Tag Archives: Dr No

Licensed to Kill

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

Nothing could be more formulaic than a James Bond film – unless we descend still further to the Popeye cartoon.  As it is the Popeye plot that provides the basic framework for this whole style of Hollywood entertainment, let’s look at that plot for a moment.

Always (despite what happened the day before), our hero Popeye and his beloved, Olive Oyl, have no thought of violence as they set out upon their daily idyll – a visit to the beach or mountain perhaps.  Yet out of nowhere appears the enormous Bluto, who beats Popeye senseless and heads off with the protesting female.

At this juncture, an entirely coincidental saving event occurs – contact between Popeye’s failing digestive system and the contents of a can of spinach.  Immediately our hero is restored to redemptive health and strength.  He heads off to rescue Olive, and in the process sends Bluto in a cathartic parabola towards the horizon.  The End.

Only for today, of course.  The success of the formula dictates that Bluto must be even more mysteriously restored for the sequel that will always follow.

Bluto’s epic size and malevolence are essential to the plot – for otherwise Popeye would have no excuse for the violence he must eventually use.  Similarly, Popeye cannot begin the day with a breakfast of spinach – as this would prevent him from suffering victimhood and even imply calculation and foreknowledge (especially if Olive Oyl had cooked it for him).  Everything must be rigged to create the complete moral imbalance that will give Popeye his licence to use maximum force.  He doesn’t even work out at the gym.  He is entirely innocent, and Bluto is entirely guilty.  Otherwise there can be no supremely cathartic, violent climax.

Bond films follow essentially the same logic.  A master criminal with global ambitions usually begins the film by dropping a failing henchman into a tank full of piranha fish, sharks, or crocodiles.  This establishes his Bluto credentials – and so does the unleashing of a world-threatening enterprise that will trigger the involvement of our hero, James Bond.  The latter, virtually on his own, will soon encounter the master criminal, as well as some supremely nubile and vulnerable female.  Both will suffer various trials and torments, until some gadget allows Bond to turn the tables (the spinach factor).  For some unaccountable reason the master criminal will never kill Bond at the first opportunity – but suavely entrust him to a stupid henchman or a lock-up with a large air-vent.

The films end always in a vast investment in stuntmen, catapulted corpses and explosions – and subsequent pneumatic bliss for Bond.  Our master criminal may either be annihilated or saved to conspire another day.  It matters little.  Master criminals are bankable resources – so hack Hollywood writers will work like hospital casualty teams to bring this Bluto, or another, back another day.

Clearly, the Bluto theory of life is commercially viable – as the Bond films have reaped more than $8 billion since the first one, Doctor No, in 1962.  The hugely profitable Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series are also basically Popeye films – as is the ‘Alien’ series in the Science Fiction genre, and Independence Day.  Mass entertainment is hugely indebted to the simple notion that world-threatening, (and female-threatening), malevolence is always out there somewhere – so we must logically be licensed to kill.

Walter Wink in Engaging the Powers has brilliantly pointed out that the Popeye plot predates Hollywood by many centuries.  It is in fact the core of the Enuma Elish – the Babylonian creation myth.  In this, Tiamat, mother of the Gods, sets out to kill her children, the supposedly lesser Gods.  One of these, Marduk, is licensed by the others to prevent this.  He kills and dismembers her – and she becomes the various parts of the material universe.

The essence of the tale is the overwhelming justification for Marduk’s violence – which is wholly just and necessary.  He too, although supremely violent, is innocent.  As he was the Christ figure for the Babylonians, he justified the rapacity of ancient Babylon itself – which included, of course, the enslavement of the people of Israel.

