Thursday, February 02, 2006

Fear itself

[From Tom Tomorrow]

When he was introducing me at some of my talks in the Riverside area of Southern California last week, my friend Louis Vandenberg used a line that stuck with me:
"Hate, at its core, is the product of fear."

I'm sure I've heard formulations like this before, but it had a special resonance for me in part because I had been spending much of that weekend rehashing the Japanese American internment as part of my appearance at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, where I gave a talk on Jan. 21.

The museum's main pavilion, if you haven't been there, is well worth a visit. The architect was Gyo Obata, who also created the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum; as you might expect, it is a building filled with light. It is also quite consciously American.

The permanent exhibit is also worth touring, especially as an antidote for the revisionists prone to glossing over the real history of Japanese Americans.

Because so much of that history is riddled with fear -- an irrational distrust of the Japanese "Others" who came to our shores in large numbers between 1890 and 1924, a fear that was fanned by white-supremacist ideology and wild-eyed conspiracy theories that forever characterized these immigrants as the "Yellow Peril."

Eventually, that fear erupted into outright hatred after Pearl Harbor, and the result was perhaps inevitable:

This event is all the more remarkable for having occurred under the aegeis of the president who announced, in his inaugural address:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Yet Roosevelt himself, as we've seen, was prone to believing many of the same fear-driven stereotypes of Japanese immigrants promulgated by the haters. That bigotry translated, during a time of great national trauma -- when fear of the Japanese was being whipped into outright hysteria -- into his own failure to distinguish between Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans in signing Executive Order 9066, which in the end became a great blot on his record as president.

It was also a clear failure on FDR's part to live up to his own admonishment. Obviously, refusing to succumb to "fear itself" is easier said than done.

Yet I have often thought that, in today's post-9/11 environment, progressives would do well to arm themselves with FDR's old slogan. What better rebuke to the Bush administration -- and the conservative movement that, as Tom Tomorrow's cartoon beautifully illustrates, is nowadays positively driven by fearmongering?

After a steady diet of:
"9/11!" "9/11!" "Be afraid. Be very afraid." "Bin Laden! Bin Laden!" "Boogadah boogadah!"

I can think of no better reply than this:
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Keeping our heads about ourselves in this environment is absolutely essential for the nation to win. The American right's fearmongering and divisiveness is thus exactly the worst thing for the country.

It doesn't hurt to remind people that the right's fearmongering isn't an accident, either. It is, in fact, part of a political marketing campaign that cynically uses the threat of terrorism as a wedge issue:
Think, if you will, about the different kinds of terror at work here. The war against international terror plays out on a global stage, and as it's been waged so far by this administration, in remote and exotic locales. When Bush invokes the "war on terror," it revolves around images of Arab fanatics and desert combat. It's far removed from our daily realities -- except, of course, for the coffins coming home on military transports, images of which are forbidden to the press.

This is a peculiar, amorphous terror to which we as individuals feel only remotely or vaguely connected. The attacks of Sept. 11 are raised to remind us it can strike here, but the source of the terror is something that seems distant and disattached to us. The less concrete it is, the more vague the potential response. Thus Saddam Hussein can be conflated with Osama bin Laden as a threat to America and an entire war campaign constructed around his role in "the war on terror," though it is becoming increasingly clear he had little if any role in the Sept. 11 attacks.

This is a highly marketable kind of terrorism, in the sense that its potential threat can be invoked at any time to justify an entire panoply of political moves, as well as to impugn the patriotism of your opponents. This sort of "war on terror" doesn't require any real sacrifices on the part of the public -- unless, of course, you happen to draw the unlucky Gold Star -- but being on the Right Side is easy, since the Enemy is The Other. He isn't The Guy Next Door.

This makes "the war on terror" into anything but an effective response to the threat:
The key to winning any war, whether amorphous, cold, or real, is contingent on one's ability to objectively assess the facts on the ground. When your assessments are constantly twisted by politics, ideology, and public relations, you lose that ability. The Bush "war on terror" is doomed to fail because it has made itself ideologically incapable of recognizing the real nature of terrorism itself.

The result has been a "war on terror" that is recognizably a sham.

... The liberal response can't just be different: It has to be effective. It has be based on a rational consideration of the facts on the ground and must jettison ideological blinkers of all kinds. Most of all, it has to take a realistic measure of the actual nature of terrorism.

The first recognition has to be that terrorism is an asymmetrical threat: that is, unlike conflicts between nations, it involves an attack by a small entity (perhaps only a handful of people) against a large nation. Likewise, the danger terrorist acts represent are outsized compared to the scale of the organization undertaking them.

The essence of terrorism is undermining citizens' sense of security, their belief that their government is capable of protecting them adequately. As P. Terrence Hopmann explains:

Asymmetrical conflict succeeds by playing on such fears. Terrorism strikes at innocent civilians going about their daily lives. It also flourishes on flexibility and uncertainty. The terrorist has the advantage of choosing the time, place, and means of attack. The targets are mostly symbolic, chosen for maximum psychological impact. The goal is to disrupt the lives of all. In fact, the capacity to instill in ordinary people the fear that they can be attacked anytime and anywhere, while doing just about anything, is the most important weapon terrorists have.

