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The Politics of Fear

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Every year since September 11, 2001, the President has declared and Congress has voted that we continue in a state of emergency. One must wonder what threshold must be met to end this threat. As long as there is an official state of emergency, there is a legitimization of nearly any action identified as an effort in the war on terrorism. Terror alerts, with their accompanying color codes, have never been accompanied by any specific instructions for increasing safety or reducing fear. Imagine a severe storm warning issued by the National Weather Service with the only instructions being “be careful.” Naturally, that would be totally unacceptable. But that is the extent of the instructions given when the terror alert level has been elevated. All that seems to be accomplished is frightening the population. If we are destined to live in a constant state of terror, with the only relief being a lower level, then haven't the terrorists won?

Fear is a powerful way of controlling behavior. Isn't it possible that the government's fear-mongering is designed to distract and control the American populace? It is easy to claim that an unseen threat has been thwarted while continuing to instill fear of a never-ending aggression. Conspiracy theorists take things a step further and claim that terrorist attacks have been staged by our own government seeking to gain this sort of control over its people. While that extreme position requires more evidence than is available, the suggestion that fear-mongering is designed to serve the interests of big business does not seem so far fetched. Consider the fact that the President showed a great concern for the economy following the attack on 9/11 and basically instructed Americans to go to the mall. Consider also that Halliburton, Bechtel and Blackwater are getting richer by the day as long as the war in Iraq continues. Finally, consider the amount of money spent in campaigns for congressional and senatorial seats, let alone the presidency, and the fact that none of those campaigns can be successful without major corporate contributions. Fear-mongering appears to be good for the bottom line.

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Not all fear is bad. Fear of fire teaches us not to touch the burner on the stove. Fear teaches us to look both ways before crossing the street. But fear without hope leads to violent means to selfish ends. In our religious traditions, prophets have often attempted to elicit fear of the consequences of continued wrong behavior. But true prophets also provide hope that changed behavior will result in better consequences. What hope is offered by those who call for violent opposition to terrorist threats? If our hope is in a stronger economy that continues to distance us from the suffering of the “Two-Thirds World” then we are relying on a sham promise of safety in wealth that will not bring true and lasting peace. True believers of all traditions should understand that power of love is greater than fear, indeed true faith drives out fear. Perhaps the first step in our recovery from the crippling effects of terror is accepting the truth of President Roosevelt's declaration that all we have to fear is fear itself.


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Rev. Ian Lynch is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. He is pastor of First Congregational Church, UCC in Brimfield, MA He blogs at Culture Dove
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