Their Genesis story may well have been written in response to the Enuma Elish.  Its account of the origins of human violence is wholly different: far from originating with creation itself it lies in competing human desire for the same object – the Cain and Abel story.  The geo-politics of the ancient world centred around competition for the fertile river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia.  Those of today centre around oil, in the very same region.  Otherwise little has changed

How far is George Bush from an appreciation of the difference in the Babylonian and Biblical accounts of the origins of violence? On November 3rd a US-owned Predator drone in Yemen fired a deadly missile, destroying a car and six occupants – one of whom was supposedly a high-ranking Al Q’aeda member.  As the US mid-term congressional elections proved the same day, ‘9/11’ has most potently revitalised the Popeye plot as a text for the restoration of the Bush dynasty, with Bin Laden & Saddam Hussein alternating in the Bluto role.  The handlers of the younger Bush have exploited that opportunity to the hilt.  Hollywood keeps in step by giving us yet another Bond film.

Only three years ago, the Bond formula appeared to have been played out.  Media wits suggested in 1999 that the next Bond film should be entitled ‘Enough is Enough’.  Now Al Q’aeda has dusted off the Marduk legend – and the elevation of the Irish actor Pierce Brosnan to megastar status in the years ahead seems likely.  If we in Ireland take the same innocent pleasure in this that we did when John Ford made The Quiet Man, we will have wasted much time (half a century exactly) in learning nothing about the world.

Meanwhile of course, Bin Laden tells exactly the same Popeye-Bond yarn to the Arab world, but casting America in the master-criminal role, and himself as James Bond (or the medieval Islamic equivalent, Saladin).  If he has indeed survived Afghanistan we are only midway through the film – and haven’t seen anything yet in the way of explosions and cartwheeling bodies.

Is George Bush a good or an evil man?  The pundits argue endlessly, when the answer is obviously: Yes.  George Bush is a good and an evil man.  He is endowed with impregnable innocence by the Christian fundamentalism that has incorporated the essence of the Marduk legend into mainstream US Christian thought (we must have, and we alone can be trusted with, a license to kill).  He is also evil in being so deliberately enveloped in self-righteousness that he cannot step into the shoes of a Palestinian or Egyptian or Saudi or Chechen idealist and see how easily he and America become therefore, in their stupefying lack of empathic intelligence and awesome military power, the Bluto of someone else’s nightmare.

The truth is that Genesis is absolutely right.  We humans compete – and it is out of this competition that violence arises, because the elevation of the winner is always, and simultaneously, the abasement of the loser.  The Marduk legend was concocted, and is endlessly retold, merely to justify the violence and the victory of the stronger.  US emergence as sole superpower in 1989 was for many Islamic people their abasement, as it signalled not only the defeat of the Palestinian cause but a single globalised economic system with them, usually, and probably forever, on the outside.

As a durable global peace depends not upon the always unsuccessful expulsion of Bluto, but upon the exposure of the Tiamat/Bluto lie, it follows that Christian education must rapidly understand the application of ancient myth to modern culture and global politics.  It simply isn’t good enough that Christian children in Ireland may well exalt Pierce Brosnan as a role model, when he personifies and exalts a deadly ethic – one that now grips the world in a vice – to buttress a basically commercial and militaristic agenda, and an unjust world.

As long as we humans insist upon having a licence to kill we will go on narrating history as the Marduk legend in Popeye/Bondian terms – interminably rigging the story to justify our own murderous intent (‘republicans’ and ‘loyalists’ please note).  So long as the ‘Christian’ west cannot separate itself clearly from that intent, and that myth, so long will it continue to misinterpret its own basic texts and to betray the humble and pacific God it hypocritically exalts.

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Rehabilitating Satan

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 2001

Since the 18th century Enlightenment, western modernity has ridiculed the notion of an intelligent power of evil separable from us yet bent upon our destruction, and has optimistically trusted in the power of reason to deliver Utopia. Post modernism has lost confidence in reason and banished all optimism, but remains closed to any spiritual dimension. Both God and Satan remain banished from the media discourse of most of those who seriously debate human affairs – including the question of where the world may be going. Even Christian theologians, although defensive of God, seem often slightly embarrassed by the question of Satan – as though he were a kind of demented and distant relation with obscure and unmentionable, and maybe even absurd, criminal tendencies who is best forgotten.

