruby Ridge — who kill on behalf of the state!

The Pentagon and the "terrorist"; the "kamikaze" pilot and the "hero" who throws himself on a grenade to save his buddies; the "defense industry" and the "suicide bomber;" are interconnected and interdependent elements in the syndrome of death and destruction in which most of us eagerly participate. Like the World Series or the Super Bowl, we choose sides and cheer on "our" team. But whereas our sporting interests are acknowledged to be no more than a game from which everyone returns alive, our political attachments have deadly consequences.

If we are to judge the propriety of behavior on the basis of what is done — instead of who is doing it — is it not clear that President Bush’s efforts to target the killing of thousands of innocent men, women, and children in different countries, stands on no higher moral footing than do the predations of a lone suburban killer? Is it not also clear that the threats these men pose to the rest of humanity derive not so much from their particular dispositions, as from our general failure to acknowledge the "dark side" forces that reside within each of us?

Politics has made peace and freedom — and, thus, life itself — increasingly untenable throughout the world. But it is our thinking that has produced this systematic destructiveness, and only a radical change in our thinking can prevent the total collapse of human society. Such a transformation must begin with what J. Krishnamurti identified as "the movement of thought." Only if we become aware of our habits of dividing ourselves from others, and projecting our own shortcomings onto those from whom we have separated, can we begin to withdraw our energies from the destructive processes that keep all of our neighborhoods — be they in the suburbs of Washington or in distant lands — unsafe for life.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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