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Phantom Terrorism and the Paranoid American Public

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September 11th, 2001
September 11th, 2001
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In a recent Pew Research poll, 76% of 1,502 adult respondents said the nation's highest priority should be to "defend the country from terrorism." That concern polled higher even than obvious real needs such as "strengthening the economy," "improving the educational system," "improving the job situation," and "reducing healthcare costs."

How does "defending the country from terrorism" stack up against reality? Well, actual terrorism from abroad has a near-negligible existence here in the United States. In the 15+ years since 9-11, only some 14 Americans have been killed by foreign-born terrorists in the US. That works out to less than 1 American fatality per year. It is a phantom threat.

When people fear being the target of a virtually non-existent danger, they can be described as paranoid. In this case, our entire country merits that label. You are less likely to be killed by a foreign-engineered terrorist attack here in the United States than you are to be killed by lightning, a dog bite, or fireworks.

Where does this paranoia come from? Although it may start with an actual event, it's fed by both the mainstream news media and government politicians. The terrorist attacks of 9-11 and loss of 2,996 lives shocked the American public like never before. Now more than 15 years later, the haunting memories of that day are still kept alive by a news industry insatiable for attention and profits and by two political parties ever hungry for power.

Recently a Muslim terrorist was captured outside the Louvre in Paris. Although armed with two machetes he did not kill anyone. Muslim terrorism is a real menace in France and even an uneventful incident like this one deserves coverage -- there. But why here in the US? The US is separated from France by a vast ocean and a very different history. Yet this incident was turned into a headline story on the CBS national news and even in my local paper here in Salt Lake City, 5000 miles away from Paris.

This is fearmongering, pure and simple. It's a venerable form of propaganda going back to the First World War and the Hearst newspapers' alarms about Germany ("the Hun is coming!!"). It was used extensively during the Cold War, with US soldiers being shown training films depicting a planet being inundated by the Red Menace.

As a schoolchild in the 1950s I remember air-raid drills where we practiced getting under our desks in case of a nuclear attack by the Soviets. In the Reagan era Americans were told that Nicaragua (!) posed a dire threat to our security. In 2002-03, the Bush administration whipped up support for its invasion of Iraq by fabricating stories about "Iraqi weapons of mass destruction" and "mushroom clouds."

Now Donald Trump falls in line by claiming that "Radical Islamic terrorists are determined to strike our homeland, as they did on 9/11." For no apparent reason other than fulfilling a jingoistic pledge he made on the campaign trail, he orders a ban on all visitors from six Muslim countries -- despite the fact that no one from any of these countries has ever perpetrated a single terrorist killing in the United States. He claims it's a "national security emergency."

Although every federal judge who has heard the case and virtually every foreign policy expert disagree with Trump, polls show that close to half of the American people support such a ban.

Fearmongering is a powerful force in society for several reasons. It plays on people's natural insecurities, insecurities that are magnified by incessant coverage of terrorism, war, crime, natural disasters, terrible accidents, etc. in the national and local news media and by zombie flicks, alien invader movies, crime shows, hospital dramas, and so on.

Because fearmongering draws attention, it is exploited by the news media for increased profits. And it is used by government leaders and political parties to create a nervous citizenry willing to depend on those same leaders and parties for "protection" and thus easily controlled.

For all these reasons, fearmongering has become S.O.P. in this country. Donald Trump clearly understands this and took full advantage of it during the election campaign. His signature vow was to wall off our entire southern border to prevent "criminals and rapists" from flooding the country. At the Republican National Convention he said, "The first task for our new administration will be to liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens our communities." More recently he claimed, contrary to fact, that crime in America is "at an all-time high."

How long will Trump's wild claims about an invasion of radical Muslim terrorists continue to have traction? What new bogeymen will he and his Svengali, Steve Bannon, come up with next? Anything seems possible -- and they're guaranteed to have a receptive audience in this paranoid, easily-manipulated nation of ours.

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Tom Huckin is a professor emeritus of English and Writing at the University of Utah, specializing in the study of modern propaganda. He has co-authored five books on academic subjects and written some 90 scholarly papers, including a chapter in (more...)

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