It's important to remember that such threats cannot be dealt with by ordinary military means. Of course, those who commit such horrendous acts of terrorism as those carried out on September 11 must be found and brought to justice, one way or another. But the classic riposte of retaliation against the homeland of the aggressor may not only be meaningless, it may be dangerous, creating additional terrorists who are even more dedicated and self-sacrificing than those who went before. And as long as the terrorists continue to find fertile soil on which to operate anywhere in the world, they will be able to survive, to react flexibly to circumvent whatever security measures the United States and other countries put in place, and to find new means to deliver terror at times and places of their own choosing.

The Bush administration has dealt with terrorism in a classic symmetrical response, sending the military out into action against other nations. But terrorism is not state-based; it floats about the fringes of whatever places it finds a foothold under the various circumstances that inspire it. This is pretty much everywhere, including the United States.

We can also see that, if "the capacity to instill in ordinary people the fear that they can be attacked anytime and anywhere, while doing just about anything, is the most important weapon terrorists have," then the conservative right has been handing them that weapon with great regularity and avidity.

The result, besides an absurd skewing of our domestic priorities, has been to significantly worsen terrorism as a global phenomenon:
The sum of "international" and "domestic" terrorist attacks in 2005 was 3991, up 51 percent from the previous year's figure of 2639. The number of deaths that resulted from those attacks was 6872, which is 36 percent higher than the 5066 that occurred in 2004.

Notably, when the White House was confronted with this information, the official response nearly incoherent:
Well, just look at the facts. If you look at the facts, many of al Qaeda's known leadership have been put out of business. They've been brought to justice. They've either been captured or killed. No longer is America waiting and responding. We're on the offense; we're taking the fight to the enemy. We are engaged in a war on terrorism. The enemies recognize how high the stakes are. And one thing the President will talk about, continue to talk about tomorrow night and in the coming weeks, is that we continue to face a serious threat. This is a deadly and determined enemy. But the difference is now that we've got them on the run, we've got them playing defense, we're taking the fight to them. And all of us in the international community must continue to work together.

We've been fortunate that we haven't been hit again since the attacks of September 11th. And that's in no small part because of the great work of our men and women in uniform abroad, and because of the great work of our intelligence community, and the great work of our homeland security officials here at home who have worked together using vital tools, like the Patriot Act and other tools, to help disrupt plots and disrupt attacks. And there's great progress being made.

But the President made it clear after September 11th that this was going to be a long war, but he's going to continue acting and leading and doing everything in his power to win that war so long as he is in office. And we also have to work to continue to advance freedom. And 2006 was a year of progress when it came to advancing freedom around the world. The Middle East is a dangerous, troubled region, and that's why it's important we continue to support the advance of democracy throughout that region.

That's the Bush administration's "war on terror" in a nutshell: Its "facts" are hodgepodge of feel-good talking points that have little or no relationship to reality. And in case anyone forgot: "9/11!" "9/11!"

As Digby and Glenn Greenwald -- along with Joseph J. Ellis in the New York Times -- have been pointing out, it's especially important to place the real threat of terrorism in its proper perspective.

Is it an existential threat comparable to the fact of a nuclear-armed superpower with its weaponry pointed at us, or a fascist totalitarianism that intended to militarily overrrun the world, and was capable of it? Well, no. It's not even close.

As Al Gore put it recently:
One of the other ways the administration has tried to control the flow of information has been by consistently resorting to the language and politics of fear in order to short-circuit the debate and drive its agenda forward without regard to the evidence or the public interest.

President Eisenhower said this: "Any who act as if freedom's defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America."

Fear drives out reason. Fear suppresses the politics of discourse and opens the door to the politics of destruction. Justice Brandeis once wrote, "Men feared witches and burnt women."

The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their endeavors, they would have been hung as traitors. The very existence of our country was at risk. Yet in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on establishing the full Bill of Rights.

Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol?

Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of thousands of nuclear missiles ready to be launched on a moment's notice to completely annihilate the country?

Is America really in more danger now than when we faced worldwide fascism on the march, when the last generation had to fight and win two world wars simultaneously?

It is simply an insult to those who came before us and sacrificed so much on our behalf to imply that we have more to be fearful of than they did.

And yet they faithfully protected our freedom and now it's up to us to do the very same thing.

It's important to remember that there have been very real sociopolitical consequences to the right's fearmongering as well. One of these, as Louis' formula suggests, is an environment rich in hate.

We hate terrorists. We also hate treasonous liberals, who aid and abet them. And we hate illegal immigrants. We also hate Muslims of any stripe, and Arabs of any stripe. And the French too, just because. Hate, hate, hate. We love to hate.

The result, not surprisingly, is a great and gradual rendering of our national social fabric. Family ties have been severed. Old friendships torn asunder. Community wells poisoned.

Eventually, conservative rule will come to an end, and progressives will have a lot of work to do just repairing the mess that they've made of things. Winning the "war on terror" will just be a start. Repairing the damage from the hate they've fostered ... well, that may take generations.

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