Fear and irrationality

When people are fearful, they do irrational things. Tom Englehardt looks at who benefits from all these allegedly terrorist plots that have been uncovered with great fanfare and which seem to be aimed purely and simply at keeping people scared.

We now live not just with all the usual fears that life has to offer, but in something like a United States of Fear.

Here’s a singular fact to absorb: we now know that a bunch of Yemeni al-Qaeda adherents have a far better hit on just who we are, psychologically speaking, and what makes us tick than we do. Imagine that. They have a more accurate profile of us than our leading intelligence profilers undoubtedly do of them.

This is a new definition of asymmetrical warfare. The terrorists never have to strike an actual target. It’s not even incumbent upon them to build a bomb that works. Just about anything will do. To be successful, they just have to repeatedly send things in our direction, inciting the expectable Pavlovian reaction from the U.S. national security state, causing it to further tighten its grip (grope?) at yet greater taxpayer expense.
In a sense, both the American national security state and al-Qaeda are building their strength and prestige as our lives grow more constrained and our treasure vanishes.

Bruce Fein lists all the encroachments on our freedoms that we have allowed to creep stealthily into our lives ever since the ‘war on terror’ began.

  • The president is empowered to target American citizens off the battlefield for assassination abroad who have not engaged in hostilities against the United States on his say-so alone.
  • Citizens and non-citizens may be detained indefinitely without accusation or trial at Bagram prison in Afghanistan or in undisclosed locations abroad on the president’s say-so alone.
  • Predator drones kill civilians off the battlefield in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. The protocols for targeting decisions are secret.
  • Military commissions are established for the trial of alleged war crimes that may be equally prosecuted in civilian courts, for example, material assistance to a foreign terrorist organization. Military commissions combine judge, jury, and prosecutor in a single branch — the very definition of tyranny according to the Founding Fathers.
  • State secrets are invoked by the president to prevent victims of constitutional wrongdoing, including torture or kidnapping, from judicial redress for their injuries.
  • Telephone calls and emails are intercepted by the government without probable cause to believe the target is connected to international terrorism.
  • Lawyers who defend alleged international terrorist organizations are vulnerable to prosecution under the material assistance law.
  • The Patriot Act authorizes the FBI to obtain business, bank, or other records by unilateral issuance of national security letters alleging a relationship to a terrorist investigation.
  • Extraordinary rendition is employed to dispatch detainees to countries notorious for torture.
  • Individuals or organizations are designated as “terrorists” and quarantined from human intercourse based on secret evidence.
  • Government crimes — including torture, illegal surveillance, obstruction of justice, and war crimes — go unprosecuted despite the President’s constitutional obligation to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.

People who try to justify these things as necessary because of the danger of terrorism, and look back with nostalgia to the days before the ‘war on terror’ began as carefree days, forget that during the Cold War they lived with the threat of total nuclear annihilation at a moment’s notice, a far more deadly threat than what can be mounted by the current threat which consists of a rag-tag group of terrorists operating out of remote areas in distant countries with primitive technology. The reason that people back then were able to go about their normal lives was, I suspect, because the initial fear wore off when they realized that there was nothing that they or their government could do to protect them if a nuclear war should break out.

The bad news is that there is little that the government or we can do now to protect us from a random terrorist attack either. The good news is that our chances of being harmed by such an attack are minuscule, that even if such attacks occur they will be highly localized pin-pricks. It is unfortunate if you happen to be the victim of such an attack but the government can no more protect you from it than it can protect you from a drunk driver who careens onto the sidewalk while you are walking there.

If we could learn to live normal lives in the face of total nuclear annihilation, surely we can do so in the face of the occasional random bombing?


  1. says


    I think the obvious answer to the query you pose is that September 11th made the threat too real for comfort. The American mainland had not been attacked by a foreign aggressor since the War of 1812. It was always someone else, somewhere else, who did the dying.

    The threat of nuclear Armageddon (which is still very much with us, by the way) was essentially a theoretical threat. The threat from global climate change is also, for most Americans, a theoretical threat. Americans aren’t scared of abstract ideas (except for the ones they’ve been told are bad, like socialism and anything French). They are very brave in their ignorance, and free to stick their heads in the sand.

    The way to get Americans’ attention is to hit them really hard where they live. Then you see what they’re really made of -- how much they really value freedom and justice for all; whether the flag really represents these high concepts or whether it’s a hollow promise. As your links document, it isn’t an encouraging picture.

    Similarly, Americans won’t be willing to do anything about climate change until its effects have become irreversibly severe. They won’t recognize the internal decay caused by the oligarchy’s short-term profit-maximization until no bail-out in the world can put humpty-dumpty back together again. One would have thought that the Great Recession would have been a salutary wake-up call, but they all went right back to sleep. And they don’t care about Iraqi civilians being blown to smithereens by Apache helicopters because it’s not happening down by Big Lots.

    Either way -- irrationally scared or blissfully ignorant -- the national response to collective challenges is inappropriate. The real bravery we need to display is the courage to confront a very messy reality with our true ideals intact. Forgive me for not holding my breath.

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