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Arts and Letters

Killing History


Killing Lincoln
Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Henry Holt, pp.416, $9.99

Killing Kennedy
Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Henry Holt, pp.432, $9.99

Killing Jesus
Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Henry Holt, pp.332, $9.99

Killing Patton
Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Henry Holt, pp.464, $9.99

Killing Reagan
Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Henry Holt, pp.320, $9.99

Killing England
Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Henry Holt, pp.352, $9.99

Killing the Rising Sun
Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Henry Holt, pp.432, $9.99

Killing the S.S.
Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Henry Holt, pp.320, $30.00

Killing Crazy Horse
Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Henry Holt, pp.320, $30.00

In July 2020, a few young women went to war against the universe.

That was, at least, when I started noticing a lot of headlines containing some version of the phrase “TikTok baby witches hex the moon.” I love phrases like this, words that ought not to make sense but still do, sentences like the incantations of a secret cult. What it meant was that various self-described witches on social media were offended because some other, younger witches on social media—nobody could say exactly who—had tried to put an evil spell on the moon, to weaken its power or destroy it entirely. This was a serious provocation: in some versions of online paganism, the moon is the source of all magical powers; even if it isn’t, it’s been a symbol and companion for centuries of sorcerers. Something like blasphemy. The moon itself was fine, they assured us, but people were deeply upset. These baby witches were out of control. They were hexing everything in sight; some whispered that the sun was next. Is nothing sacred? Is nothing safe?

But I get it. I get it entirely. The TikTok baby witches weren’t alone; during the Cold War, both the Soviets and the Americans independently formulated plans to nuke our only moon, and I get that too. What else is left, once you’ve conquered the world? When it catches you on a bad day, the moon is awful: a smug, swollen mockery in the sky. As a younger and sadder man, I used to stumble drunk out of boring parties and find its gaze limp on the back of my neck. Something hideous in its fat-faced placidity, something like a provocation. Without any nukes to hand, I’d try to beat it in a staring contest. “You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking to?” The bastard moon always won, and it made me feel very alone. Famously, it drives people mad. You will die on this earth; your living brain will return to mulch, and one day you will be forgotten—but the moon remains. The same moon sneered down on kings and conquerors, and they died one after another, and the moon is still here, exactly as it was. This seems unfair. Why should it be allowed? If you want to never be forgotten, you have to destroy the moon. If you want your life to mean something, you have to go to war against the moon. You’ll lose. Of course you’ll lose. But you’ll go down fighting.

By all accounts, the TikTok baby witches lost, and they’re now the subjects of an unbreakable lunar curse unto the furthest generation. Of course, given that this whole episode was basically an online witch-hunt, it’s possible that the whole hexing-the-moon incident never actually happened. In fact, given that it was an online witch hunt in which everyone involved claimed to be an actual practicing witch, it’s possible that even if it did happen, it didn’t, strictly speaking, happen. It doesn’t matter. Whether they exist or not, I can’t help but feel a deep admiration for the baby TikTok witches as they wage their struggle of annihilation against the world.

And it’s in the same sense that I’m forced—against my better judgement, and entirely against my will—to admire Bill O’Reilly.

Until very recently, most of what I knew about Bill O’Reilly was that he’s a former Fox News anchor and charlatan who loudly pushed for war in the Middle East despite very famously not knowing what a falafel is. But he is also the author of the Killing series, a big thick shelf’s worth of historical non-fiction, all of it brutally popular. Each volume in this series has sold somewhere north of one million copies; they’re regular mainstays at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and I’m reliably informed that they’re some of the only books you can be guaranteed to find in an American supermarket. But I hadn’t heard of them. It’s true that sales have slowed a little, now that O’Reilly himself can no longer hawk them from his perch on prime-time T.V., but some of the celebrations from the usual liberal types seem a little premature. In 2017, his newest installment sold only 212,000 copies in its first month—a drop of nearly fifty percent compared to the series’ more successful offerings. And yet it still managed to instantly knock Hillary Clinton’s What Happened off the top of the charts. May we all suffer such failures.

