What You Should Think About Fear

July 1, 2008

“Fear is not the natural state of a civilized people.”

–Aung San Suu Kyi

Senator Joe Lieberman is a fascinating study in missing the point.  I first became aware of this when he embarked on a campaign to censor violence in video games.  Here was a grown man, well-educated, commanding a large capable staff, and placed in a position of moral obligation to be astute on a wide range of issues.  Yet he was convinced of a strong causal link between an entertainment medium and the worst sorts of human behavior.  In joining that misguided crusade, he fell in line with a shameful tradition of cultural conservatives ignoring substance in order to attack music or films or books or even plays.  The same buffoonery has been going on in public squares since the Agora of Athens was established.

Still, this particular Senator never fails to disappoint.  Forget about failing to deliver Florida in the 2000 election (after all, Vice President Gore’s organization bungled Tennessee even worse.)  Senator Lieberman’s misadventures go well beyond an ineffective run for his own Vice Presidency.  Whenever presented with a chance to display some insight into international relations, security issues, and counterterrorism policy; the man displays a natural gift for apparently sincere obliviousness.

Either that, or he is truly a coward.  If this is the case, then he is not merely cowering in fear for himself, but coweing in fear for the entire nation.  After all, less than eight years ago, this great nation was attacked by nineteen men with small knives.  Of course that means we must escalate warfare throughout the Middle East until both Iran and Iraq are merely parking lots for the great shopping malls of Dubai and Saudi Arabia, right?

This is the thing to keep clearly in mind as the security debate unfolds.  Armed only with a clever plan and a few inches of sharpened steel, nineteen men brought the United States of America to tears.  Perhaps because of one subject that is still taboo — the extraordinary weakness that enabled such a modest effort to produce such horrific results — we made a collective choice to fight first and think later.

Thus this choice was made without regard for little matters like target selection, means of engagement, post-invasion planning, etc.  Rather than fight back against those who had bloodied, terrorized, and (dare I say it) shamed us; this nation chose to fight for fighting’s sake.  We did not reform transportation safety to bring about real security upgrades.  We reformed it to satisfy the political desire to make people feel as if action were being taken.  We did not deploy armies to neutralize the actual threat to our safety.  We deployed them to satisfy a convoluted mix of political goals, with greater emphasis on acts that would predictably strengthen Al Qaeda than those that would be likely to weaken or eliminate the group.

For people acquainted with relevant facts, it seems hard to imagine such a stupid response to such an important issue.  In the coarsest levels of political dialogue, many conclude that this is because people like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and even Senator Lieberman are all evil men intent on bringing the nation to ruin.  I suppose there is some possibility that apocalyptic delusions of grandeur influence the sitting President’s worldview, and Dick Cheney is disturbingly comfortable in the role of a latter day Darth Vader.  However, I believe that it is nonsense to suggest either of them actually hates America or desires ruin befall our people.

They are simply terrorized.  The goal of the terrorist is to strike fear into the hearts of many people.  Even with the stunningly lethal outcomes of the 9/11 hijackings, American security was not significantly changed.  Rare is the month our driving habits fail to kill more people than died in those terrorist attacks.  A perfectly rational response would be to pursue the perpetrators and their accomplices, implement a sensible transportation safety plan, and go on about routine business.  An understandably irrational response would be to dwell on a mix of anger or sadness for a time, then go forward with the rational response.  Given national leadership that was adequate or better, recent history would have played out along understandable lines.

It did no such thing in large part because a particularly twisted and corrupt subset of politicians happily exploit the fact that fear is power.  Making the absurd leap from Saudi men with boxcutters to an Axis of Evil intent on nuking our homeland was only possible because a traumatized people are vulnerable to the absurd.  It was all made much worse still by political hate media — the sort that continues to draw enormous audiences no matter how profoundly wrong its content has been in the past.  Perhaps there are still some sensible voices on the American political right wing, but they are largely drowned out by other voices that cunningly exploit negative emotions — fear, anger, and hatred — to galvanize resistance against constructive political change.

