Infantilizing people

One of the extraordinary features of the last decade is the extent to which people have accepted as necessary or even desirable the most appalling crimes done by the government. Arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention, torture, sending people secretly to authoritarian countries to be tortured, warrantless wiretaps and other invasions of privacy, have now become seen as ‘normal’.

How was this achieved? By political leaders inflating the threat of terrorism in the US, making people terrified, and then acting as if those same leaders alone can protect us provided we give them all the power they ask for to do so. In effect, we have seen the steady infantilizing of people, not unlike a father who terrifies a small child by telling ghost stories so that the child looks up to him even more for protection.

One of the symptoms of this strategy is that one frequently hears the statement by US political leaders, especially Bush and Cheney, that they are taking this or that action to ‘protect the American people’. As a consequence of the drumming of this message, ordinary citizens often say in interviews that they expect the president to ‘protect’ them and that this is his main job.

I find this kind of language to be extremely distasteful due to its highly patronizing and condescending nature. It baffles me that so many people say that they are grateful to president Bush for ‘protecting’ them from another terrorist attack. It seems to me that this is sign of an infantile disorder, where people feel the need for a father figure to keep them safe from real and imagined threats.

During the campaign, one of the refreshing things about Obama was that he seemed to treat the American people like they were adults, and this was especially so in his speech about race delivered in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright episode. But now Obama seems to have picked up on the Bush-Cheney disease, saying in an interview on ABC’s This Week (Sunday, January 11, 2009) that “My number one priority every single day that I wake up is how do I make sure that the American people safe.”

Obama should stop not lose sleep over my safety. I do not need or want him to ‘protect’ me or to ‘keep me safe’. I just want him to run a lawful, constitutionally based government and adopt policies that improve the welfare of people, especially those who need it the most.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that the government should not be in the position of providing public security. One of the most important roles of a government is to ensure that people have services that protect them from violence against their person and from crime and fire and flood and other calamities, and that they can call upon those services as needed. The leaders of a nation also have a duty to defend the nation from hostile actions by nations that seek to conquer any or all parts of it.

I am also not opposed to some supposedly ‘anti-terrorist’ measures like taking off your shoes and not carrying liquids through airport checkpoints. I think that some of these things are excessive and annoying and promote fear and anxiety (which may actually be their main purpose) but they are not gross violations of civil liberties or constitutional rights, which are the things I am most concerned about.

But those are not the kinds of things that Bush-Cheney (and now I fear Obama) seem to mean when they say they must have the tools to ‘protect the American people’. What they are doing is trying to conflate two separate things – the normal expectation that people have that they should be safe from everyday crime, with the heightened fear that they will be at the receiving end of a major catastrophe at the hands of mass murderers,

These political leaders are implying that if they are not allowed to be able to use torture and all the other things I listed above, then the next thing you know, al Qaeda or similar groups are going to detonate a nuclear weapon in downtown Cleveland

No one has suggested that these murderous groups have the remotest intention of taking over the US. No other country, however strong, has the remotest chance of ever subjugating the US or has expressed any intention of doing so. It would be insane to even try. If there is a threat to US dominance of the world at all it will come from within, because of economic collapse due to corruption and looting by its own elites and the financial sector, to expensive and unnecessary wars, and the neglect of basic infrastructure and services.

Bush-Cheney exploited the fears of a terrorist attack to gain compliance for acts that violate the laws and constitutional safeguards and basic human rights, on the basis that such violations are needed to ‘protect’ us from some shadowy external threat. What they were saying is that beyond the normal levels of protection that people enjoy and that can be provided within the parameters of laws while still preserving long-accepted standards of civil liberties, there is another level of protection that can only be achieved by violating those rights for some people, purely on the basis of suspicion. What the government is doing is similar to the protection racket run by mobsters.

I do not need or want this extra level of protection, whether it is from Bush, Cheney, or Obama. The national security state, which is what we have now, is an evil thing that must be dismantled. I would rather take my chances with a terrorist attack than see the systematic dismantling of the long-standing, hard won protections of habeas corpus, the right to a speedy and fair trial, freedom from torture or the fear of torture both here or abroad, freedom from arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention, and freedom from the invasion of privacy.

I do not believe that we can be totally protected from internal or external terrorist threats and we pay far too high a price in seeking to do so. We should resist being infantilized by political leaders who are seeking to increase their own authoritarian powers by promoting such fears. We must realize that there are some threats that we have to learn to live with if we are not to see the complete abandonment of the civil liberties and freedoms we have long taken for granted.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart looks at this protection racket

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  1. Chris says


    I wonder if there is a correlation between the people who believe that Bush has protected them from another terrorist attack and those who are devoutly religious. It seems like a similar concept to me. People pray to be protected from rare occurrences that they have no control over, like being in a plane crash, and then assume their prayers worked when the plane landed safely. Perhaps a real person who claims to be looking out for them with his every waking moment is as comforting of a delusion.

  2. says


    That’s an interesting connection that had not occurred to me. The need for a ‘ powerful protector’ does seem to be a rather religious idea.

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