A quick note. Actually, O’Reilly is the co-author of these books, along with one Martin Dugard. It seems sensible to assume that Dugard did most of the hard slog of actually writing them—or, quite possibly, an army of uncredited ghostwriters—but despite this, I’ll continue to refer to the collective author of the Killing series as “Bill O’Reilly” throughout. This is for two reasons. First, because these books are not in any sense the creative expression of any individual consciousness, but one of the outputs in a vast, abstract, continent-spanning technical and ideological process of production, the same process that continually dibbles out the ectoplasmic phantasmagorical spectacle that sometimes still appears on T.V. under the name Bill O’Reilly, not a man, not a mortal creature born between a woman’s legs, but like so many names a name indifferently adopted by the ghostly permanence of the process itself, in whose hidden chains any individual fleshy human body is as perishable and as interchangeable as a single cog-wheel. Secondly, because on the dust jacket Bill O’Reilly’s name is in a much, much larger font.

Maybe part of the reason that I’d never encountered these things is that I’m also the first person to attempt a review of the entire series, in any outlet. This is strange. There are more copies in print of the Killing series than, say, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, which has generated a library’s worth of (well-deserved) interpretations and appreciations—but there’s nothing for Bill. The more the Killing series entrenches itself on the bestseller lists, the firmer the cordon sanitaire that protects the remaining pages. Maybe these books are supposed to be beneath notice. They’re books for people who don’t read books, the kind of books Tony Soprano might read—what could well-educated liberals hope to learn from them? Maybe it’s political. They’re weapons in our strange Schrödingerian culture war, where a missile only lands if you choose to track it—so why track it? Maybe it’s just inattention. These are crappy mass-produced bestsellers, aren’t they? We know what those are like.

I’m not sure we do. If these books are how millions of people interact with the past, then this is something that deserves attention—because they are deeply, deeply strange.

The first three volumes in the series cover the deaths of three great American heroes. Killing Lincoln tries, very explicitly, to rewrite the assassination as a kind of thriller novel. Short punchy sentences. Evocations of blood. Every chapter—and these chapters are each about three pages long; there’s over sixty of them—starts with an all-caps dateline: WASHINGTON DC, 8:32 A.M.; the kind of thing you can imagine ominously ticking onscreen, counting down to the inevitable. When we first meet Lincoln, he’s described as “the man with fourteen days to live.” We’re charging towards that final moment, when “the man who has worried and fretted and bullied America back from the brink of disaster, holding fast to his faith in the Union at a time when lesser men argued that it should be dissolved, feels a split second snap of pain—and then nothing at all.”

Killing Kennedy does pretty much the same. And so does Killing Jesus. Now, I’m not a Christian. Bill O’Reilly, notionally, is. But even in the depths of my Judaism I can see that here, his gimmick is luridly inappropriate. How can you believe that a historical figure was, in fact, God incarnate, the living Word, the Alpha and the Omega, the Way and the Truth and the Life—and then, in the very first sentence of your book, decide to name Him as “the child with thirty-six years to live”?

These three books are not exactly the biographies of the great men in their titles. Jacques Derrida once theorized an impossible genre: heterothanatography, the writing of the death of the other. (Impossible since, as Heidegger points out, the death of another person is not quite death; the only real death is the one that we ourselves experience—but in dying, consciousness “gets lifted right out of the possibility of experiencing this transition and of understanding it as something experienced.”) He was happy to just imagine its existence. It took a Bill O’Reilly to actually create it.