When Senator John McCain’s campaign recently floated the “we put the nation first, the other candidate puts his left wing agenda ahead of the nation” campaign theme, it seems as if it could only have emerged from a circle of terrorized political advisors.  Like Senator Lieberman, it seems Senator McCain and most of his inner circle are still deathly afraid that the United States of America will prove no match for the next band of fanatics to arm themselves with innocuous tools and a cunning plan.  To hear them speak of strength and experience, to hear them criticize the opposition as weak or soft — the irony that such craven jellyfish would take that tone should be lost on no one.  Alas, it is lost on virtually everyone, including many of their critics.

It would have been a great thing for the world if cooler heads had prevailed in late 2001 and beyond.  Heck, it probably would have been great for the world if cooler heads had taken charge in 2004.  This fall, another opportunity presents itself to let cooler heads prevail.  John McCain may not be more quick-tempered or loud-mouthed than Barack Obama.  However, his continued embrace of bloodshed justified by only the most absurd and implausible of political narratives is a shameful misjudgement that threatens to pile misery atop misery, slaughter atop slaughter, all in one of the most oppressed parts of the modern world.

We should fear terrorists . . . we should fear them even more than we fear lightning strikes, but certainly much less than we fear smog.  All these risks are real, yet they are also all no reason whatsoever for a routine day to be uncomfortable.  The more our behavior reflects a terrorized mindset, the less keenly we will be able to focus efforts on neutralizing actual terrorism.  Even worse, the blundering and slaughtering will continue, perhaps even escalate, while decisions are made based on this terrorized mindset.

It is long past time to overcome this insipid fear, spawned by nineteen suicidal fanatics and nursed into a behemoth by years of carefully calculated political misinformation.  The best security credential anyone could bring to a bid for the Presidency in 2008 is a clear history of opposing misguided military aggression in a climate when such opposition was boldly unpopular.  If we truly want to be strong as a nation, then the time has come for us to show the world no fear.  Endorsing the views and candidacies of leaders still clearly and deeply terrorized by the events of September 11th, 2001 is showing plenty of fear — the very fear by which our true enemies define their own successes.


What You Should Think About the War

September 30, 2007

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

–Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Bonus points go out to readers reacting to this title with the thought, “which war?” Efforts ongoing in Afghanistan could be said to constitute a war. The stage has been set for perpetual warfare in Iraq. The latter is clearly the 800 lbs. gorilla in any room where American politics are up for discussion. Operation Iraqi Freedom is a worthy topic unto itself, as are many facets of it. It would be wrong to avoid it entirely in my first essay here to go beyond self-reference.

Yet I do want to take it in context. That means examining the Global War on Terror. Like the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty, it is an idea that wears its faults in its name. “War” is the clash of great powers employing force of arms to defeat dangerous enemies. Terror (as defined by the creators of GWoT) does not come at us with legions of uniformed soldiers. This is as true as the fact that there are no marines set to storm beaches in the name of Poverty nor an air force poised to rain down fire on enemies of Drugs.

The decision to couch counterterrorism policy in the language of war is deliberately misleading. The false narrative it promotes empowers Al Qaeda and so many copycat groups by raising them up to the level of dire threats capable of destroying the American way of life. Without that lie, their power is actually fairly feeble. What’s that? Terrorists are weak, and they do not deserve our fear? Then why has the world turned so in these past six years?

The world seemed to shake on September 11th, 2001. Actually, the globe’s vibrations were fairly normal. It was the hazy atmosphere around our world that was abuzz with the news of the day. Nearly 3,000 people, including citizens from dozens of other nations, died in attacks against powerful American institutions. Many great human beings were murdered by those malicious hijackers. Yet the most notable casualty of the day might be the myth of American invulnerability.

The desire to restore perfect national security was real, even if the security itself never was. Much time would pass before any voices of prominence asked, “how much safety is enough?” It would be a happy occurrence if we could keep traffic fatalities below 3,000 in any given month. Taking a rational approach, we should be a great deal more afraid of our cars than we should be of Al Qaeda. Unfortunately for the world, a pair of religious extremists (both formerly oil money playboys) made it their business to crush rational approaches to terrorism.

Admittedly, Osama bin Laden would be out of a job if his followers had the good sense to abandon violence and pursue other methods of advancing their agendas. On the other hand, it seems bizarre that an American President would want actual terrorist attacks (never mind intercepted chatter about terrorist attacks or idle speculation about possible terrorism) to successfully terrorize people. Yet again and again and again, this real threat is made to seem cause for much greater concern than many other equally real, and much more threatening, phenomena.

