Politics and the Fear Factor-3

In the two previous posts (see here and here), I spoke about the seeming paradox that in countries with endemic political violence, the people seem to be less frightened by it and the governments downplayed the fear. Whereas in the US, where political violence occurs very rarely, people are much more frightened and the government seems to fan the flames of it as much as possible, constantly referring to the war on terror, using color-coded alerts, scary language, etc.

I previously speculated as to the reasons why people responded differently, suggesting that endemic violence can result in a partial immunity to fear, purely as a survival mechanism. In this post, I will look at why governments respond differently.

One reason might be that in those countries where violence is endemic, governments tend to be unstable, under risk of collapsing at any time. The groups fighting the governments are usually trying to bring it down and the government has to use valuable resources (which might otherwise be used for development and public services) to supply the military and police in its anti-rebel efforts. All these things tend to be de-stabilizing. It is not uncommon for massive street protests in those countries to bring down a government. Hence it is in the interests of these governments to try and maintain a facade of stability, to assert that everything is just fine despite a little trouble here and there, so that people will retain some confidence in the government. Thus the reaction of governments to political violence is to downplay it, to say that it is not a threat. To do otherwise would be to display a dangerous sign of weakness.

But the US is different. The government structure here is designed for maximum stability. (Some might argue that there is too much stability, that it enables the two political parties to ignore the will of the people altogether, but that is the subject for another posting.) It is hard to imagine what kind of events can result in the collapse of the government in the US. The mass demonstrations that do occur here (such as those opposing the Iraq war) have very limited goals, such as showing the depth of feeling on a particular issue, rather than seeking to topple the government itself. They do not pose any threat to political stability.

In such a situation, there is no incentive for the government to downplay fear and in fact there is every reason to increase it. Because when people are very frightened they can be convinced to support government policies that would be unthinkable at other times. What has been appalling to me is that the very features of US law and government that were so admired worldwide have been systematically dismantled in the so-called war on terror. Habeus corpus has been undermined, we now have indefinite detention without trial or even access to lawyers and families, we have abuse and torture of prisoners, no-fly lists based on secretive criteria, and other measures that undermine the Bill of Rights, that jewel in the crown of constitutional principles. And worst of all, fear about terror has been used to take the country into a war against a weak nation that did not attack us and did not even threaten us, either by word or deed.

None of these things would have been possible without people being cowed by fear. Governments have always known this and use this whenever possible. In an interview with Gustave Gilbert, author of “Nuremberg Diary” (Farrar, Straus and Company, 1947, pp. 278-279), Hermann Goering (Nazi Reichsmarshall and Luftwaffe-Chief under Hitler) said:

“Why, of course the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.”

His interviewer replied: “There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and, in the United States, only Congress can declare war.”

Goering: “Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

Goering was right. In order to counteract this form of governmental manipulation, we have to overcome our fear. It is quite possible that the US might be subject to another terrorist attack. While I worry about that on a political and humanitarian level, on a personal level, I have no fear of being killed or injured in an attack by Al-Qaeda or any other group. The chances of that happening are so remote as to be not worth bothering about. It would be like worrying about getting hit by lightning. I find it difficult to understand, for example, those who are afraid to fly in commercial airplanes in the wake of 9/11.

But the fear that I do have (which is very real) is that the constitutional principles that ensure life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness are being systematically undermined in irreversible ways, using these acts of political violence as a pretext. (See the article by Nat Hentoff for some indication of what is going on.)

We need to overcome personal fear of death and injury (which can paralyze people and make them weak) and instead develop a greater fear about the loss of political and personal rights. The latter fear can actually energize people and get them to organize themselves to protect those precious rights.

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