There’s heterothanatography in the ticking countdowns: the man with twelve years to live, the man with one year to live, the man with a month, an hour, a minute, a second—and then bang, a corpse. (Later on in the series, O’Reilly will take to describing pretty much everyone this way, so that the man with three weeks to live might have an urgent meeting with the man with nine months to live, but keeps getting distracted by thoughts of his wife with sixteen years to live; meanwhile, a fly with two minutes to live buzzes slowly around the room. It’s on the reader to work out whether these lumps of dying flesh might have any other names.) Almost every brief chapter ends the same way, basically regardless of whatever’s been happening: Kennedy pulls off a delicate negotiation with Khrushchev and feels elated, but a man with a gun is coming for him, closer every day; Lincoln shares a tender moment with his wife, but there will be no more moments like this when he is dead, and he will be dead very soon. Life is just a wriggling before you die, and death structures everything.

You could decide to see O’Reilly as the slave in the chariot during a Roman triumph, whispering his memento mori. But that wouldn’t be quite right. His delivery isn’t solemn. He isn’t awed by death. It’s not the great grim leveler; instead, in his hands, it’s something light, something erotic.

The connection between eroticism and death is pretty well established. See, for instance, the Japanese bodybuilder, poet and fascist Yukio Mishima, for whom a beautiful body is only beautiful because it will inevitably die. “The thing that ultimately saves the flesh from being ridiculous is the element of death that resides in the healthy, vigorous body.” You must become strong to be truly helpless in the face of time. Now compare Bill O’Reilly’s treatment of J.F.K. Very early in Killing Kennedy, he runs through all the usual stations of the Kennedy myth, with a particular focus on the P.T.-109 incident, in which the future president saved his crew after his torpedo boat was sunk during the Pacific war. Washed up with the survivors on a tropical island, Kennedy takes to the sea again, hoping to find help. But what interests O’Reilly most of all isn’t the courage of the dashing young lieutenant; it’s his nakedness.

Kennedy prepares for the swim. He peels off his shirt and pants to save weight, and ties a .38-caliber pistol to a lanyard around his neck. Finally, Kennedy hugs the kapok vest tightly around his naked body, knowing that the lantern wrapped inside it is the key to their rescue. Kennedy steps back into the sea. He thinks of the giant barracuda that live in these waters, which are rumored to swim up out of the blackness and bite off the genitals of passing swimmers. Without pants, he is surely an inviting target.

That last line, in particular, is catnip for any passing Freudian. The more masculine and well hung the young Jack shows himself to be, the more inviting a target he presents. Feed the barracuda; feed O’Reilly’s homoerotic fantasy: Kennedy castrated, feminized, naked and vulnerable in such a big dark sea full of so many big sharp teeth. In the end, Kennedy is rescued. Then, in the very next chapter, we cut to the White House, 1961. First line: “The president of the United States is naked, and on schedule.” We’re splashing around in his private pool. It’s therapeutic, of course; a daily swim is the only treatment for Kennedy’s chronic back pain. We’re watching a naked man swim around, a naked body given tragic weight by the inevitability of its violent and early death, so we can learn about his aching back. Sure thing, Bill. Whatever you say.

The early volumes in the Killing series don’t promise any radically new understanding of the figures involved; they don’t even really pretend they’ll tell you anything you don’t already know. (There’s no suggestion, for instance, that anyone other than Lee Harvey Oswald was responsible for the death of J.F.K.) Supposedly, the gimmick is that they retell these familiar myths in a new style: the fast-paced thriller, the Tom Clancy novel. But that’s not really the genre this belongs to. This is pornography. Linger sumptuously over the hero’s form; watch him strut around on the political stage; peer deep into his domestic world. And then, finally, you get to watch him die. The ultimate intimacy.

O’Reilly lets you travel with the bullet inside Kennedy’s body, shearing through his deepest viscera, his tightest, most private spaces. First impact. “The 6.5 millimeter round tears through the president’s trachea and then exits his body through the tight knot of his dark blue tie.” Second impact. “This copper-jacketed missile effectively ends John F Kennedy’s life in an instant. It barely slows as it slices through the tender gray brain matter before exploding the thin wall of bone as it exits the front of his skull.” Climax.

