Public Enemy

In wartime, Americans tend to demonize their foes. This time, it's Osama bin Laden we've put in the cross hairs.

October 10, 2001|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

As a charity fund-raiser, a Riviera Beach, Fla., gun dealer is selling $10 posters of Osama bin Laden suitable for the firing range, the concentric target rings rippling from a forehead bull's-eye promising if not victory, at least emotional outlet.

The renegade multimillionaire's bearded, turbaned head stares lately from T-shirts, "WANTED" posters, television and computer screens; a party supply store in McAllen, Texas, proffers "Osama Pinatas" for sale and evisceration. Simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, bin Laden is the latest in a series of villains to have his moment in American preoccupation. Succeeding Khomeini, Kadafi, Noriega and Hussein, bin Laden brings to a new century's war the ancient satisfaction of knowing the enemy's face.

"You have to have a target," says James Gilbert, professor of American history at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Making war against an abstract principle, or for an abstract principle doesn't prepare people to make the kind of sacrifices they need to make."

In a media culture, says Paul Kramer, who teaches American history at the Johns Hopkins University, so much depends on "the government's ability to frame the conflict for a mass audience."

The other day at Camden Yards, Kramer says he saw someone wearing a T-shirt showing bin Laden's face in the cross hairs of a gun sight. Even if it's commonly understood that the adversary is a complex subterranean global terrorist network, says Kramer, "you're not going to find a shadowy network on a T-shirt."

What exactly would that look like? How would you know one if you saw one?

"The very uncertainty of what we're facing makes the personalization that much more important," says Gary Gerstle, a University of Maryland historian who just published American Crucible: Race and Nation in the 20th Century. "Clearly there's a need to focus everything on him [bin Laden] even if we know everything does not flow back to him."

That the focus in this case is a bearded face in a turban only affirms its usefulness as an image of enmity, of an Other who can more easily be demonized. There's a history of personalizing the adversary in wartime, and it suggests that race plays a significant role.

From the Spanish-American War to World War II, the adversary's ethnicity became a defining element of his image in cartoons, posters and written polemics.

The Spaniards became barbaric pirates, trailing a history of the Inquisition and cruel colonialism. In World War I, the Germans were the brutalizing "Hun," depicted on one enlistment poster as a club-wielding ape carrying off a white woman. Little if any distinction was made between the German people and the Kaiser.

By World War II, says Gerstle, German-Americans had become assimilated into the national culture; the war was generally not presented as a conflict with the German people. Hitler was a clearly identifiable enemy, but the most virulent war propaganda was directed at the racial Other, the Japanese, who were variously depicted as monkeys, apes and vermin. A cartoon in a U.S. Marine monthly magazine showed an insect with an Asian cast to its features, identified as "Louseous Japanicas: The first serious outbreak of this lice epidemic was officially noted on Dec. 7, 1941, at Honolulu ... "

The Japanese might be described as subhuman or superhuman, but never as simply human.

The matter of personifying the enemy on the home front became more complicated during the Cold War. The Civil Rights movement and the increasing diversity of American culture have made it difficult to advance blatant racial stereotypes, even during wartime. How to blatantly identify an Other in a nation of Others?

American servicemen in Vietnam had their racial slurs for their adversaries, but the government and the media could not use the same vocabulary, especially as our allies and our adversaries were ethnically alike.

In a broader sense, Communism as an adversary never presented a single dominant face, but a series of faces, none of which ever seemed to arouse the kind of fury directed against the Japanese in World War II.

Joseph Stalin would hardly do, as he had been our World War II ally. Nikita Khrushchev said, "We will bury you," but his face never wound up on a gun target. Ho Chi Minh never became the poster demon of the Vietnam War. Fidel Castro's image could hardly arouse great fervor outside the exile Cuban community of Miami.

Communism was chilling precisely because of its facelessness, an enemy overseas and living here among us.

Like global terrorism, in that sense, which for the moment has a face.

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