The Degrading Effects of Terrorism Fears
I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but David Brooks actually had an excellent column in yesterday's New York Times that makes several insightful and important points. Brooks documents how "childish, contemptuous and hysterical" the national reaction has been to this latest terrorist episode, egged on -- as usual -- by the always-hysterical American media. The citizenry has been trained to expect that our Powerful Daddies and Mommies in government will -- in that most cringe-inducing, child-like formulation -- Keep Us Safe. Whenever the Government fails to do so, the reaction -- just as we saw this week -- is an ugly combination of petulant, adolescent rage and increasingly unhinged cries that More Be Done to ensure that nothing bad in the world ever happens. Demands that genuinely inept government officials be held accountable are necessary and wise, but demands that political leaders ensure that we can live in womb-like Absolute Safety are delusional and destructive. Yet this is what the citizenry screams out every time something threatening happens: please, take more of our privacy away; monitor more of our communications; ban more of us from flying; engage in rituals to create the illusion of Strength; imprison more people without charges; take more and more control and power so you can Keep Us Safe.
This is what inevitably happens to a citizenry that is fed a steady diet of fear and terror for years. It regresses into pure childhood. The 5-year-old laying awake in bed, frightened by monsters in the closet, who then crawls into his parents' bed to feel Protected and Safe, is the same as a citizenry planted in front of the television, petrified by endless imagery of scary Muslim monsters, who then collectively crawl to Government and demand that they take more power and control in order to keep them Protected and Safe. A citizenry drowning in fear and fixated on Safety to the exclusion of other competing values can only be degraded and depraved. John Adams, in his 1776 Thoughts on Government, put it this way:
Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.
As Adams noted, political leaders possess an inherent interest in maximizing fear levels, as that is what maximizes their power. For a variety of reasons, nobody aids this process more than our establishment media, motivated by their own interests in ratcheting up fear and Terrorism melodrama as high as possible. The result is a citizenry far more terrorized by our own institutions than foreign Terrorists could ever dream of achieving on their own. For that reason, a risk that is completely dwarfed by numerous others -- the risk of death from Islamic Terrorism -- dominates our discourse, paralyzes us with fear, leads us to destroy our economic security and eradicate countless lives in more and more foreign wars, and causes us to beg and plead and demand that our political leaders invade more of our privacy, seize more of our freedom, and radically alter the system of government we were supposed to have. The one thing we don't do is ask whether we ourselves are doing anything to fuel this problem and whether we should stop doing it. As Adams said: fear "renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable."
What makes all of this most ironic is that the American Founding was predicated on exactly the opposite mindset. The Constitution is grounded in the premise that there are other values and priorities more important than mere Safety. Even though they knew that doing so would help murderers and other dangerous and vile criminals evade capture, the Framers banned the Government from searching homes without probable cause, prohibited compelled self-incrimination, double jeopardy and convictions based on hearsay, and outlawed cruel and unusual punishment. That's because certain values -- privacy, due process, limiting the potential for abuse of government power -- were more important than mere survival and safety. A central calculation of the Constitution was that we insist upon privacy, liberty and restraints on government power even when doing so means we live with less safety and a heightened risk of danger and death. And, of course, the Revolutionary War against the then-greatest empire on earth was waged by people who risked their lives and their fortunes in pursuit of liberty, precisely because there are other values that outweigh mere survival and safety.
These are the calculations that are now virtually impossible to find in our political discourse. It is fear, and only fear, that predominates. No other competing values are recognized. We have Chris Matthews running around shrieking that he's scared of kung-fu-wielding Terrorists. Michael Chertoff is demanding that we stop listening to "privacy ideologues" -- i.e., that there should be no limits on Government's power to invade and monitor and scrutinize. Republican leaders have spent the decade preaching that only Government-provided Safety, not the Constitution, matters. All in response to this week's single failed terrorist attack, there are -- as always -- hysterical calls that we start more wars, initiate racial profiling, imprison innocent people indefinitely, and torture even more indiscriminately. These are the by-products of the weakness and panic and paralyzing fear that Americans have been fed in the name of Terrorism, continuously for a full decade now.
Ever since I began writing in late 2005 about this fear-addicted dynamic, the point on which Brooks focused yesterday is the one I've thought most important. What matters most about this blinding fear of Terrorism is not the specific policies that are implemented as a result. Policies can always be changed. What matters most is the radical transformation of the national character of the United States. Reducing the citizenry to a frightened puddle of passivity, hysteria and a child-like expectation of Absolute Safety is irrevocable and far more consequential than any specific new laws. Fear is always the enabling force of authoritarianism: the desire to vest unlimited power in political authority in exchange for promises of protection. This is what I wrote about that back in early 2006 in How Would a Patriot Act?:
The president's embrace of radical theories of presidential power threatens to change the system of government we have. But worse still, his administration's relentless, never-ending attempts to keep the nation in a state of fear can also change the kind of nation we are.
This isn't exactly new: many of America's most serious historical transgressions -- the internment of Japanese-Americans, McCarthyite witch hunts, World War I censorship laws, the Alien and Sedition Act -- have been the result of fear-driven, over-reaction to extrenal threats, not under-reaction. Fear is a degrading toxin, and there's no doubt that it has been the primary fuel over the last decade. As the events of the last week demonstrate, it continues to spread rapidly, and it produces exactly the kind of citizenry about which John Adams long ago warned.
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