In my lifetime, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Mao, and Castro, have each been labeled a "madman" by one critic or another. More recently, Miloslovic, Qaddafi, Khomeini, and Mugabe have had this diagnosis thrust upon them. And now we find Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and George Bush being referred to as "madmen" by one faction or another, depending upon which side of the battlefield you are on.
Because such depictions are usually reserved for those responsible for the deaths, torture, or other maltreatment of tens of thousands of individuals, the label is not wholly unwarranted. Those who preside over governments during relatively peaceful times are almost never regarded as insane, however delusional they might otherwise be. But when men such as George Bush embark upon a course of action whose principal purpose is to foment war, there is good reason to question the sanity of the proponents of such actions.
On the other hand, confining our focus on the demented state of mind of tyrants and war-lovers is to overlook the more important consideration: the insanity of the state itself. Most of us have so merged our personal identity with the nation-state that we see any major imperfection in the state as a flaw in our own character. This is why it is so distressing to most people to be told that their political system can be just as vicious and butcherous as others. After pointing out to my students how FDR manipulated the Japanese into an attack on Pearl Harbor in order to get America into World War II, I often hear the response "our government wouldn’t do that!" The implication is clear: other governments do all kinds of wicked things, but not ours.
We have been conditioned to believe in the desirability as well as the necessity of political systems. Most of us utter the mindless mantra that government is a "necessary evil," then take comfort in believing that the system established in our country has effectively foreclosed the possibilities of tyranny arising in our land. Americans continue to exalt the Constitution as one of the "wonders" of civilized society, deluding themselves that dividing government into three "branches" has, through some unexplained alchemy, transmuted inherently dangerous and volatile state power into more benign, inert processes.
The reality is that all political systems are, by definition, grounded in a monopoly on the exercise of lawful force, and there is no document, no magical incantation, no external authority to prevent any state system from expanding upon the scope of its power should it, and its supporters, choose to do so. Constitutions may yet abound, out of ritualistic habit, but constitutionalism, as a formal system of limiting state power, has no credibility. The 20th century’s record of constitutionally directed state butcheries and tyrannies has given the lie to this presumed method of restraining the exercise of coercive power. Most people are disinclined to give up their illusions, even though this doctrine — and the belief in a "social contract" from which it derives — has about as much plausibility as the "divine right of kings."
Faith in constitutionalism derives from a failure to understand the basic nature of words: they are subject to interpretation. Words are abstractions and, as such, can never be what they purport to represent. Because most of us equate the word with the thing itself, we are content to believe that writing words on paper — or parchment, to give it added significance — can somehow assure a continued respect for the meaning we attached to such words when we wrote them. But whether we are construing the provisions of a constitution, or seeking the explanation for a line of poetry, words must always be interpreted in order to be understood. The problem we experience with political systems arises from the fact that the effective "meaning" of the words in a constitution is determined by the state itself!
The courts, a branch of the state, have provided a fairly consistent expansion of the allegedly "limited" powers granted to the state, and a restrictive definition of the "rights" it was the announced purpose of this scheme to "protect." Nor does the state feel obliged to exercise its established powers as they have been spelled out. Article I, Section 8 grants to Congress the "power to declare war," but not since December 8, 1941, has the government insisted upon this formality in the conduct of the numerous wars and other military actions it has undertaken.
If the state enjoys a monopoly on the use of force, and there is no device or principle that can restrain the scope of such authority, what would we expect government officials to do with such power? Much what we would expect a group of children to do if a bowl of candy was placed before them: grab as much of it as they can! Their appetites are further nourished by those who would like to have such coercive power employed on behalf of their interests. A feeding frenzy quickly occurs, with various groups crowding and shoving one another for a more favorable position at the government trough.
It should be evident to any thoughtful person that politics mobilizes the most vicious, socially destructive attitudes and practices known to mankind. Lies and deceit, coercion, intimidation, the forcible taking of property, killing, the setting of people and groups against one another, the imprisonment and punishment of individuals, the manipulation and control of the behavior of people and, above all else, the arrogant assumption that such power is "rightfully" exercised by those who possess it and the moral condemnation of those who resist.
