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Original Poster: National Archives
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How far have we come from "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself'? Quite a bit, I'm afraid, because fear seems to be all around us these days. Terrorism has always been at least a somewhat scary prospect, but terrorism in the United States took on a whole new aura after the 9/11 attacks. Americans are much more likely now to be afraid of potential terrorist attacks than before - and some people are taking advantage of it.
Politicians have been using the threat of terrorism to expand governmental power at the expense of basic liberties. It's depressingly easy to do because people tend to believe government officials who claim to be protecting them from some great danger. The primary purpose of the government is to protect its citizens, but that's not a good enough reason to take all their claims at face value.
Unfortunately, it doesn't appear as though we are wired for such skepticism. We need only look at recent history to realize that we are falling into a familiar pattern: government officials press hard to make people afraid and, in the process, acquire extensive new powers. The War on Terrorism is just as much a product of government-induced fear as the War on Drugs has been — and the corresponding expansion of government power is no coincidence.
Publius wrote back in 2004:
The problem traces back to the fact that we humans are still essentially monkeys with iPods. As such, we are extremely susceptible to emotions that served us well in the wild (such as fear), but are extremely ill-suited for rational discussions of anti-terrorism policy. Because terrorism generates so much raw fear, we have to be especially cautious and make sure that any proposed anti-terrorism policy (such as, say, invading Iraq) has a logical relation to reducing terrorism. The problem, though, is that anti-terrorism proposals are almost always pushed on the population after a terrorist attack has happened - and usually immediately after. Thus, drastic anti-terrorism policies are debated and enacted when the populace is least able to analyze them rationally because their primitive survival instincts and emotions (i.e., fear of death; anger; aggression) cloud their minds.
The point is that when people are afraid, they will adopt anything that their leaders can plausibly link to fighting terrorism. And because people are thinking about terrorism emotionally rather than rationally, it is very easy to establish a "plausible link." In other words, the problem with citing terrorism as a justification for some policy is that there is almost no inherent logical limit on what a leader can get enacted so long as the populace is sufficiently scared. If you doubt it, just turn on your TV and watch some commercials more closely. In a post a while back, I explained that a standard marketing strategy is to create a fear and then advertise a product as a way to alleviate that fear. I called it the "Head & Shoulders" strategy. The old Head & Shoulders commercial began by threatening you with the fear of social embarrassment if you had dandruff flakes on your shoulders. With the fear established, it then offered the shampoo as a way to eliminate that fear. The link between product and fear was essentially emotional, not logical. It exploited emotions that were developed for living in the wild.
This interview with Hermann Göring explains how the Nazis were able to make use of this:
Göring: Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.
Gilbert [the interviewer]: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.
Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
Do you suppose that there is any similarity between the insights that people like Göring had on politics and what has been occurring in the United States of America? Sometimes, it's difficult to know when people are among those who sincerely believe in claims of threats and when they are among those making dishonest claims about threats. Alan Caruba is a good example of this, writing back in 2004:
Is there is an invisible army of terrorists gathering in America today? The mainstream media and the Bush administration do not want to talk about it.
Brown-skinned terrorists are crawling up through my toilet! Arrrgghh....
Just do the math. If only five Muslim terrorists crossed the border every day for a year that would add up to 1,825 people ready to do the bidding of Osama bin Laden. If this has been going on for just the years since 9-11, that’s an army of 5,475. Then, too, there are an estimated 2.9 million Muslims in America. Extremists, worldwide, are estimated to be about ten percent of the overall population. Applied to the US, that represents a potential 290,000 American Muslims sympathetic to the Islamist cause.
No matter how you slice and dice the numbers, it suggests that a substantial threat exists and is exacerbated by the failure to stop terrorists at our borders. They constitute a virtual army of terrorists who, if not apprehended, could create a day of havoc from coast to coast when al Qaeda gives the signal. When that day comes, remember that you read about it here first.
The Muslims are coming! The Muslims are coming! If this isn’t a blatant attempt at fear-mongering, I don’t know what would qualify. The problem is, I don't know if Caruba really believes his hyperbole, or if he's cynically manipulating the fears of others. Especially interesting, in my opinion, is this quick bio:
Alan Caruba is the founder of The National Anxiety Center, a clearinghouse for information about media-driven scare campaigns designed to influence public opinion and policy. ...A member of the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the National Association of Science Writers and a charter member of the National Book Critics Circle, Caruba applies a wide-ranging knowledge of business, science, history and other topics as he examines issues that include protecting our national sovereignty, environment and immigration, education and international affairs.
So, we have a man who started a group to inform others about media-driven scare campaigns pushing his own scare campaign about illegal Muslim immigrants who are really a secret army for Osama bin Laden, just waiting for they day when they get a message via their decoder rings to begin taking over the nation. Remember the Chuck Norris movie Invasion U.S.A.? Sounds a lot like that.
While attempts to promote fear may be most often directed against brown-skinned foreigners, it's inevitable that we all suffer from the repressive laws and policies which power-hungry authoritarians enact. Matt Weiner commented on the 2004 arrest of Purna Raj Bajracharya, a visitor from Nepal who spent 3 months in solitary confinement in a maximum security cell lit 24-hours a day because, when videotaping New York for folks back home, he got a shot of an FBI office:
This is not just the top of a slippery slope. It's already a substantial abridgement of our rights. It seems that you can't take a picture in public, for fear that it might contain federal property. Maybe this won't always be enforced, but something that you do only at the pleasure of the local police isn't something you're free to do.
When I told my mother about this, she said, "It's like the Soviet Union in the fifties." One of her college teachers was arrested on a trip to the USSR for taking unauthorized pictures.
I don't think this is necessarily an order from on high—it's just that, as Froomkin says, "the reaction to 9/11 has given some of the worst tendencies in law enforcement an undeserved patina of legitimacy."
Reacting to an incident one year later with Indian documentary filmmaker Rakesh Sharma, New York City recently drafted a new set of ordinances that would require a city permit and $1 million in liability insurance for people taking pictures or filming on city property — including sidewalks. It's not supposed to apply to causal, amateur photographers, just two or more people in one spot for at least half an hour and five or more with a tripod for at least ten minutes, but the rules are so vague as to practically beg for abusive enforcement.
Why would anyone even contemplate such unprecedented restrictions on public photography? Fear — the same fears which have long plagued photographers and which only increased after 9/11. You have an absolute right to take photographs of anything you can see when you are standing on public property, but photographers are regularly harassed and stopped by guards or police drunk with power. Fear of pedophiles, fear of terrorists, and of course fear of evidence of misdeeds getting to the public all drive attempts to restrict your right to take pictures.
It’s unconscionable, unacceptable, and utterly immoral what the government did to Mr. Bajracharya; even worse than may be the fact that they brought the criminal guards to justice. This means that we are all in danger — what happened to Bajracharya could be a sign of what is in store for the rest of us. The draft ordinances in New York City may be a sign of what will be imposed on all of us. Weiner is right, I think, in saying that we have gone well beyond the top of the slippery slope and are already living in a state where serious abridgements of our basic civil liberties are a reality. People are afraid, and this means they are will to do violence to others — or just have it done on their behalf by people in uniform.