by Emily White

Bush's speechwriters are masters of alarmist rhetoric; they make nightmares for us, nightmares from which we're anxious to be awakened. Think about the "axis of evil," a phrase that evokes a dark machine geared up to pull the West into the underworld. In a time when the enemy is vague and the future of the world is hazy, it helps to make things clear, graphic, and petrifying. So Bush's imagery is biblical, apocalyptic. The State of the Union address in January sounded like something straight out of Job. Describing the torture chambers of Iraq, Bush spoke of "electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues."

Bush is not making this stuff up; these things really happen in Iraq. But mass fear is the goal of this style of speech. When I listen to Bush, I flash back to my Reagan-era adolescence. Like Bush, Reagan was a fearmonger with low IQ scores who had a way with the masses. I still remember my nuclear-winter dreams--hot snowflakes sizzling against my skin. I remember the constant state of mushroom-cloud anxiety. I was sure the end of the world was coming within the next week. Like the Reagan era, this is a scary time to be young.

If Americans stop supporting the war, if they become suspicious of it, Bush's speechmakers will surely ramp up the frightening images. Perhaps they'll treat us to descriptions of melting flesh after a nuclear attack, or of bleeding eyes and ears after a chemical attack. If the poll numbers fall out of Bush's favor, the story of evil will become even more exaggerated.

Of course, Bush isn't manufacturing this diabolical mood out of thin air. On 9/11, he became president of a country that had glimpsed the abyss. In this way his language fits the times. Yet I can't help but wonder if he likes talking about this stuff a little too much--he relishes it with a pervy intensity. The morning after the State of the Union speech, a spooked woman called Dave Ross' KIRO morning radio show. She said the way Bush talked scared her, because he seemed so "into" the descriptions of torture.

Bush's stories work on people like fairy tales. They have clear monsters and a clear moral: Don't resist this war, or something really shitty is going to happen to you. The monsters in Bush's speeches are of the lurking, invisible type: buried chemical weapons in the Iraq desert (at press time we still had not unburied a single one), or the terrorists in the caves of Afghanistan. "Smoke them out of their caves!" Bush used to say in the months after 9/11. The cave was a powerful, dreamlike image, a pitch darkness where one could only see the whites of the evildoers' evil eyes. The only problem was, we never captured the supreme evildoer. Consequently, Bush doesn't refer to this version of hell anymore. The story of the caves didn't pan out. As a fairy tale, it failed miserably.

According to Bush, if the evildoers or the dictators have their way, the future will be another fresh hell. On March 17, he spoke of a sinister danger that may "appear suddenly in our skies and cities," something so big it could "could bring destruction of a kind never before seen on this earth." Bush promises that the war will put an end to this threat and rescue us from being fried to a crisp on the way to work. "We choose to meet that threat now, where it arises," he says reassuringly. Operation Shock and Awe will cast the evil out of the world.

The purpose of propagating an image of hell is to create a desire for heaven. This is the ancient manipulation at the heart of Bush's scare rhetoric. Running through his speeches are promises of paradise and tranquility, a peace only America can bring to the world. Before bombing Iraq, Bush announced, "All the decades of deceit and cruelty have now reached an end.... The day of your liberation is near.... And when the dictator has departed, [Iraqis] can set an example to all the Middle East of a vital and peaceful and self-governing nation." It sounds like a land of milk and honey, like the oldest fairy tale in the Book.

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