When Franklin Roosevelt took office as president in 1933, the United States was in the middle of the Great Depression. In fact, there was a worldwide economic depression. Fascism was on the rise in Europe. Mussolini ruled Italy. In January, two months before FDR was inaugurated, Hitler had been sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. On March 4, 1933, the day before Hitler formally consolidated dictatorial power, FDR gave his first inaugural address. Roosevelt told a nation facing economic calamity at home and the growing threat of fascism abroad that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself-nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."For Americans in 1933, those must have been powerful, moving words. Even seventy years later, they stir emotion. They also might make today's Americans wonder where leaders like FDR are to be found now.
Today, leaders tell Americans "be afraid, be very afraid." During the 2004 presidential campaign, the Bush campaign ran a television ad, featuring a menacing pack of wolves, that accused John Kerry of weakening America's defenses and leaving Americans vulnerable. Vice President Cheney warned that if Kerry was elected, "the danger is that we'll get hit again, that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States." The message was clear: the Bush campaign wanted Americans to be afraid, and hoped that fear, not reason, would move them to vote for Bush.
Even two and a half years after winning re-election, Bush still wants Americans to be afraid, to give in to the unreasoning, unjustified terror FDR warned Americans against. Last Tuesday in Charleston, SC, Bush amped up the fear factor, insisting that Al Qaeda in Iraq is a threat to the United States. (Intelligence experts called Bush's speech "misleading"). The president gravely informed us, as he has many times before, that if we leave Iraq we will end up fighting terrorists on our streets. On other occasions, the president has warned us that Islamic radicals have grandly sinister dreams. According to Bush, they seek to end American and Western influence in the broader Middle East. They have targeted Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Jordan for potential takeover. Bin Laden and his followers are fighting a "war against humanity". They aim at establishing a "radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia." Militants would also like to "destroy Israel", "intimidate Europe", "assault the American people and blackmail our government into isolation." Ultimately, Bush suggests, they seek dominion over all people-he has quoted Al Qaeda's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as threatening to achieve "victory over the human race".
On more than one occasion, Bush has implicitly compared Bin Laden to Adolph Hitler and solemnly intoned that "evil men obsessed with ambition...must be taken very seriously..." Of course, no one disputes that Bin Laden must be taken seriously. But he is not Hitler of 1939, or even 1933. He controls no state, no world class military. He does not have the ability to take over the United States by force. He may threaten grandiosely evil deeds, but threats do not make it so.
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Instead of rationally confronting the problem Bin Laden poses, Bush tries to make us terrified. Yes, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are a danger. Americans remember what happened on September 11. (In fact, many Americans notice that Bush has not fulfilled his promise to capture Bin Laden "dead or alive".) But we must not make Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda "franchise" operating - in Iraq or elsewhere-- into more than they are. Associating Bin Laden with lofty goals like restoring the Islamic Caliphate adds to the Bin Laden legend as a man who has stared down two superpowers. We do not need to give anyone a reason to believe Bin Laden's own hype, that he is a once in a millenium hero in the mold of Saladin, the Islamic hero who defeated the Crusaders. That is only likely to make Al Qaeda's recruiting efforts more fruitful.
The reality is that Al Qaeda has limited resources. That does not mean Al Qaeda is something to be dismissed. Even a few terrorists can inflict horrible damage. But nothing is to be gained by making Al Qaeda into more than it is. Well, nothing helpful is to be gained. By scaring Americans, Bush may hope to distract us from the reality that he is losing his grip on the presidency. His popularity hovers around 30%, tarnished by a hopeless war in Iraq, the failed response to Katrina, and scandals involving high-ranking administration officials. But political gain comes at an unconscionable price for Americans, who are asked not to reject fear, but to embrace it, and blindly to assign their trust to a leader who tells them he is the only one who can protect them.
Bush has told us what he thinks Al Qaeda is capable of doing. He neglects to consider what Americans, motivated by real leadership, rather than fear, are capable of doing. A leader who appeals to Americans' better qualities might find a brave nation, ready to stand up to whatever threats it faces, and unwilling to give in to fear.