The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fear Itself And The Fearful Who Fear It

Our Over-Reactions to the Threat of Terrorism May Come to Endanger Other Cherished Freedoms

French authorities evacuated the Eiffel Tower yesterday after the Parisian landmark received an anonymous bomb threat. The threat turned out to be a hoax but French police were already on alert. The French legislature voted yesterday to ban Muslim women wearing burqas in public. Al-Qaida and several other Islamic extremist groups had vowed violent retaliation if the law passed.

The Western world now views Islamic terrorism and Islam in general with extreme apprehension and misgiving, flinching reflexively at its possible displeasure. This is certainly true right here in America, where we just observed the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

We launched a war in Afghanistan to find those responsible for that atrocity and bring them to justice but our response was not limited to overseas. The federal government revamped security at airports and on airplanes that remains strictly enforced. Congress passed an array of measures, known as the Patriot Act, giving law enforcement and the Executive Branch broad powers to deal with terrorism. These stripped virtually all legal/civil rights from those accused of such crimes and potentially curtailed the civil liberties of every American – all in the name of safety.

Such law passed and receive renewal/extension because our leaders at the time began assuring us al-Qaida was plotting other large-scale attacks before the smoke and ash from September 11 had cleared away. Our leaders further assured us that al-Qaida was a large, global, active organization, posing a substantial and imminent threat to U.S. security.

As it turned out, al-Qaida has not successfully carried out any other large-scale attacks on American soil. Yet the people fearing further attacks in the aftermath of September 11 insist the danger is as urgent as ever. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney fretted on the political talk show circuit back in 2009 that moves by the Obama Administration to relax/repeal some of the measures put in place by the Bush Administration was “making America less safe.”

As recently as this week, Marc Thiessen, a former Bush Administration senior official and currently a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute), wrote the following classic argument from ignorance in the Washington Post. “There is no evidence that al-Qaida’s intent to replicate or exceed the destruction of September 11 has abated . . . Is it really safe to assume it is not planning something equally staggering for the 10th anniversary?”

Nobody doubts al-Qaida’s continued existence or plotting against America. I have argued many times that we are not significantly safer today than we were before September 11. However, I think many are overstating just how unsafe this makes us and we are grossly overreacting in our response tactics to this threat.

A new study issued by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center and chaired by former Republican Governor Thomas Kean of New Jersey and former Democratic Representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana, also co-chairs of the September 11 Commission, promotes this same reasoning. The report says the U.S. intelligence community was wrong about al-Qaida intentions of “matching or besting the loss of life and destruction” it caused on September 11.

“The threat that the U.S. is facing is different than it was nine years ago,” the report concludes. “It is now clear that militants see operational value in conducting more frequent and less sophisticated attacks, which are harder to detect and require less high level coordination.”

In light of such growing evidence, Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek asks, “Have we gone too far? Is the vast expansion in governmental powers and bureaucracies – layered on top of the already enormous military-industrial complex of the Cold War – unwarranted?”

He answers in the affirmative goes on to fret, “It has become an article of faith that we are gravely threatened by vast swarms of Islamic terrorists, many within the country. [It] has fueled a climate of fear and anger. It has created suspicions about U.S. Muslims . . . Ironically, this is precisely the intent of terrorism.”

ABC News anchor and commentator Ted Koppel explains this last part further. “The goal of any organized terrorist attack is to goad a vastly more powerful enemy into an excessive response,” he writes in the New York Times. The worst possible excess response is blind panic, causing society and government’s normal structure and operations to descend into chaos. This was never even remotely a concern for the U.S. following September 11.

However, as Koppel notes, “The insidious thing about terrorism is that there is no such thing as absolute security. Each incident provokes the contemplation of something worse to come.” Another excessive response is one completely out of proportion to the threat. The U.S. has been guilty of this type of overreaction repeatedly. The result, Koppel grimly concludes, is “a swollen national security apparatus” and an America “so absorbed in our own fury” that we are “oblivious to our enemy’s intentions.”

Yet those like Cheney and Thiessen continue to peddle their fear, arguments from ignorance, and forebodings over what might happen to attentive audiences. They point to numerous uncovered plots and thwarted/failed attempts by terrorists since September 11 as proof of the continuing danger, never acknowledging that a planned attack is not the same as an executed attack nor an unsuccessfully executed attack the same as a successful one.

The reason behind their appeal is simple. If the neocons have no other shining legacy for conservatives, it is their success at ingraining a mindset in the American collective consciousness that the threat from terrorism is overwhelming and imminent. Moreover, they have convinced us that surrendering liberties to ensure freedom is neither lazy nor cowardly but rather an act of wise pragmatism by a democratic society.

A McClatchy-Ipsos poll this past January found fifty-one percent of Americans agreed, “It is necessary to give up some civil liberties in order to make the country safe from terrorism.” Only thirty-six worried, “Some of the government’s proposals will go too far in restricting the public's civil liberties.”

The usual bromide to quote here is Benjamin Franklin’s admonition, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” However, I find myself drawn to the famous opening lines of FDR’s first 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.”

Of course, Roosevelt was not talking about the threat of Islamic extremist violence. He was referring to the potential greater dangers resulting from the economic crisis we came to call the Great Depression. Yet this makes the comparison even more compelling, in my opinion.

The same “anti-socialism, protect individual liberties, return to the traditional values of the Founding Fathers, take back this country” conservatives who deride big government in virtually every other instance are most often the staunchest supporters of things like the Patriot Act and other measures that trade freedom for safety. However, there are other types of safety besides physical safety from terrorist attacks.

There is economic safety, for example, and we are still limping out of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. Now convinced that surrendering civil liberties to be safe from terrorism is not only acceptable but prudent, how willing might certain politicians find Americans to give up other rights and protections for, say, job security? How even more willing might we be to see certain types of people – such as immigrants, illegal or otherwise – lose their rights and protections altogether? We could always invent a new term to avoid squeamish legal and ethical questions, such as “enemy workers.”

The very reason many big corporations give for not investing the billions of dollars they are known to be sitting on to create new jobs is their fear over what Obamacare and other Democratic policies might bring. How far would business-friendly Republicans go to assuage Wall Street's fears?

When conservatives flock to voting booths, intent on returning control one or both houses of Congress to Republicans and Tea Partiers after the midterm elections this fall, they had better think twice about the beliefs and motives of the representatives they are choosing. They might also consider how far and how easily the “safety over freedom” mindset, which they have helped give precedence and legitimacy, is subject to potential abuse.

To paraphrase FDR, we have nothing to fear but fear itself . . . and the fearful who fear it.

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