Yom Kippur in ancient Jerusalem, two goats were selected and brought to the front of the Temple. One, chosen by lot, was consecrated to God and sacrificed. The other was dedicated to a mysterious figure, Azazel. The high priest laid his hands on the head of this second goat, confessed the sins of Israel, and drove it out into the desert, the haunt of demons. The community was purified by symbolically projecting its misdeeds on to a substitute, which was then expelled from the city to the "other side." \nIt was, perhaps, a primitive way of dealing with communal guilt, but this ritual gave us the word "scapegoat," to describe somebody who is punished for the sins of others. We needed this term, because when something goes wrong human beings have a deep-rooted compulsion to find somebody -- preferably somebody else -- to blame. There was widespread disappointment, for example, that the US's Sept. 11 commission apportioned responsibility for the catastrophe so widely and did not name and shame an individual. It would have been very satisfying to offload our fear and rage on to a single culprit, make him bear the burden of our pain, vilify him publicly and drive him into the political wilderness. \nThe trouble with this type of projection is that it makes all too easy to ignore our own culpability. The worrying growth of childhood obesity, for example, has been laid at the door of advertisers who promote unhealthy food. Certainly advertising has a case to answer, but even more at fault, surely, are parents who feed their children fatty, calorific food and fail to ensure that they get enough exercise. And while cigarette manufacturers must take some responsibility for smoking-related diseases, so must those who persist in a habit known to be lethal. We may not make a ceremony of it these days, but there is still a lot of scapegoating about. \nThe scapegoat ritual was not unique to Israel. When Greek cities of the bronze age were threatened by plague, famine, invasion or internal dissension, they would sometimes project their fear and loathing on to a pharmakos, a sacrificial victim, often a foreigner or a repulsive person. He was garlanded, paraded through the streets, whipped, driven out of town, and possibly burned alive. He had become a polluted object, who epitomized everything that the community feared. His expulsion was a catharsis, a purification that would bring a joyous relief from anxiety and restore public order. We find similar rites in Hittite and Sanskrit texts. \nSome scholars have explained the pharmakos in terms of depth psychology. The scapegoat represents parts of the "shadow side" of the personality, which the conscious self finds difficult to accept and feels compelled to destroy. This could explain why US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair seemed obsessed with former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein after Sept. 11, even though he had no clear links with al-Qaeda or the destruction of the World Trade Center. \nSaddam was an obvious pharmakos, because he was undoubtedly a cruel, repulsive and polluting presence. But for many years he had been the protege of Britain and the US, who armed him and looked the other way when he gassed the Kurds. Saddam became an unwelcome reminder of aspects of western foreign policy that were becoming embarrassing, because our support of such rulers in the Middle East has contributed to our present predicament. Saddam was our demonic alter ego and we needed to purify ourselves from this contamination, cast him out of the family of nations, and demonstrate that he was now our polar opposite. \nThe scapegoat ritual is rooted in a profoundly dualistic worldview. It makes it clear that while the pharmakos is doomed, all those who stand with the community are safe and pure. As Bush put it: "He who is not with us is against us." In moments of crisis and anxiety, people often feel compelled to draw lines in the sand. The wall between the state of Israel and the Palestinian territories on the West Bank is just such a line. As well as being a security fence, it also represents a psychic barrier. The danger is that people come to think that those on the "other side" are irredeemably evil and inhuman. \nThe belief that Saddam's Iraq was somehow beyond the pale probably contributed to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British and American troops. The invasion of Iraq did not bring the catharsis sought by our politicians. Instead of feeling purified by the removal of Saddam, many people in Europe and the US feel polluted by the war and its aftermath. It has not increased our security, but made us more vulnerable to terrorist attack. But instead of learning from the mistakes of the past, it seems that Iran is about to become the new scapegoat in the war against terror. \nThere were other scapegoat rituals in the ancient world that sound bizarre, but which also have fearful resonance today. During a war in the Middle East, India and Europe, an animal would be selected as a pharmakos, dedicated to the gods, decked with garlands and driven to the enemy camp. There it created "anxiety" and "confusion," because it was obviously a sacred object and had uncanny power. In time of plague, an infected animal would be sent over to the enemy as an early weapon of mass destruction. \nA bull that stampeded through enemy ranks would kill and destroy, but also be killed. It had voluntarily sacrificed its life for the people's sake. There are legends of human scapegoats, such as King Codrus of Athens, who went over to the "other side" and destroyed the enemy by allowing them to kill him. Oedipus, who went into voluntary exile to purify his city, is also a pharmakos. Polluted, wracked with guilt, an object of scorn, he was also regarded with near-religious awe for his devotion to his people. \nOne cannot but think of today's suicide bombers, who consecrate themselves as martyrs, voluntarily take on the pollution of murder, go over to the "other side," and bring death and destruction to the enemy. This type of self-sacrifice is far older than Islam. The scapegoat ritual tends to flourish in times of high anxiety like our own. It expresses a dangerous confusion of incompatible but explosive emotions: Fear, hatred, love, a yearning for purity, and contempt for the other. \nIn the west we take pride in our secular rationalism and yet at present we seem caught up in patterns of thought and feeling that are as primitive as those of the terrorists who attack us. If we are to survive the present crisis, we must abandon the scapegoat ethos, which is becoming a habit at home and abroad, does not encourage self-criticism and allows us to project many of our own failings on to others. \nKaren Armstrong is the author of The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism.
ILLUSTRATION: SHEU MING SHONG
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