The most savage and inhumane of all statist practices is, of course, the conduct of war. But most of us have become so enamored of state power that, ironically, it is this most destructive expression of its nature that is most revered. Conservatives who, a scant two years ago, could have been counted upon to rage against a tax increase, affirmative action, or the enforcement of some code of political correctness, have suddenly become frenzied drum-beaters for war, any war, against whomever their current rulers identify as their enemy! Out comes that most jingoistic expression of state belligerence: the flag, and any who refuse to shout "hurrah!" have been labeled as traitors, appeasers, terrorist-supporters, and even communists!
Recently, an estimated thirty million men and women marched throughout the world in opposition to the Bush administration’s planned war against Iraq. Many of these protestors were Europeans, deriving from a culture that was the cradle of Western civilization. In the eyes of the war-lovers, however, such opposition is unforgivable. While the English poodle, Tony Blair, is unwavering in his bootlicking habits, many — perhaps most — of his countrymen favor peace. So, apparently, do most Scandinavian, French, and German people. The vitriol heaped upon the French and Germans by members of the War Party is, perhaps, the clearest evidence of the obscene character of this administration. Perhaps it is because these nations provided the battleground for two bloody world wars in the 20th century that makes their anti-war sentiments more credible than the caterwauling call to arms coming out of the mouths of those, in Washington, who have never heard a shot fired in anger. Nor have I yet reconciled myself to the spectacle of Jews berating the current German government for not being sufficiently warlike!
To the extent we identify ourselves with the state, we are distressed confronting the destructive and vicious nature of how all governments — including the one under which we live — behave. The state represents the "dark side" of the human character, and so we are disinclined to stare it in the face, out of a fear that we might see something of ourselves reflected back. In an effort to exorcise such attributes from our political system, we project any negative qualities onto others, against whom we then take a morally righteous stance and insist upon punishing them for our inadequacies of character. If the United States has created chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, we will go to war with Iraq for allegedly trying to acquire such weapons for themselves. America will condemn North Korea for having nuclear missiles, even though the United States is the only country in history that has actually used such weapons against civilian populations!
No matter how strong or deserving the criticism of any foreign regime, statists can never allow the censure to rise to the level of an attack upon the idea of the state itself. If the state is to be regarded as an imperative, then the warfare, genocides, torture, and other tyrannical practices can never be allowed to be seen as intrinsic to statism. To allow such a thought to even cross a synapse in the brain is to call all of politics into question. If we venerate the idea of the state, the wholesale slaughter and brutalities practiced even by foreign despots must be explained in terms that do not infect the mindset upon which domestic rule depends. To accomplish such ends, statists resort to the psychological device of "displacement," which involves the transfer of an emotion, such as anger, from the original cause to a substitute one. Displacement is ordinarily resorted to when the source of the anger is considered too dangerous to criticize directly. To condemn politics, systemically, for the horrors perpetrated by various nation-states, might endanger the popular sanction upon which all governments ultimately depend. And so it is that the Hitlers, Stalins, Maos, Pol Pots, and other tyrants, must be marginalized and isolated as aberrations of an otherwise wondrous system. What better way of accomplishing such state-saving ends than to declare them to be "madmen," "crazed lunatics" who managed to get into power by some untoward means?
But it is not madmen who turn states into the brutal systems they are: it is the state itself that mobilizes our "dark side" energies into destructive practices, an end brought about only through our willingness to lose our individuality in the mass-mindedness that is essential to all political systems. In the language of "chaos" theory, the state becomes an "attractor" for the kinds of people who are disposed to use violence and intimidation against others; people who are willing to exploit the sociopathic nature of all political systems. It is not madmen to whom we must look for explanations of the genocides, wars, "terrorist" attacks, and other collective atrocities, but to our perpetuation of insane systems that amass those dark forces that we deny or repress at our peril.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.