An Administration Ruled by Fear

The Psychology of Washington

The protagonist of a long series of detective novels, the admirable Inspector Maigret, would see a mystery at the heart of what goes on in America. How is it that violence barely disturbs us, yet we protect ourselves against its manifestation by a massive state apparatus dedicated to searching through the lives of ordinary Americans?

For those who follow politics, the mystery can be posed in personal terms. How is it that a senator who opposed the widespread gathering of telephone records of American citizens can, as president, approve the continuation and expansion of just such a program?

It is probably beyond even Maigret's acute intelligence to fully analyze a Barack Obama buffeted by a multitude of forces and views. But the world our president lives in, that is a knowable phenomenon.

President Obama has advisors, not just military and civilian but political. All of them have a vested interest in assuring that nothing goes wrong in small ways, even as they ignore things going wrong in large ways.

That is not to say that his advisors, and the President himself, don't feel an obligation to keep Americans safe from harm and to prevent American society from sliding towards a chaos of destructive violence. We are not contemporary Iraq, nor do we want to be.

But much of the ongoing intrusion into our civil liberties arises out of narrow political fear. If we are attacked by a terrorist, there will be hundreds of thousands of fingers of blame pointing to those in command. As if a president, the FBI or the Congress, can somehow be blamed for every strangely-firing synapse in the brain of an individual living in Topeka or Charlotte.

The politics of accusation, layered into the politics of personal destruction - to his implacable opponents, the president was not born in the United States, is a socialist and is determined to take away everyone's guns - has had a calamitous result. Those close to the White House are tenaciously determined prevent any new impetus to a right wing determined to destroy our first black president. Even if they have to destroy part of America to forestall such a possibility.

Fear, not wholly unjustified, has driven those in power and those who provide counsel to power to establish and expand domestic spying. If a bomb goes off on a bus in Seattle, if someone blows himself up in a restaurant in Abilene, if a crazed man shoots the mayor of Philadelphia, the president will be blamed. 'Why didn't we know? Why didn't we prevent this tragedy?' Our generals, our representatives in Washington, will suffer collateral damage.

And so the administration, backed up by a majority of the Congress, countenances and supports widespread spying on ordinary American citizens. But what they do is shaped by a fear not just irrational, but unjustified.

Their aim is not, as they claim to themselves, to prevent violent destruction. Every year in the past decade over 30,000 Americans have died as a result of firearms. Yet there is remarkably little desire to prevent this staggering and largely avoidable destruction of human life.

More Americans die as a result of guns in a month and a half than died on September 11th. For a decade, over 58,000 Americans have been injured each year by firearms: 73,883 in 2011, 73,505 in 2010.

The tragic events of this year's Boston marathon, which kept a nation transfixed and glued to their television screens (myself included), resulted in 5 deaths and 264 injuries. It is instructive to do the math: on average, more people die of gun violence in two hours, more are injured by guns in less than a day and a half, than were casualties in Boston.

Terrorism strikes a deep nerve. And that means that anyone who 'coddles' terrorists or 'does not take terrorism seriously' can all too readily be accused of not caring about the security of Americans.

It is the fear of blame and not the need to protect American citizens that motivates those in Washington to countenance the enormous information gathering that has been taking place. Better, they think, to track every American's phone calls, to tally every key stroke and web visit and email that you or I produce on our computers, than suffer the blame for a terrorist attack. Better to jail the whistleblower who let us know the huge dimensions of surveillance than to step back and ask what the heck we are doing.

The civil liberties we proclaim as part of the great heritage of our Founding Fathers go out the window when the distant possibility of terrorism is before us. And that possibility is purely abstract, not justified by a particular action or threat. Yes, we do have enemies abroad and maybe here at home, but the fact of life is that it contains risk.

Life has always contained risk. Risk is part of the grand adventure of being alive. We can reduce it, but not eliminate it. And some efforts to reduce it have consequences that reduce us and limit our potential. Not every move to reduce risk is justifiable.

Those who wrote our Constitution knew that. They had recently been through a bloody war with England and nasty arguments between different factions in America, yet they enshrined in our Bill of Rights an amendment protecting citizens from intrusive searches by their government.

The 54 words of the Fourth Amendment are remarkably clear: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

But fear, the fear of being attacked politically (and not by terrorists), has led the Obama administration to ignore the Fourth Amendment and violate our rights to be secure in our houses (and on our phones). They have chosen to have our "papers, and effects" searched and in effect seized by the government. Does it matter that these papers are often in electronic texts, as documents in our files, or that our letters are mailed electronically rather than in a paper envelope? I don't think anyone can in good conscience answer in the affirmative.

There is not really a mystery to be unlocked. Our leaders are ruled by fear, fear not of violence but of blame. Recognizing that part of their fear is the result of right-wing efforts to invalidate the government, to bring down a duly-elected administration, does not justify acting in such a craven fashion.

We as a nation, we as citizens, deserve better.

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