Like I said, all this becomes a little more uncomfortable when we get to Killing Jesus, where his gaze meets an object of solemn religious faith. But even here, O’Reilly’s drawing on a long tradition. Yukio Mishima himself (or, at least, one of his autobiographical puppets) experienced a sexual awakening upon seeing a reproduction of Guido Reni’s Baroque depiction of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian:

His white and matchless nudity gleams against a background of dusk. The arrows have eaten into the tense, fragrant, youthful flesh and are about to consume his body from within with flames of supreme agony and ecstasy . . . This was Sebastian, young captain in the Praetorian Guard. And was not such beauty as his a thing destined for death? Did not the robust women of Rome, their senses nurtured on the taste of good wine that shook the bones and on the savor of meat dripping red with blood, quickly scent his ill-starred fate, as yet unknown to him, and love him for that reason?

As Mishima acknowledges, depictions of Saint Sebastian have well-established homoerotic connotations. “It is an interesting coincidence that [the German clinician Magnus] Hirschfeld should place pictures of Saint Sebastian in the first rank of those kinds of art works in which the invert takes special delight.” But Christ Himself is not exempt. When O’Reilly watches as the Roman whip scourges his Savior, when he lets the thorns in his crown plunge deeper into his skin, he’s following hundreds of years of artists and mystics—many of them far from impious—who saw in the Passion and the passivity of Christ a moment of strange rapture.

You can see why Killing Jesus marked a turn in the series; at this point O’Reilly’s teetering on the edge of treason and blasphemy. He’s already sex-murdered two presidents and one God. Where else is there to go?

It’s after Killing Jesus that things start to get weird.

The next two books mark a departure from O’Reilly’s previous formula. Instead of retelling the murders of great historical figures, he starts retelling the murders of great historical figures who were not, in fact, murdered. Where Killing Kennedy points its snout right down the center of the road, Killing Patton veers sharply off into conspiracy.  According to the official narrative, General George S. Patton died in December 1945 in occupied Germany after a car accident that fractured his spine. According to Bill O’Reilly, he was murdered by some combination of British intelligence, the O.S.S., and Stalin. The motive is obvious. Patton was simply too good at winning World War II. He beat Hitler single-handedly, and he refused to share the credit, so he had to die. The evidence for this is, to put it kindly, thin. Apparently, one Stepan Bandera told U.S. intelligence that Stalin wanted Patton dead. But given that Bandera was the fascist warlord who did Hitler’s dirty work in the occupied Ukraine, it’s not clear how he got this direct line to the Comrade General Secretary’s heart. Killing Reagan is more mystifying still. Over the course of three hundred pages, O’Reilly manages to note the Ronald Reagan was shot, made a full recovery from his wounds, and then, some two decades later, died in his bed. It’s hinted that these facts are somehow connected, but the precise mechanism is vague, and he doesn’t waste much time on it. It doesn’t really matter. O’Reilly just likes it when his favorite people are shot and killed with guns.

But this is just a transitional phase. What happens next is extraordinary. Suddenly, it’s no longer heroic individuals being killed; it’s institutions, abstract concepts, entire worlds. Killing is no longer something deep and rich, to enjoy in shame and agony; it’s cheerily endorsed. Killing the S.S. is about postwar Nazi-hunters—even though, of the Nazis being hunted, Martin Bormann had already killed himself, Klaus Barbie and Josef Mengele died of natural causes, and Adolf Eichmann was captured and put on trial. My favorite title might be the one O’Reilly gives his retelling of the American Revolution: Killing England. (As someone who lives in England, I’m afraid I have to report that it’s all still here.)

