Arianna Huffington

WMDs and the Psychology of Fanaticism


By all accounts, the behind-the-scenes battle within the Bush administration over just what information should be used, or spun, or hidden, to make the case that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to America and the rest of the world was a knockdown, drag-out fight between the facts and a zealous, highly politicized, “who needs proof?” mindset. And, at the end of the day, the truth was left writhing on the floor.

Hey, why let the facts get in the way of a perfectly good war?

This pathological pattern of disregarding inconvenient reality is not just troubling—it’s deadly. And it’s threatening to drag us into a Sisyphean struggle against evildoers in Syria, Iran, North Korea, or whatever locale Karl Rove thinks would best advance “Operation Avoid 41’s Fate.”

Since I’m not a psychiatrist, I consulted the work of various experts in the field in order to get a better understanding of the fanatical mindset that is driving the Bush administration’s agenda—and scaring the living daylights out of a growing number of observers.

Dr. Norman Doidge, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, has identified among the telltale symptoms of fanatics: an intolerance of dissent, a doctrine that is riddled with contradictions, the belief that one’s cause has been blessed or even commanded by God, and the use of reinforcement techniques such as repetition to spread one’s message.

Sound like anyone you know? George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle… come on down!

According to Doidge, one of the essential features of fanatics is their certainty that not only is their cause good “but that it is the only good, an absolute good.” Or as President Bush famously declared: “There is no in-between, as far as I’m concerned. Either you’re with us, or you’re against us.”

This absolute intolerance of dissent, says Doidge, often extends beyond the fanatics’ enemies—frequently leading to a “campaign of terror” against those within their own ranks. If you’re wondering what this has to do with the Bush administration, you might want to give a call to Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and George Voinovich.

After having the temerity to question the wisdom of the president’s massive tax cut plan, the senatorial pair became the targets of withering TV attack ads, sponsored by allies of the White House, that portrayed them as “so-called Republicans” and compared their opposition to the latest round of tax cuts to France’s opposition to the war in Iraq. It was a Night of the Long Knives, GOP-style.

Another crucial element of a fanatic’s faith, according to Professor Dixon Sutherland, who teaches religion at Stetson University, is that he “sees himself as acting for God… You have a circular logic that is very powerful that combines God’s authority—through the Bible—with a messenger who carries out that authority.”

Tom DeLay, for example, saw the 2000 election as a choice between a “biblical worldview” and the worldview of “humanism, materialism, sexism, naturalism, post-modernism, or any of the other -isms.” And the Republican Party, of course, represented the biblical worldview, God, and all things good.

Gustav le Bon, a social scientist known for his crowd psychology theories, has stressed the importance of repetition as a weapon in the fanatic’s arsenal. Repetition breeds blind acceptance and contagion.

“Ideas, sentiments, emotions, and beliefs,” writes le Bon, “possess in crowds a contagious power as intense as that of microbes.” As James Moore, co-author of Bush’s Brain, says, “If the president says it over and over enough, people will believe it, just as Karl Rove got him to say over and over that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11.”

The technique was so successful that a poll taken by the Pew Center in 2002 showed that 66 percent of Americans believed that Hussein and bin Laden were both behind the attacks. In the words of that giant banner that Rove had placed behind the president following his Top Gun landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln: “Mission Accomplished.”

Wonder why the WMDs are MIA? The answer may lie in the DSM—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I know it can sound a bit cheap to call people you disagree with nuts, which is why I refer you to the psychiatric literature. And keep an open mind, something the Bushies stopped doing a long time ago. n

Arianna Huffington is the author of Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption are Undermining America.