CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A few years ago my wife and I were privileged to take a barge trip down Germany's Danube River, which is lined with scenic castles. Today they offer stunning vistas from the water, but when they were built they were working military forts. Most of the beautiful stonework was done to provide killing fields to fend off invaders. Since there were so many traps with which to put attackers at a disadvantage, those who would capture a castle (and thus the lucrative fees that castle owners charged vulnerable river cargo ships), would sometimes resort to sieges.
Siege warfare was a nerve-wracking process that required patience on both sides. Well-provisioned castles could hold out for months and both inside and out, the war was reduced to long waits punctuated by occasional sporadic encounters and furtive surprise maneuvers. If there was no outside interference, the winner was the side with the most resources and ability to withstand the nerve-wracking situation. Those subjected to this unrelenting pressure were said to have developed a "siege mentality."
Nowadays the phrase is usually used in a non-warfare context that implies an overreaction to pressure. When two groups continuously and conspicuously vie for power, it is likely that some pundit will accuse one side of developing a siege mentality -- implying a lamentable lack of fortitude, staying power or thick skin. Put another way, "siege mentality" implies paranoia, an irrational fear or anxiety of one's competitors.
Of late, this phrase has been used to describe the president and some in his administration. In this case the phrase is apt in the strong, old sense. Republicans lost the election, but Mr. Obama remains under constant attack by opponents who are -- to put it bluntly -- more interested in tearing him and his party down, than they are in doing what is right for the United States of America.
Looking even further back in history for metaphor, one might refer to two barbaric tribes that eventually brought down the Roman Empire: the Vandals and the Goths. Nowadays we forget these labels identified specific tribal groups. "Goth" today refers to a youth subculture while a "vandal" is one who pointlessly and maliciously damages property.
So, yes, arguments can be made that the administration has reacted to events in ways congruent with a siege mentality. Events in Libya were mischaracterized and covered up; nonprofit tax status was granted more easily to liberal than to conservative (tea party) groups; leaks to the press by government workers have been pursued more often and with greater ferocity, than usual.
But even those who are uneasy with some of the policies of the current administration should be able to see that many -- perhaps most -- Republican Congress members are responding to constituents whose sole aim is to destroy. And surrounding these livid anarchists are a greater number of disgruntled folk who crave spectacle to relieve life's tedium.
"Heck of a job, Brownie" said George W. Bush as New Orleans suffered daily from Katrina with no effective help from FEMA. "I'm from the government and I'm here to help," joked Ronald W. Reagan, who was then head of the very government he mocked. "I will do away with three cabinet departments," averred a presidential candidate (though he could not then identify them). "Our main aim is to make President Obama a one-term president," said the Republican Senate minority leader.
They excel at infighting; they cannot govern.
The likely outcome of the onslaught of "scandals" hysterical opponents of the administration keep fruitlessly catapulting at the castle walls will be a public desensitization that will provide ever thicker armor to the defenders. While this additional armor may help avoid governmental collapse in the short-term, it nevertheless bodes ill. Hubris should never be encouraged.
In principle, of course, political critiquing is to be encouraged, but we must be cautious. If the barbarians do finally overrun the keep, the peasants will suffer. Does it seem overwrought to refer to the American middle class as "peasants"? Perhaps, but if the Republican barbarians do take over ....
Palmer, of Charleston, is a retired marketing and hospitality management professor.