The fact that Hollywood has enthusiastically adopted this embarrassing relative doesn’t help matters. As lascivious progenitor of a human Antichrist bent upon world domination he becomes merely ridiculous – even more so than Dracula, Dr No or Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Yet the pervasiveness of evil in our time – never more horrifically demonstrated than on September 11th, 2001 – defies our expertise, and whatever optimism we can still muster. The West’s technological sophistication – quite capable of ending global deprivation – was turned against it with terrifying effect. America, ‘land of the free’, was attacked as though it was a global tyranny to be fought by the most merciless of means.

‘Diabolical’ we may say – at a loss for words of sufficient force – even while knowing that it is the demonisation of America by militant Islam that explains that day. That is, when we humans decide that any physical entity is ‘the root of all evil’, we will justify any means to destroy it – and that attempt becomes itself an archetype of evil. Nazism justified the Shoa in precisely the same way – ‘international Jewry’ had supposedly conspired against and humiliated Germany during and after World War 1, so its destruction was a holy duty. Yet this systematic attempt to destroy an entire people became itself the archetypal example of ‘diabolical’ evil in modern times.

Accusation is the essence of the demonisation process – the loading of blame onto a specific human target. If we identify the specifically demonic act as one of accusation we can make use of the insights of René Girard (succinctly presented in a recent post-retirement work *) both to interpret what is happening, and to predict what lies down the road. Girard the anthropologist needs to do no more than minutely describe a repetitive process of mimetic rivalry, accusation, violence and concealment to justify his theories. Christian faith can go beyond this to accuse the spirit of evil, Satan, which lies behind this process, tempting us to accuse one another.

The USA’s finger was within hours of the US catastrophe pointed at Osama bin Laden, catapulting him to world notoriety and, apparently, global Islamic fame. Within a month western high explosive – often with ‘NYPD’ painted on the casing – was ‘rearranging the rubble’ in Afghanistan, and causing much ‘collateral damage’. Soon Osama bin Laden was in turn accusing the USA of being the source of all that is wrong in the Islamic world, and urging Jihad.

What I propose here is simply that mutual demonisation is an inevitable consequence of the banishment of Satan, understood as ‘the accuser’ – the spirit of accusation – from human discourse. That is, if we fail to see the resort to mutual accusation as the imitative demonic process common to protagonists on the brink of conflict, and to stand apart from it, we, almost consciously, join the dance of death. Our common enemy is this spirit of accusation, busy on both sides. Unrecognised it operates freely through us – raising our arm to point in accusation, and to hurry us to arms. And once we use them we will, knowingly now, validate one another’s accusations. Thus Satan the accuser becomes also Satan the destroyer.

“How can Satan drive out Satan?” Jesus asked. Unless the accused is totally alone and powerless, the result of accusation is invariably counter-accusation. We have seen this law survive thirty years of conflict in Northern Ireland, perfectly intact. It is the veritable source of human historical inertia, the repetitive resort to violence. It would be catastrophic if this same dynamic were now to polarise the West and Islam.

Of course accusation to be plausible will usually seek, and find, justification for itself. Bin Laden’s direct part in the September 11th atrocity may be hard to prove conclusively in court, but it fits perfectly his openly espoused programme of killing Americans wherever they can be found, and he explicitly approved and exulted in the attack afterwards. Moreover his wealth and energy will inevitably place him somewhere in the paths of some of the perpetrators, and in the weave of events, leading to the disaster.

But the purpose of accusation is more than to apportion blame. It also deflects attention from the accuser – often in a crisis likely to reflect badly upon that accuser. Bin Laden did precisely the same in forecasting US atrocities in Afghanistan as a means of winning support in Pakistan, and of deflecting attention from the appalling scale and manner of death in Washington and New York.

