As a high school freshman, attending a small private prep school, I was one of a number of pranksters. We made the flag disappear from the flagpole. We put goofy hats on the bust of the school patron in the foyer. We organized silent boycotts of the greasy French fries in the lunch room. We dropped books on cue in Latin class.
One day, we went some act of mischief too far, and the headmaster went ballistic at morning assembly. A buzz of anxiety coursed through the school. I forget how, but the damning finger soon pointed to me, and I took the fall. I was summoned to the headmaster's office, where, wielding a stick with grave ceremony ("This hurts me more than it hurts you"), he inflicted multiple blows on my backside.
The memory of the pain I felt has faded, but not the humiliation. In those days, such corporal punishment was not unusual in schools, and "spanking" was ubiquitous in families. It is notable today how such public violence as a method of disciplining children has become taboo, even if children are still shockingly at risk for abuse in private.
But that memory is revealing to me now as an instance of scapegoating, and the lesson it offers in the social use to which designated victims are put. I was not consciously attuned to the sadomasochistic undercurrent of the event, but inwardly I burned with shame to have been so treated, especially by a figure whose authority was absolute.
Yet the most striking aspect of the experience was the sharp contrast between the private mortification I felt at being beaten in such a way and the public respect it earned me. My degradation stood in marked contrast to the new status I found myself occupying in the aftermath of my "strokes," as the blows were called. My schoolmates quietly treated me with an unprecedented deference which, at the time, was mystifying. How could such an experience of shaming lead to what was, in effect, a social promotion?
It was not only that I took the punishment that could have been meted out to a handful of others who went undisciplined. It was also that the headmaster's rage had been mollified, and the communal anguish that had upset the school had been dispelled. The punishment inflicted on me sparked a broad sense of relief, and the gaze with which my mates greeted me was infused with gratitude.
The aftermath of my beating was a period of good feeling in the school. The headmaster's authority had been reinforced, and with it the structure of order. The affectionate bond among us boys was strengthened as well, and even I felt somehow ennobled. Crucial to this outcome was the fact that I had been physically hurt. A mere bawling out would have resulted in no such mystical cohesion.
Now I understand that violence can have this effect across a range of social situations. Indeed, hurt-induced mystical cohesion accounts in large part for why we humans are addicted to turning on each other with weapons. We find an infinite variety of victims, and their suffering serves a social purpose. African-American men subjected with wild disproportionality to the caged violence of prisons. Muslim "terrorists" in torture camps. Enslaved women. Death row. In case after case, threatened authority locates a victim on whom to unload.
Whether the designated object of punishment is guilty (Saddam Hussein, say) or innocent (the American soldiers whose faces we see on the news each night) does not matter. This impulse to salve communal anxiety by inflicting hurt was the defining core of American public life after Sept. 11. It engendered the present war.
Up until the point of his "Mission Accomplished" celebration on that aircraft carrier, President Bush was the self-satisfied headmaster, and Baghdad was the chastened, if mulish, pupil. An ennobled US population was mainly pleased. No more. The war in Iraq is demonstrably mistaken by now, and American authority has self-destructed. Shame abounds.
In deciding what to do next, we should not compound the mistake by pretending any longer that the adventure was ever rational, just, or any more purposeful than taking a stick to a child in a fit of rage.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2008 The Boston Globe