The Culture of Fear Undermines America

One consequence of having an incompetent President and a rubber-stamp Congress was that al Qaeda was allowed victory in 2001. Not only did Bush ignore the warnings that might have prevented the attack, he played into bin Laden’s hands both at home and the middle east. Al Qaeda couldn’t have hoped for more success even if they had a mole of their own occupying the oval office.

In the middle east, Bush pushed up bin Laden’s hopes of overthrowing secular dictatorships such as in Iraq by years. Moderate Muslims were turned into haters of America. Pro-democracy groups world wide have been discredited by those who equate the spread of democracy with Bush’s insane foreign policy.

These are all topics discussed many times before. I’ve written far less about how the irrational response to 9/11 has also provide al Qaeda with a victory in the United States. The goal if terror is, quite obviously, to create a feeling of terror. While Bush ignored most Democratic recommendations for real improvements in homeland security, he took advantage of the opportunity to increase the sense of terror for political gain. We saw the color coded terror alerts change whenever they needed a bump in the polls before the 2004 election, with even former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge questioning the need for some of the alerts. Creating an Orwellian state of perpetual warfare allowed the Bush administration to push through many of their pre-9/11 goals, including the invasion of Iraq and many components of the Patriot Act.

Zbigniew Brzezinski has an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that the three word mantra “War on Terror,” has “Undermined America.”

The “war on terror” has created a culture of fear in America. The Bush administration’s elevation of these three words into a national mantra since the horrific events of 9/11 has had a pernicious impact on American democracy, on America’s psyche and on U.S. standing in the world. Using this phrase has actually undermined our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us.

The damage these three words have done — a classic self-inflicted wound — is infinitely greater than any wild dreams entertained by the fanatical perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks when they were plotting against us in distant Afghan caves. The phrase itself is meaningless. It defines neither a geographic context nor our presumed enemies. Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique of warfare — political intimidation through the killing of unarmed non-combatants.

But the little secret here may be that the vagueness of the phrase was deliberately (or instinctively) calculated by its sponsors. Constant reference to a “war on terror” did accomplish one major objective: It stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue. The war of choice in Iraq could never have gained the congressional support it got without the psychological linkage between the shock of 9/11 and the postulated existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Support for President Bush in the 2004 elections was also mobilized in part by the notion that “a nation at war” does not change its commander in chief in midstream. The sense of a pervasive but otherwise imprecise danger was thus channeled in a politically expedient direction by the mobilizing appeal of being “at war.”

To justify the “war on terror,” the administration has lately crafted a false historical narrative that could even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By claiming that its war is similar to earlier U.S. struggles against Nazism and then Stalinism (while ignoring the fact that both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were first-rate military powers, a status al-Qaeda neither has nor can achieve), the administration could be preparing the case for war with Iran. Such war would then plunge America into a protracted conflict spanning Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and perhaps also Pakistan…

In the meantime, the “war on terror” has gravely damaged the United States internationally. For Muslims, the similarity between the rough treatment of Iraqi civilians by the U.S. military and of the Palestinians by the Israelis has prompted a widespread sense of hostility toward the United States in general. It’s not the “war on terror” that angers Muslims watching the news on television, it’s the victimization of Arab civilians. And the resentment is not limited to Muslims. A recent BBC poll of 28,000 people in 27 countries that sought respondents’ assessments of the role of states in international affairs resulted in Israel, Iran and the United States being rated (in that order) as the states with “the most negative influence on the world.” Alas, for some that is the new axis of evil!

The events of 9/11 could have resulted in a truly global solidarity against extremism and terrorism. A global alliance of moderates, including Muslim ones, engaged in a deliberate campaign both to extirpate the specific terrorist networks and to terminate the political conflicts that spawn terrorism would have been more productive than a demagogically proclaimed and largely solitary U.S. “war on terror” against “Islamo-fascism.” Only a confidently determined and reasonable America can promote genuine international security which then leaves no political space for terrorism.

Where is the U.S. leader ready to say, “Enough of this hysteria, stop this paranoia”? Even in the face of future terrorist attacks, the likelihood of which cannot be denied, let us show some sense. Let us be true to our traditions.

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    Michael Meyer says:

    I only just read this piece and Mr. Brzenzinski’s excellent op ed essay. It reinforces the sense I have of being manipulated for political purposes each time I travel by air, and at the airport find myself exposed to meaningless, fear-provoking “warnings” about the current “threat level.” At Chicago’s O’Hare, about every two or three minutes the same recorded message tells us that the Department of Homeland Security has set the current threat level to [here the announcer pauses, and then lowers his voice ominously] … ORANGE.” And driving to Washington’s Reagan National one is confronted with a huge, illuminated sign conveying the same warning: “ORANGE.” What is one to do with this information? Any claim that it alerts travellers to be more aware of threatening behavior strains credulity. When was the last time anyone heard of a terrorist plot having been foiled by an alert passenger spotting suspicious behavior. And why would these repetitious warnings make passengers more alert in the first place? Plainly, as with so many actions taken by our elected representatives, conservative and liberal alike,the reason for these omnipresent, but meaningless, warnings is the one described by Mr. Brzezinski: to keep us all in a state of fear, and thereby be more likely to support the political party that thinks it is perceived as more likely to stand up to terrorists. As the last election demonstrated, such a political stratagy is doomed to fail. But when will it end?

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