A false narrative exaggerating the power of terrorists is a really lousy thing for American morale, prosperity, etc. However, it is a very useful thing for purposes of consolidating political power and expanding the scope of the police state. Perhaps the executive branch really is run by some sinister Machiavellian throwback, or perhaps it is only that public policy has been painted with too broad a brush. Whatever the mechanism, its output is unmistakable.

“We have to do everything we can to support the troops,” becomes a mandate to ignore the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, ignore the shamelessly incompetent planning behind that war, and even turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of mercenaries far more eager to cash in on our flag than to honor it. “We have to do everything we can to keep secrets from our enemies,” becomes a mandate to stonewall all manner of legitimate investigations, conduct unwarranted surveillance on American citizens, and even operate secret prisons in far off lands where civilized oversight becomes a non-issue.

The Department of Homeland Security’s spending is so disordered that adequate records to certify an audit simply do not exist. Meanwhile the Pentagon continues a long string of failed audits. Hey, there’s a war on – bean counting will have to wait, right? The missile defense shield as it is already being built cannot defend against missiles? Don’t anybody dare let the public understand this or we’ll all look weak in front of those deadly terrorists! Even something like the political tactics that spawned the term “swiftboating” becomes excusable to an American coward living in constant terror of Al Qaeda’s next move (provided that same fearful patriot also buys into a false narrative implying a partisan monopoly on security and strength.)

If you live in, work at, or commute across a landmark famed the world over, perhaps it is excusable to indulge in a moment’s fear from time to time. Fear of terrorism is much like fear of flying. As feelings, neither can really be “wrong,” though preoccupation with such fears can be unhealthy. After all, we would be fools to let people living in constant fear of flying set aviation policy for the entire nation. By the same logic, our counterterrorism policy should not rest on a foundation of constant fear.

Did we need to expand our intelligence services and special forces programs so as to better locate and neutralize confirmed terrorist operatives? That sounds like a reasonable response to world events. Did we need to accelerate spending on a brand new fleet of stealthy air superiority warplanes? That has nothing to do with terrorism, but under the umbrella of “the best equipment for our armed forces” it adds many billions more to this unprecedented borrowing binge.

In the contorted self-serving logic of the political insider, this unilateral arms race must continue because the defense industry performs the indispensable role of funding political campaigns for individuals willing to facilitate runaway spending on big ticket military technology. From Russkies to ragheads, the true nature of a demonized adversary matters little. It is the climate of fear, promoted more effectively by our own public officials than any foreign attackers, that stifles vital legitimate questions about the usefulness of vast swaths of appropriations to the Pentagon.

While big (taxpayer) bucks for big aerospace remain untouched by present policy, several of America’s proudest traditions were not to be preserved intact. The terrorist menace demands that expanded security services possess expanded powers, and those damned terrorists are so clever and dangerous that not even investigative journalists with well-earned security clearances should get the facts about how these services actually operate. Imagine how quickly Katie Couric would lose her job if she ever modified the phrase “secret police force” with “American.” Yet what else are these security agents, legally exempted from judicial oversight while hauling suspects off to obscure foreign prisons, but America’s new secret police?

Soon I intend to address operations in Iraq and operations in Afghanistan. Actual “army in the field” wars certainly merit ample attention. Yet I believe this political context is the only way to make sense of executive work product shaping the courses of events in those nations. There was, and continues to be, far too much emphasis on preserving false narratives used to popularize White House policies. Reasonable informed discourse is typically crowded out by bickering about misinformation. Understanding the extent, and perceived value, of those lies may help pave the way for their decisive dismissal.

So, what should you think about the war? When it comes to the Global War on Terror, you should first and foremost think that terrorists are, in terms of actually killing Americans, somewhere in the same league as movie theater popcorn butter or black ice on the highway. A governmental response to terrorism is sensible . . . but this response?!? It seems to only validate the theory that America has been well and truly terrorized.

Whether or not that is true, just imagine the progress that could have been made concentrating hundreds of billions of dollars of American ingenuity and industriousness into an anti-cancer effort or an Apollo Program for alternative energy research. I’m enough of a patriot to think that we could have kicked cancer’s ass by now. What did our nation really gain . . . and what did we lose . . . by pursuing priorities emergent from the Global War on Terror?