When Franklin Delano Roosevelt attempted to rally this nation to rise up from the depths of the depression, he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Sage advice in today’s world especially as it relates to the international and domestic crises confronting us.
While fear can be a mobilizing and motivating emotion that may result in extraordinary acts of heroism – soldiers in battle saving a friend, mothers rescuing a child in danger, firefighters bringing a child out of a burning building --, all too often fear can be a crippling and destructive emotion. In the face of fear, real or imagined, we freeze, we can’t think, we lose our creativity, close off our options and become narrow and constricted – like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car we fall victim.
The American people have been fed an unending buffet of fear since the early days of the Bush 2 administration. To carry the metaphor further we have been fed a bottom-less salad of “WMDs”, “mushroom clouds”, “axis of evil”, “If we don’t fight them there, we’ll have to fight them here”, “threat to national security”, “ticking time bomb”, “socialism”, “too big to fail”, “terrorists walking down your street”, “Osama bin Laden”. In view of the amount of contradictory evidence to these “threats”, it is difficult to fathom how the American public has been able to swallow this meal and not regurgitate it.
When fear dominates the public discourse, aided and abetted by the complicity of the mass media outlets, reason is left behind. Fear is blinding and leads to the distortion of rational thought and the suspension of logic.
Some specific examples of how the public discourse is controlled by the inculcation of fear by the policy makers, with the willing collusion of the media, follow.
Guantanamo: Frightening statements are made without foundation by public figures, that, if Guantanamo is closed, “terrorists” will be released into the neighborhoods of America, walking the streets of your hometown; therefore the prison, the site of abuse and torture, cannot be closed. The President adds to the fear by not being willing to give up “indefinite detention” because the risk of trying these people under the rules of American jurisprudence is seen as too great. Is it too great because the detainees are so dangerous? Or because there might not be a legitimate case that can be made for their guilt and thereby more injustice would be exposed?
Much has been made by some office holders of a few released prisoners who have returned to the battlefield and therefore release presents a clear and present danger to American forces. Few comment on the likelihood that innocent men, after numerous years of incarceration without charge, would have “very negative attitudes” towards the United States and have undergone a conversion resulting in retribution on their former captors.
The War on Terror: Our leaders purveyed the fear of future “9/11s” as the basis for the invasions and occupations of the sovereign Muslim nations of Afghanistan and Iraq. This justification has been adopted by the current administration, also in the name of “national security”, to make us “more safe.” In 2001 it was estimated that the extremist group Al Qaeda had about 5,000 followers. Today, however, as a consequence of the occupations, the bombings, torture, extensive “collateral” damage, i.e., the deaths of thousands of innocent people, there is more hatred directed at the United States. The consequence is that there are increasing numbers of extremists and defenders of their homes who wish to do us harm, there are more service men and women who are dying and wounded. We are not more safe!
Accountability: President Obama, in the face of overwhelming evidence that serious crimes were committed by members of the preceding administration, continues to voice the mantra, “Look forward, not back.” This is an example of fear of the consequences should meaningful investigations and indictments be undertaken. Not only would Republicans be found complicit, the stain of guilt would cross the aisle and Democrats would also be found guilty of a number of crimes and misdemeanors. Does the President fear that his Party will not prevail in 2010 or 2012? Does the President fear that he will lose the traipsing of an Imperial Presidency so carefully constructed by Cheney and Bush? Representatives Pelosi and Harman with regard to briefings on “enhanced interrogations”, as members of the House Intelligence Committee, have hidden behind the cloak of, “When you serve on intelligence committee you sign a second oath – one of secrecy….I was not free to disclose anything.” [Harman, December 7, 2007] This is a pertinent example of how the fear of personal exposure to possible sanction has trumped allegiance to the oath of office – “to protect and defend the Constitution.” This change in allegiance has placed our Nation in greater danger – both from within and without. Do our elected leaders no longer respect the hallmark of this nation, the rule of law?
Single-payer health care: “Socialized Medicine” is the key fear phrase used to discredit consideration of single-payer. Discussion is “off the table” – as impeachment was – despite the ignorance behind the avoidance. Of course inculcating fear in the public is also a countermeasure for the fear of being in jeopardy, which is experienced throughout the health insurance industry, should single-payer be considered. If discussion did take place, it would likely have a negative impact on the Establishment, e.g., the insurance industry, big Pharma, the hospital corporations, and their minions of lobbyists and so fear is used to counter its own fear. This is also an example of how fear, fear of a phrase or label -- memories of Joe McCarthy and his fear campaign as Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee come flooding back – can dominate one’s thinking, suspend rationality and narrow one’s perspective to the point of not allowing an alternative view to be considered.
Afghanistan: The fear rationale presented is that if Afghanistan is not “democratized” then it will become a significant breeding ground for “terrorists” and enemies of the United States. However, the continued presence of occupation troops and the planned increases by a factor of two not only breeds more enemies, it also places large numbers of our military in harm’s way. No exit strategy has been enunciated – some generals have the opinion that the occupation will continue for decades -- and yet we continue the occupation with little outrage from Congress or the public. Is it the “fear of failure” of being victorious – where no nation has before -- that so blinds reason and leads to this escalation? Or is it the fear on the part of corporations that comprise the military/industrial complex that they will not be sufficiently profitable and therefore “wars” must be omnipresent? That the arms industries are a dominate force in determining policy is difficult to deny.
The fear of Al Qaeda, terrorists, Osama bin Laden, Muslim extremism has resulted in a dismantling of our basic principles on our own and thus doing more than these hostile forces could ever accomplish. In the name of “homeland security” we have managed to shred the Constitution, move this country closer to bankruptcy by maintaining the ever increasing military budget [estimated at over $1.2 trillion dollars in 2009] as sacrosanct, accepting an increasingly imperial presidency and defying international law.
What have we gained as a nation when we are complicit in destroying that which we profess to protect and preserve? Chris Hedges in a recent article [May 18, 2009] summed it up well, “Fear stops us from objecting to government spending on a bloated military. Fear means we will not ask unpleasant questions of those in power. Fear means that we will be willing to give up our rights and liberties for security. Fear keeps us penned in like domesticated animals.”
Yes, we have more to fear than fear itself. Often those fear-factor phrases and references lack accuracy and are designed specifically to scare people. However in order to preserve our security and the rule of law, we must each have the courage to put our engendered fears and the blinders that come with it aside, lend our voices and actions grounded in our integrity and principles, and thereby promote truth and justice.
The author is a retired psychologist living in Ogunquit, Maine. In 2008 he was an Independent candidate for the U. S. Senate.