“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.