But his crowning achievement is Killing the Rising Sun. This is supposedly about the end of WWII in the Pacific—but the title didn’t make me think of Japan. Killing the sun! What an ambition! Bill O’Reilly, sword in hand, zooming deep into outer space to murder the source of all life. It reminded me of those baby witches on TikTok. It reminded me of the Marquis de Sade:

Ah, how many times, by God, have I not longed to be able to assail the sun, snatch it out of the universe, make a general darkness, or use that star to burn the world! oh, that would be a crime, oh yes, and not a little misdemeanor such as are all the ones we perform.

Bill O’Reilly shares this longing. He never manages to extinguish the sun, but he does grab a mote of its fire to burn the world. Specifically, that bit of the world centered on Hiroshima. As he makes clear in his introduction, this book is a justification for the American strategy at the end of the war, a case for nuclear holocaust. But he never actually argues that the atomic bombings were necessary. Instead, he repeats a trick from the earlier books: we get to meet a few ordinary residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, follow their little lives, peek into their souls. “Sixteen-year-old Akira Onogi is taking the day off from work.” “Akiko Takakura hopes to be a preschool teacher, but for now the twenty-year-old is a bank employee.” And then, in a flash, watch them disintegrate. As if the vastness of the slaughter justifies itself.

In 1940, at the dawn of the nuclear age, Walter Benjamin invited us to imagine an Angel of History, a horrified face turned towards the past. “Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.” This is history seen through the eyes of the oppressed. But Bill O’Reilly is what stands opposite this figure: the Devil of History, the one who scatters the rubble. It’s pointless to complain that neither Patton nor Reagan nor Mengele nor England were actually killed; where we see a chain of events, he sees only a single action, in a continuous present. The aggressor’s history: killing. Time churns everything into the abyss; a joyful eternity of annihilation. One thing after another falls under his sword, and into the rubble. You can only imagine where Bill O’Reilly will go next. Killing The Glory That Was Greece. Killing The Grandeur That Was Rome. Killing The Air We Breathe, The Ground We Walk, And The Waters. And finally, Killing You.

What’s behind this incredible massacre? Why are O’Reilly and his millions of readers so keen to watch so many people die? And why is this delivered as history? Why is it so important that all these dead people had names, and were once really alive?

In the seventeenth century, around the same time that the first English colonies were spreading in America, a peasant rebel named Zhang Xianzhong captured the province of Szechuan. There, he started killing everyone. His followers massacred the local population; when there was nobody left he had them kill each other. He murdered his servants and his concubines and his childhood friends. He liked to disassemble human bodies, building piles of severed feet, mountains of ears and noses, pyramids of skulls. By the time he was finished, the population of the province had fallen from over three million to around fifteen thousand. The legend goes that Zhang erected an obelisk in this wasteland he had created, like an artist’s signature, to explain his reasoning. The inscription read:

Heaven brings forth innumerable things to nurture man.
Man has nothing good with which to recompense Heaven.
Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill.

Zhang didn’t devastate Szechuan because there were too many people and not enough to go around, but precisely because there was too much. The gifts and plenty of the world were unbearable; the gentleness of the world could only be matched in blood. Sade’s aristocrats live in the same universe, with their “mysterious fortunes whose origins are as obscure as the lust and debauchery that accompany them.” But so do Bill O’Reilly’s readers: the wealthy suburban conservatives, the people at the end of the world. They float in their American utopia; a tribe whose cities have never been bombed, whose families have never been exterminated, who chug their boats in circles on a lake, who eat slaughtered cattle for every meal. A vast system of global iniquity squirts out its bounty for them, and there is no hope of ever making amends. So they turn to history: not because it offers a better model, but because that’s where we keep the bodies.

Except. All this stuff really is present in the Killing series, but it’s not the only thing that’s there. There’s Bill O’Reilly, the Demon of History, the heir to Mishima and Sade, destroyer of worlds—and then there’s Bill O’Reilly, the paunchy man who goes on T.V. A mawkish creature, mediocre, conceited, and an awful prose stylist to boot. Like I said, I can’t help but admire the first O’Reilly; I’m instinctively on the side of anyone who wants to destroy the moon. But the second O’Reilly is miserable, and the books he writes are a tedious slog.