To date I have not heard any US politician ask why the appalling weaknesses in US internal air security, spotted by the plotters probably as early as 1996, were not eliminated by those charged with this responsibility by the Washington administrations of both Bill Clinton and George Bush. Could the reason be that both of the great American political parties have been catastrophically remiss – for purely wealth-driven reasons? And when the plight of the Palestinians is raised as a cause of Islamic fundamentalist wrath, the hawkish response is to allege that some kind of moral equivalence is being argued. To placate American opinion – severely shocked by this unprecedented blow to its heart – the military hardware they finance through taxation must be put in motion eastwards, even if this does cause further havoc among the desperately poor of Afghanistan. As I write, Americans wait for some kind of dénouement there in the arrest of Bin Laden – so the deflective power of accusation is still doing its job.

The best of all lessons on the proper Christian approach to accusation is the story of the woman accused of adultery in the Temple, in Jesus’ presence. He did not address the accusation, but the accusers. Accusation deflects attention and focuses anger elsewhere by implying a moral imbalance between accuser and accused. Not only is the accused guilty, the accuser is also innocent. The scapegoating violence that normally followed such a charge was intended to envelop Jesus also – either in complicity or opposition. His direct appeal to the self-knowledge of the accusers – and to their knowledge of one another – prevented the throwing of the initial and always fatal stone.

To allude to Satan then in this context is to point to the power of the spirit of accusation in unifying one community against another. Evils exist both in a seriously sick western culture that threatens an unmodernised Islam, and in an Islamic fundamentalism that naively scapegoats America – and these must both be addressed.

When addressing the problems of the west – especially an unbounded and glorified consumerism that unbalances the world and threatens its environment – we may be temped to resort to the accusatory word ‘greed’, especially in relation to America. Yet the Bible does not make this accusation. Again it places the blame for all our weaknesses upon a spiritual entity that tempts us, without being an essential part of us. ‘You shall be as Gods!’ – this is the original temptation: to forsake the obscurity and dependence of the creature for the glory and power of the creator. To say ‘yes’ to this temptation is to admit the spirit of material dissatisfaction and ambition – the very core of Western economic dynamism and military power.

When the artist known as Madonna can assert that she will continue her career until she is ‘better known than God’, she unwittingly validates completely this biblical diagnosis of what is wrong with all of us. Our self-regard depends more and more upon the degree to which we suppose we are regarded by others – and this is the root source of our acquisitiveness. Possessions are the social symbols of success, of ‘worth’, and money the means by which these symbols are to be acquired. Celebrity is the final seal: ‘I am known by millions, therefore I exist’.

The Enlightenment was therefore entirely wrong in supposing that the concepts of sin and Satan are an indictment of humankind. Instead they are a means by which the perennial evils we visit upon one another are explained in terms that deny us the right to accuse one another, and also offer us the means of a full reconciliation, in mutual respect.

Thus when President Bush tells an American audience ‘we are the greatest nation on earth’ we need not say ‘There you are – American arrogance and imperialism!’  We can say instead that in a moment when American self-respect has been seriously damaged the temptation to hyperbole has proved irresistible. And when bin Laden identifies America as the root of all evil we can ask ‘What role, then, does Satan, the tempter, play in your theology?’

And when right and left fall into separate bitter camps over the relative evil of ‘terrorist’ and state violence we can point out that the debate needs to move on – to identify the spirit of self-exculpation and accusation in both camps as the root of the problem. Islamic societies seem to be as easily deflected from the horrors of September 11th as Americans are from the sufferings of Palestinians and other Muslims due to Western failure.

There is no doubt that otherwise we must all seek a violent righteousness – a position of moral unassailability from which we can indict everyone else. We will continue forever demonising one another until we can recognise that the temptation to do so – a temptation that is resistible – affects us all, afflicts us all, but is nevertheless separable from our better selves. And this tempter has the same name in both the Bible and the Quran.

  * I See Satan Fall like Lightning : René Girard (Orbis Books, New York, 2001)

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