Published on Monday, October 2, 2006 by CommonDreams.org
The Enemy Within and the Gift of Fear
by John Atcheson
Last week we lost a part of the Constitution. It wasn’t taken from us on the battlefield. It wasn’t snatched away from us by a determined enemy.
It was freely given, sacrificed out of fear and cowardice. A fear made all the worse because it was manufactured out of artifice and wielded by politicians who love their power so much that they played cheap political tricks with long cherished freedoms for no other reason than they want to win an election.
Some of them were Democrats. Most were Republicans. And they were led by the coward-in-chief and chief fear monger, George Bush.
But it was We the People, who allowed it. Our Founding Fathers, if they are looking on, are now hanging their heads in mourning. The soldiers who fought and died in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World Wars I and II and host of lesser wars to protect those freedoms look down upon us now with rage at the mockery we’ve made of their sacrifice.
And what was it that scared us so? Had the mighty armies of Hitler risen from the dead? Were his Panzer divisions poised to roll over Europe?
Did the Soviet Union suddenly coalesce? Was it standing once again before us, an implacable foe wielding tens of thousands of nuclear war heads?
No. It was merely a few thousand jihadists armed with homemade bombs, cheap rifles , and plastic box cutters.
That’s it. No navy, no airforce, no military equipment other than what they could scrounge, steal, beg and borrow. This is the faux World War III bogeyman the Republicans gin up every two years in order to win elections.
In the years between, they pass legislation giving their rich patrons more, giving you less, and sticking your children with the bill.
Tax cuts for Paris Hilton, wage freezes for you, massive debt for your children.
Oil profits for Exxon, price gouging for you and global warming for your children.
But they wager that if you’re frightened enough, you won’t notice. Just as Orwell’s Oceania needed its war with Eastasia or Eurasia to justify it’s excesses, so does Bush’s America need it’s perpetual "war."
And this is the lie the Democrats refuse to confront, because they don’t want to be perceived as weak in this "war."
But of course, it’s not a war. It’s meaningless to declare a war on terrorism, which as everyone except Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice and Cheney seems to have figured out is a tactic, not a foe.
Practitioners of terror such as Hammas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, or right wing whackos like McVee – terrorists all – have different interests and different motivations. Attempting to deal with them in a one-size fits all "war on terror" makes about as much sense as trying to prevent measles, mumps, and Rubella with a flu shot.
Less, actually. Hammas seeks to settle the Palestinian question; Hezbollah seeks to destroy Israel; al Qaeda seeks some grand caliphate, the expulsion of the west, and the return of Saudi Arabia to the hands of the pure. And the fastest growing terrorist group – homegrown Iraqi insurgents created by Bush’s policies – seek to oust US troops from occupying their country.
Each requires a unique approach; none can be solved by bullets and bayonets; none poses anything like an existential threat to the US; each can only be made worse by conflating them into some monolithic enemy; and finally, none can come anywhere near defeating the US. At their worst, they pose a very limited threat capable of creating a true tragedy every five years or so.
But the dirty little secret of Bush’s ill-conceived "War on Terror" is this: it gives the terrorist exactly what they crave most – the gift of fear and the illusion of power. Here’s why.
As terrorism expert Jeffery Record points out, terrorism cannot be an enemy, it is a tactic used by the weak against the strong. When a party or group is too weak to achieve its goals militarily, terrorism as a tactic seeks to influence and intimidate the foe into acquiescing or accepting a political outcome. It is not designed to defeat the opponent, rather it seeks to force the foe to change from within. When a victim of terrorism responds by feeling terror, it feeds the terrorist. Thus, each time the Bush administration cranks up their fear and fog machine to win an election, they strengthen the terrorist’s hand. Each time they claim we are in a clash which will determine the fate of civilizations, they fuel terrorism and those who would use terrorist tactics.
What is needed is courage, and a little perspective.
Fact: Over the last five years, automobiles have killed more than sixty times as many Americans as terrorism has. Do we declare a war on cars or roads or drivers? Should we suspend Constitutional rights and invade Detroit?
Fact: averaged over five years, more Americans have drowned each year than have been killed by terrorists here at home. Should we declare a global war on water?
Fact: Nearly as many have died over the last five years from electrocution as have died from terrorism. Should we abandon electricity? Declare a war on it? Abandon our Constitutional freedoms, spy on our citizens and torture utility executives?
Of course not. And yes, there is a difference between accidents and intentional attacks. The point of these statistics is to give the threat of terrorism a sense of proportion. The above risks are threats that are arguably preventable given enough money and draconian laws, but which we’ve chosen to live with.