Because I have the heart of a lion, I despise all pedantry, which is why I won’t mention that O’Reilly refers to “Jerusalem rock”—which is not a thing—rather than Jerusalem stone. I will not scream that the Sanskrit word Trimurti is not “coincidentally close” to the English Trinity, but actually points to the fact that both English and Sanskrit belong to a greater Indo-European language family. I will not sigh that there is absolutely no “old Russian adage” that goes “Once you’re in a fight, don’t spare yourself. Give it everything you’ve got.” And because I love charity, I won’t point out that his books include phrases like “the Russians, as the Soviets are often called” and “the president’s voracious sexual appetite is like the elephant that the president rides around on each and every day while pretending that it doesn’t exist.”

I don’t even mind that he lies. What I do mind is that his lies are so grotty and so pedestrian.

Take the story of George de Mohrenschildt, the Russian émigré who befriended Lee Harvey Oswald in Texas and who was almost certainly deeply tied up with the C.I.A. It’s a story I’ve avoided learning too much about, in case I end up as one of those people who stand outside fast food restaurants screaming about the moon landing and mind control, but I do know that he died in an apparent suicide before he could testify to Congress. In his afterword to Killing Kennedy, O’Reilly describes the scene through the eyes of a young reporter who’d been seeking him out:

As the reporter knocked on the door of de Mohrenschildt’s daughter’s home, he heard the shotgun blast that marked the suicide of the Russian, assuring that his relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald would never be fully understood. By the way, that reporter’s name is Bill O’Reilly.

Nope. False. Didn’t happen. When de Mohrenschildt died, as Newsweek and C.N.N. have reported, O’Reilly wasn’t even in the same state. There’s something very sad about this little falsehood. The Kennedy assassination is so murky, and offers so much potential for invention, but the best O’Reilly can do is puff up his little chest and try to make the world of spies and mobsters and nuclear warheads all abouthimself.

The man has an incredible talent for systematically missing everything that’s truly interesting in the subjects he covers. It would take a mind like a damp dishcloth to sum up the Sermon on the Mount by noting that it “may be the most important speech in history”—as if it were basically the same kind of thing as the keynote address at a conference for tax consultants, or a politician blathering on the stump, just a little better.

More to the point, what kind of a halfwit could write a book about the Ronald Reagan shooting, and have Reagan himself as the main character? Yes, Reagan was a monster, but a hollow monster. He was an actor, a prop. He read his lines. He had dementia all through his second term, and it hardly mattered; he was never even there to begin with. But John Hinckley, Jr., the man who tried to kill him, is different. A schizo, a loner; he was obsessed with the actress Jodie Foster, and imagined she might become obsessed with him too; he shot Reagan as a gesture of love, as a way to make himself real to her. He expressed the hidden truth of Reagan’s cruel America: that the much-vaunted human individual never really existed. That there are only shining images on a screen, celebrities or politicians, and the nameless and unreal masses that they transfix. That the only way to become a real human individual is either to hollow yourself out into an image, or pick up a gun and kill. Destroy the moon. The Reagan shooting is the concretization of everything evil in the world. The Demon of History would know what to do with this material:

Two miles across the Oklahoma town, a brand-new and modern Memorial Hospital is opening to the public. The newborn baby boy could very well have earned the honor of being the first child delivered in this state-of-the-art facility. But Jo Ann, as the mother is named, has opted to deliver at a hospital known as the Hardy Sanitarium, which will now close for good on this very day. Jo Ann’s baby will be the last born in an obsolete mental hospital.

That’s the closest we get. A schlocky horror story: poor noble Reagan suffered because of a creepy old hospital and its curse. What an utter waste. Bill O’Reilly’s audience, thirsting for the end of everything in bald flat suburbs across America—they deserve better, so much better than this.

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