American Paranoia: The Fight Against “Evil”
By Alexia Leclerq
American identity has often been associated with American exceptionalism: the belief that the United States is special and superior. This idea of superiority has been a constant pattern in American history that we have seen play out over and over again. President Lincoln said the U.S had a mission to transform the world, President Truman confirmed the U.S’s mission to protect the world from communism, and President Bush declared a war against terrorism. Americans feel like they need to save the world. This feeling of exceptionalism, however, has dire consequences: it creates a paranoia about the other, the unknown, the evil. The overwhelming urge to save the world creates a world that is black and white, and creates heightened irrational thinking, a constant fear that the enemy is infiltrating. This paranoia has also been continual throughout U.S history. The fear of witches during the Salem Witch trial might seem irrational and antiquated, but it appears in our modern day thinking as we create an irrational fear of immigrants and Islam.
In 1653 Cotton Mather, a pastor who played a prominent role in the Salem Witch Trials, wrote a book defending his actions titled The Wonders of the Invisible World. In The Wonders of the Invisible World, Cotton Mather depicts the Puritans as “exceptional,” therefore they have the duty to defeat the devil. The same idea about “exceptionalism” appears in the pilot episode for the ShowTime television series Homeland, a television show about a female CIA officer, Carrie Mathison, who believes that a newly rescued prisoner of war has been turned and is indeed a terrorist. Carrie Mathison embodies the idea of American exceptionalism, believing that she is responsible for protecting the United States from terrorism by fighting the threats and plots that the CIA does not perceive. The Puritans and Carrie believe in the duty to be “superior” and “save the world,” meaning that they must engage in a battle against “evil.” The presence of an evil force creates terror, but beyond terror it creates paranoia. These “evil forces” are associated with deceitfulness, therefore the hero feels the inability to trust anything, believing that the enemy can be anyone and anywhere.
In both The Wonders of the Invisible World and Homeland, a community or character is compelled to “save the world.” Cotton Mather establishes the setting by describing how exceptional and pure the Puritan society that he is a part of is. Mather describes the Puritans as “the Chosen Generation of men” and writes that “New-England was a true Utopia.” Mather is highlighting his belief that the Puritans are superior in God’s eye. Mather then explains that there is a battle between good and evil and the devil has been trying to destroy God and goodness. Mather writes that the devil wants to “persecute us, as the People of God.” This describes the devil’s goal to hurt the Puritans, who are the people of God and represent goodness. Mather situates the Puritans in the middle of an existential war against the devil, with the weight of the world upon the Puritans. There is a sense of urgency because the devil is making its final attempt to take over, so it is crucial for the Puritans to resist. Therefore the Puritans are obligated to accomplish the monumental task of defeating this “ Horrible PLOT against the Country, by WITCHCRAFT…”
The storyline of Homeland is also set up in a similar way as the Puritan society in the sense that there is a very well defined good side and bad side. For the Puritans, it is very clear that the devil represents deception and evil; in Homeland, however, there is more complexity. No community is truly represented as good, but there still a clear distinction between the United States and foreign countries that are associated with the idea of terrorism, or “otherness.” The opening of the pilot episode depicts the chaotic city of Baghdad versus a calm suburban neighborhood in Virginia. Baghdad is associated with unorganized traffic, barbed wire, prisons guards setting up a gallows. The unstable camera work further emphasizes the instability of Baghdad. In contrast, the United States is associated with the calm morning sunrise, well-constructed middle class houses, and the SWAT team with barricades standing in front of the White House. This disparity associates Baghdad with a negative image of chaos and the United States with peace and order, the ideal location to live. This contrast emphasizes the division between us and the others. The United States perceives itself to stand for order and fight against chaos, which is mostly associated with terrorism and non-democratic governments.
Like the Puritans in Mather’s essay, Carrie in Homeland feels the need to save the United States against an evil force. For Carrie, this evil force is the terrorist Abu Nazir. She calls him a “fanatic” and feels that she is the only one that truly understands the threat that Abu Nazir posses. Her belief in exceptionalism, can only exist in the niche constructed by an environment that perceives groups of people as good or bad. There are some nuances in Homeland: Carrie exists within the bureaucratic world and is not only fighting the common foreign enemy but also her colleagues, who are mostly male. Additionally, Carrie is presented as an unreliable character because of her hidden bipolar disorder. But these nuances do not diminish the fact that she lives in a society that views itself as the good guys fighting the bad guys, fostering her belief that she is exceptional.
The belief that the world is black and white and that we as Americans have a duty to fight against the bad guys leads to problematic irrational fears and paranoia. Both Homeland and The Wonders of the Invisible World exemplify that if a group of people or an individual strongly feel the need to save the world from evil, it leads to distrust in everyone and a strong determination to find evidence to prove that there is a plot against the “Us.” Both Carrie and the Puritan society believed that there is a plot against them, and they must do everything possible to prevent the evil side from winning. This irrational fear or obsession with winning against the bad side is translated into everyday beliefs and political views. This paranoia glorifies the “good American” while re-inscribing the Other as evil and has created a popular rhetoric of hate in politics. After all, this fear of others has convinced so many Americans that immigrants, Muslims, and anyone who is different pose a threat to the country with no evidence to support these statements.
We see this exact brand of paranoia playing in politics at the moment. President Trump ran on a campaign that called Mexicans rapist and criminals and continues to fight for the wall at the Texas border. The facts show that illegal immigrants are mostly coming via overstayed visas, that many individuals at the southern border are indeed refugees. The U.S has entangled itself in South American politics and economy and continues to contribute to the instability of many nations, this is because the neoliberal economy demands cheap workers doing hard labor. Despite the statistics, this xenophobic story is still spreading like wildfire among conservative Americans who are emblazoned with a bigoted charge to “save” America from the “other”.
Mather, Cotton, and Increase Mather. The Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New England, to Which Is Added, A Farther Account of the Tryals of the New-England Witches. Amherst Press.
“Pilot” Homeland, season 1, episode 1, Showtime, 2 Oct. 2011.