Author Note: The following essay was co-authored with Coleen Rowley, retired FBI agent and former Minneapolis division counsel.
Among the most important public health advances of the past century has been the development of potent vaccines against dangerous and life-threatening illnesses. Polio, tuberculosis, and measles quickly come to mind. Through a process of inoculation, a small dose of the pathogen is intentionally administered to the patient which induces immunity against the full-blown disease.
In a similar way, social scientists have demonstrated that attitude inoculation can be used to prevent the transmission of hazardous beliefs and behaviors from one person to another. For example, research reveals that adolescents can more effectively resist pressure from cigarette-smoking peers if they are given role-playing opportunities in which they rehearse their responses to students pressuring them to smoke.
But today we are in urgent need of an inoculation campaign against an entirely different threat to our nation’s health--namely, the Bush administration’s exploitation of its “global war on terror” to eviscerate the rule of law and our constitutional checks and balances; to prolong the disastrous occupation of Iraq; and to lay the groundwork for military strikes against Iran. Ever since the tragic events of 9/11 six years ago, the White House has promoted this agenda by working non-stop to spread a simple yet infectious idea: All actions taken by this president and his representatives are necessary to protect the United States from future catastrophic terrorist attacks.
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 horrors, most Americans succumbed to this potent viral message. But fortunately, over time a growing majority has gradually recovered and now doubts the legitimacy of the Bush administration’s core arguments. Of course, from the very beginning the actual evidence--about links between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, about WMD in Iraq--did not support the White House’s claims. Moreover, recent data document that the annual rate of terrorist attacks around the world has increased as much as sevenfold since the invasion of Iraq, while public support for the U.S. beyond our borders, especially in Muslim countries, has plummeted during this same period.
But the White House's relentless fear-mongering has never depended upon careful logic and rational analysis to infect the citizenry. Instead it has targeted the public's deepest worries--of mushroom clouds over our cities and the wanton destruction of our children, our families, and our communities. These 9/11-inspired nightmares are haunting in their imagery and debilitating in their effects on individual and collective reasoning--which is precisely the Bush administration's intent. Indeed, psychological research has demonstrated that reminders of one's own mortality--such as subliminal cues about 9/11 and the World Trade Center--produce heightened support for leaders who adopt patriotic appeals to national greatness and a religious fervor to "rid the world of evil."
And so the president and his followers constantly probe for weaknesses in our cognitive and emotional defenses, looking for wounds not yet healed through which to infect us once again with the fear that enables the entire White House enterprise. Consider a partial sampling from the past month alone:
• In a month-long series of TV ads from the White House front group “Freedom’s Watch,” veterans and their family members warned viewers that “They attacked us, and they will again--they won’t stop in Iraq” and “If we surrender now, it’s giving the message to terrorists that they can do what they want and get away with it” and “We’ve already had one 9/11, we don’t need another.”
• The American Enterprise Institute--the neo-conservative think tank behind the so-called pre-emptive war and “surge” strategy in Iraq--chose the eve of the 9/11 anniversary to roll out a new book with the chilling title The Iranian Time Bomb (a rehashing of arguments for regime change by military force in Iran).
• General Petreaus’s much ballyhooed congressional testimony on progress in Iraq was timed to precisely coincide with the anniversary of 9/11. While some may decry the chosen date as shameful exploitation, the Bush administration no doubt saw it as effective marketing.
• President Bush himself addressed the nation two days after the 9/11 anniversary and cautioned that “If we were to be driven out of Iraq….We would leave our children to face a far more dangerous world. And as we saw on September the 11th, 2001, those dangers can reach our cities and kill our people.”
Viruses are unremitting in finding and attacking their victims’ vulnerabilities, and it is easy to see that the White House propaganda machine operates in much the same way. The consequences of our failure to adequately resist the Bush administration’s past efforts are tragically apparent. The key to fending off new rounds of fear-mongering lies in thoroughly rehearsing the counterarguments--neither complex nor obscure--that can protect us against these tactics. In other words, forewarned should be forearmed.
Consider the standard challenge that the White House and its supporters repeatedly pose to skeptics: “Don’t you care about the safety of your family and your country?” If we have prepared in advance, we are ready with effective responses to this hollow appeal. For example:
• “We are not made safer by granting unchecked power to an executive branch with a demonstrated devotion to secrecy, the curtailment of civil liberties, and the disregard of our Constitution.”
• “The reckless and misguided invasion and occupation of Iraq has not enhanced our security at home. To the contrary, it has multiplied our enemies, drained our precious resources, distracted us from addressing real threats, and placed our soldiers unnecessarily in harm’s way.”
• “We will not sleep easier at night if this White House compounds its extraordinary foreign policy blunders by attacking Iran. Doing so risks setting the entire Middle East ablaze, creating countless casualties, and inspiring untold numbers of new potential terrorist recruits.”