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October 4, 2006

Get a Grip, America! It's Dangerous for a People to be Ruled By Fear

By Andrew Schmookler

Here's one piece of the puzzle of how the Bush regime has been able to destroy so much of what's best about America. Even before these fear-mongers came to power, we've been a people ready to panic. How did we ever get to be a nation of such scardey cats?


I had a conversation with a friend the other day that may offer a glimpse into a piece of why it is that the Bush regime has been able to destroy so much of what's best about America.

One of us was fussing with an unopened food container with unusually resistant tamper-proof packaging, and that led to our recalling how it is that all the food and drug containers in this country came to encumbered with such strips and tabs, etc., in order to assure us that no one had violated the pristine purity of the contents since the product had left the factory.

It was back in the early 1980s, and someone (never caught) had laced some Tylenol capsules with cyanide. Several people had died, sales of Tylenol had dried up nationwide, and lo and behold-almost overnight-it had been decided that virtually everything that entered the mouths of American must be packaged in a new, tamper-proof way forevermore.

One incident –costing the lives of about one out of every forty million Americans-and our packaging practices were changed forever. More of a hassle, more expensive-but by golly we'd be safer!

Already, more than twenty years ago, we American could be panicked out of all proportion to the threat. The idea that hidden evil-doers might do us harm –albeit taking fewer lives than are lost in any given few hours on our roads-was enough to fill the nation with fear.

That recollection prompted my friend and me to remember also how fearfully Americans responded in the 80s and 90s whenever some isolated instance of terrorism would occur in some other part of the world to which Americans might travel as tourists. We recalled how, in the wake of some terrorist explosion in Europe, thousands and thousands of Americans would call up their travel agents and cancel their vacation travel plans.

And then there's the way Halloween trick-or-treating got transformed nationwide by a few stories (almost all of them mere urban legends) about poison or razor blades embedded in the treats.

How did we ever get to be a nation of such scaredy cats? What happened to American courage so that a mathematically negligible probability of any single one of us being harmed would send the society as a whole scurrying for safety?

And here we are, still running scared in the wake of 9/11. Yes, 9/11 was terrible. But even looking just at the Americans who were flying on that very day, less than one-tenth of one percent of all the people who flew on airliners on 9/11 were killed.

In World War II, when American marines stormed onto the beaches of Japanese islands, sometimes a third of those marines would become casualties. But they did their duty. The life-expectancy of a marine landing with a flamethrower mounted on his back was measured in terms of seconds! That's extreme danger.

We're a nation of 300 million people who lost 3,000 on one terrible day. An important occurrence. But what happened to our sense of proportion?

We are a nation that could fight two mighty and populous fascist powers in World War II, and could confront the possibility of sudden nuclear annihilation during that "long twilight struggle" of the Cold War, without overthrowing our constitutional protections nor enthroning an unchecked power in the president nor legitimating torture.

How did we become a nation so ruled by fear?

Yes, the present Bushite leadership, unlike its predecessors, deliberately cultivates fear in the American people. No "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" for this gang. More like "The only thing we want from you is fear itself."

But even before the Bushites started their fear-mongering, Americans were swearing off flying in sufficient numbers to send the airline industry into a swoon. And as the earlier Tylenol episode shows, this American proclivity to fearful overreaction did not begin on 9/11.

It is not good to be the slave of fear. Fear is a solvent of rational thought, of sensible perspective.

So now we have a president recovering some in the opinion polls as he plays his only card, the fear card. As the 2006 election approaches, the strategy of Karl Rove (and his boss, and the entire Republican Party) rests on the premise that the power of fear in America can overcome all evidence and logic. Don't pay any attention, they're saying, to those little facts we're hiding behind the curtain of your fears.

They think that it does not matter if there's absolutely no evidence that we have to choose between security and the rule of law in the matter of surveillance. The American people can be made afraid enough that they'll gladly give the president a tyrant's power to snoop at will without any oversight or check.

They think it does not matter if there's no evidence that –to be safe-America has to abandon its long-standing commitments to the rules of war and to the rights of due process and to the system of checks and balances on which our whole system of government rests. If Americans can be frightened enough, they will reward those dismantle our heritage while posturing as our strong protectors, and will dismiss as wimps those who speak in the voice of reason instead of fear.

It is up to the American people to prove them wrong. But to do so, we will first have to stop this unseemly quaking in the face of every danger.

Get a grip, America!

Authors Bio:
Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is WHAT WE'RE UP AGAINST. His previous books include The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, for which he was awarded the Erik H. Erikson prize by the International Society for Political Psychology.