The Demonization of Saddam Hussein

March 03, 1991|By DIANE WINSTON

Ask most Americans why they supported the Persian Gulf war and the answer will be the same.

Saddam Hussein is evil.

Early rationales for involvement in the conflict -- the defense of Kuwait's sovreignty and the protection of oil reserves -- were quickly subsumed by a more cosmic mission. Mr. Hussein -- vilified for gassing Kurds, massacring civilians and even killing babies -- was a ruthless barbarian who had to be stopped.

Within weeks of the Aug. 2 initiation of Operation Desert Shield, the Iraqi leader embodied evil in the public's mind.

"Saddam Hussein is the devil on two levels," said Suleiman Nyang, a political scientist who is chairman of the African Studies Department at Howard University in Washington, D.C. "To fundamentalists he is the Antichrist setting the stage for Armageddon. To secularists, he is Adolf Hitler."

In the war's aftermath, social commentators are raising questions about the nature of evil in this most recent setting. Some ask how the idea of evil is used to spur patriotism. Others wonder why the fight against evil is such a compelling battle cry. Still others ask about the United States' complicity in creating evil.

Evil, like a rare stone, presents a multi-faceted surface. Each person studying it is caught by a different nuance. A Roman Catholic priest, tracing evil to original sin and the introduction of death and suffering to the world, says it is the absence of God. A philosopher, speaking in secular terms, calls it unnecessary suffering. A psychologist says evil is the projection of our darkest urges onto others. An anthropologist says it is a social construct, making cannibalism and polygamy good in some societies and evil in others.

Experts in various disciplines agree on one thing -- portraying Saddam Hussein as evil helped rally public support and raise troop morale.

"What we have seen going on in the last few months is the demonization of Saddam Hussein," said David Kertzer, an anthropologist at Bowdoin College in Maine. "We see Iraq as one person and that person is totally evil. That justified attacking even when they were ready to pull out.

"This also allows us to kill a lot of people without being overcome by remorse. The Iraqis are faceless. The only face is Saddam -- the face of the devil."

To Sam Keen, a West Coast author whose works draw on theology and psychology, this process of demonizing one's enemy is perennial.

"When people go to war, they characterize the enemy in certain ways," said Mr. Keen, author of "The Faces of the Enemy." "We portray them as anti-God, atheist, barbarian, torturer, rapist and destroyer.

"These images are used in almost every war we can think of. They use them against us and we use them against them. It's like a virus in our bloodstream."

On the Iraqi side, that virus was boosted by Saddam Hussein. Mr. Hussein, who painted President Bush as the demon, also drew on Ayatollah Khomeini's characterization of the United States as "The Great Satan" and on pervasive anti-Western sentiment.

"In the Arab world, the anti-colonial feeling has led to the demonization of the West," said Dr. Nyang. "Saddam called Bush 'Hulagu,' a Mongol conqueror who destroyed Iraq."

For both sides, the other became the "shadow self," a term coined by psychoanalyst Carl Jung to describe the process of projecting one's unconscious virtues and vices onto another.

"Saddam is a real SOB -- he's a cruel, power-hungry man. But he was all these things when we used him against Iran," Mr. Keen explained. "We don't deal with our own complicity in his rise to power or our gluttony in the way we use oil."

Traditionally, in philosophy and theology, the problem of evil begins with an investigation of God's relationship to human beings. Why does a good God allow suffering? Why do people do evil? At what point do bad acts become evil?

Stephen Viccio, chairman of the philosophy department at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore, defines evil as unnecessary suffering. A person does evil when he knows what he does is wrong, intended to do it and could have kept from doing it.

"It's pretty clear Saddam Hussein has done some evil things" Dr. Viccio said. "But we probably haven't been asking ourselves whether we also have done evil things.

"Human beings are collections of thoughts and actions. To know whether Saddam Hussein is evil, you have to know a lot about his thoughts and actions. You could say he has done evil but to say he is evil makes a decision about human nature."

The Rev. Larry Gesy, a Roman Catholic priest, is also wary of judging Mr. Hussein as evil.

"There's no proof of Satan's possession," said Rev. Gesy, pastor of Our Lady of Victory in Arbutus and a Baltimore expert on the satanic. "What he does is evil, but we don't know if he is evil."

Rev. Gesy believes there is a hierarchy of evil and, even though the United States killed and injured Iraqis during the fighting, these actions were justified because of Mr. Hussein's greater evil.

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