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Homeland 7 - Evil 5
February 4, 2002
by Pamela Troy

In the televised version of Bush's State of the Union address, the term "homeland" or "homeland security" is used seven times. "Evil" runs a close second, cropping up five different times. This may seem like a picayune observation, but I found the repetition of the words striking as I watched the address, perhaps because I am what some conservatives politely call "out of step" with the current American sensibility. "Homeland" was not a commonly used term in this country until recently and I'm still not accustomed to hearing it.

The following day, I checked out Yahoo News to examine the text of the State of the Union Address. Several choices were offered. One of them was t he actual transcript of the address as we all saw it, and it was there that I came up with the Homeland 7 - Evil 5 count. Another link, however, was a different, possibly earlier version of the same speech, in which "evil" was pronounced only four times and "homeland" only three.

Since my only knowledge of how the State of the Union is written comes from watching The West Wing, this conjured up the image of a right-wing version of Sam Seaborn (played by Mike Gerson) striding through the darkened halls of the White House late one night with - at last! - the final version of the State of the Union. He delivers it to Jed Bartlett (played by George W. Bush) and waits expectantly in the dim office, his eager young face up-lit from the single desk lamp that illuminates the oval office, while the great man peruses the speech.

After a moment, the president looks up at his speechwriter, peering over his reading glasses in that inimitably owlish manner which indicates the onset of either a whimsical disquisition on an obscure academic subject, or a devastating observation that punctures the pretensions of his able but inexperienced staff.

"I don't say 'homeland security' enough," he says.

"Oh," Gerson wilts slightly.

"And you're not clear about my stand on evil. Work on it." He hands it back to his exhausted writer and goes back to his Gameboy.

The result is the speech we heard Tuesday night, in which Bush repeated the terms "homeland" and "homeland security" with the touching enthusiasm of an inarticulate man who's learned a new catchphrase. "We will protect our homeland," he assured us, in a "strategy of homeland security." "Homeland security" will make America a better country. It will "better secure our homeland." It will, he says once again, "protect the homeland." A purpose of his proposed Freedom Corps will be "homeland security." Plainly, this administration is intent on hammering the term "homeland security" so firmly into American parlance that it is mindlessly accepted as a tenet of Americanism along with the flag and Mom's apple pie.

Old fogie that I am, I find the words "Homeland Security" unAmerican. "Homeland" has an exotic ring to it. There's a hint of tribalism, of the mystic, that goes against the traditional U.S. concept of common sense, practical patriotism. It's a word usually associated either with lands grudgingly granted to displaced ethnic groups, or with the baroque, iron-and-blood jingoism of foreign regimes that Americans once invoked as examples of what our ancestors fled.

But then, perhaps that's the point. Ever since September 11, there has been a steady attempt to alter our concept of government and what we, as Americans should expect from it. Concerns about the independence of our press, about attorney-client privilege, habeas corpus are often dismissed or trivialized with the observation that we are in a "new world" that renders these traditions and ideals meaningless or worse. What better way of subtly altering the American consciousness of what their country means than by altering the word Americans use to refer to their country?

Which brings us to the use of the word "evil," a word that quickly puts me on my guard when I hear it used too many times. It's not that I don't believe in the concept of evil. I simply consider the overuse of the term a sign of a dangerously simplistic outlook. In the world of comic books, evil is so clearly defined and so gleefully embraced by its perpetrators that there is are organizations that call themselves things like "The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants." In the real world, the issue of "evil" is immensely more complicated. Even societies and leaders who are almost universally regarded now as "evil" - Germany under Hitler, the Soviet Union under Stalin, Cambodia under Pol Pot - did not regard themselves as such. On the contrary, a characteristic these regimes and men had in common was their conviction they had hit on a sure-fire formula for weeding out evil-doers, and only evil-doers or cowardly weaklings could possibly oppose it.

We are facing an "axis of evil," Bush tells us. Because we are fighting "evil," America must "act" even if "some governments will be timid in the face of terror." Because we are fighting "evil", Bush "will not wait on events," "will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer." If you disagree with this administration's actions taken in the name of "Homeland Security," if you question or object, or demand that we pause and consider before acting, then you are either timid or something worse.

Bush's State of the Union was, at the least, a serious warning to thinking Americans about a simplistic mindset of our president that reduces complex international and possibly even domestic problems to a comic-book battle between "Homeland Security" and "The Axis of Evil." Anybody can say the word "evil." Anybody can spell "evil," write the word "evil" on a wall or into a speech, declare themselves in opposition to evil, and their own actions by definition unevil, so long as it's done in the name of something like "Homeland Security."

Truly being on the side of the angels takes effort in that it requires intelligence, subtlety and the often painful and unsatisfying rejection of double standards. The Bush administration has shown no sign that it's willing to make such an effort. Bush claims to reject the slogan of "if it feels good, do it," but he is, in fact embracing it and demanding that the rest of us embrace it too.

Pamela Troy is a writer who lives in San Francisco.

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