Just for perspective, cardio-vascular disease kills about 1 million a year, yet many of us smoke, live sedentary lifestyles, and swill down cholesterol laden foods. We willingly and calmly accept a risk that is thousands of times more likely than death from terrorists.
Bottom line: terrorism doesn’t threaten our existence. It threatens us with tragedy, but on a scale that is equal to or much less than many other tragedies we have no trouble accepting.
Indeed, the worst case scenario – detonation of a stolen nuclear device – would likely kill fewer than a hundred thousand (about a tenth of the number of people who die from cardio-vascular disease each year) and it would be about as destructive as Katrina. Horrible, to be sure, but nothing like the threats of the Cold War or Nazism, or any of several threats we choose to live with each and every day.
What is needed now, in facing terrorism, is a leader who will call us to courage, not paralyze us with fear. Courage, and a plan that is grounded in an understanding of what terrorism is and of the true magnitude of the limited threat it poses, and a strategy for reducing that threat, rather than increasing it.
Sadly, what we have is a leader who is politically motivated to instill fear. One who has concocted a ready-fire-aim fantasy as a solution. A later day cowboy who doesn’t read; who prefers to act on his "gut"; who doesn’t learn from his many mistakes; who has the audacity and un-earned arrogance to place himself above the law; who refuses to listen to men and women who wear the uniform – folks who have put their lives on the line. As Lt. General Newbold said, the decision to invade Iraq, "...was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions or bury the results."
Willingly trading away our freedoms at the behest of this ignorant and incompetent President is an abject act of cowardice on our part. Ginning up the Republican fear machine in order to win elections – a strategy straight out of Goering’s play book – is immoral on their part.
But the greatest act of cowardice may be that the Democrats and the press let them get away with it.
It is time for the Democrats to show some spine. Time to take on the Republican’s politically motivated fear mongering.
And when they ask, "but what is the alternative?" it is time to tell the American people that this is not a war to be won with bullets, boots bayonets and tough talk – it requires better Intelligence gathering, good old fashioned police work, diplomacy and engagement (not unilateralism), an even-handed foreign policy, and a commitment to putting human rights above oil rights. It requires the judicious and limited use of military force as a last resort, and then only with a clear and rapid exit strategy.
It also requires us to invest more in protecting our homeland – our ports; our schools; our power plants and chemical plants; our trains, planes, tunnels, buses, ferries, and bridges.
Finally, it requires us to secure the world’s loose nuclear material and to once again join the rest of the world in seeking treaties and laws that civilize society, not in arrogant claims of exemption from them.
Bush has either undercut or under-invested in these kinds of actions and strategies in favor of his ill-conceived Iraq War, and his global "war" on terrorism. The National Intelligence Estimate tells us that this strategy of focusing "over there" has made us less safe, and the 911 Commission recently gave the administration an average grade of "D" on actions needed to secure the homeland.
For example, the Bush administration has consistently slow-walked and short-funded the Nunn-Lugar program, which is designed to secure the world’s lose nuclear material.
For less than five days worth of what we spend in Iraq we could double the annual budget for Nunn-Lugar and make America safer.
Or, we could double the funding for this critical program by suspending Bush’s cuts in inheritance taxes for just five folks in Paris Hilton’s circumstances.
Either way, we would dramatically speed up the effort to get the world’s loose nuclear material under lock and key and reduce the single biggest threat posed by terrorists of any stripe.
Apparently, though, Mr. Bush thinks it’s more important to throw money down the Iraqi rat hole and to give Paris Hilton and friends their full inheritance and a hefty tax cut to boot, than it is to keep lose nuclear material out of the hands of al Qeada.
But Bush’s most serious transgression in this struggle, lies in placing himself above the law.
A nation in fear, willing to jettison its values and principles, to torture its enemies, to eavesdrop on its citizens, to lie to them and keep secrets from them will defeat itself.
For if we are at war, it is a war of ideas and ideals – it can’t be won by abandoning our principles and our laws, it can only be won by embracing them. The Constitution and the values it embodies are the most powerful weapons we wield in this "war." It has stood as a beacon of hope and an inspiration to action to men and women throughout the world for more than two centuries. If we let fear make us desert these principles, we not only feed the terrorist that which he seeks, but we deprive ourselves of our most effective weapon – and we do to ourselves that which our enemy has no hope of achieving.
John Atcheson has written extensively on politics and policy and his writing has appeared in the Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The San Jose Mercury News, The Memphis Commercial Appeal and several other papers, as well as various wonk journals. He has over 30 years experience in government and with the nation's premier think tanks.