7 Traits of the Politics of Fear

Americans are increasingly fearful. They fear the unpredictable acts of terrorists. They fear their neighbours and have armed themselves for protection in record numbers. They fear infringement on their individual freedoms. They distrust their political leaders. They distrust government itself. Some are even drawn to conspiracy theories involving plots by surreptitious extra-governmental and global networks.

Particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Americans have been immersed in a climate of fear, with continual reinforcement of this theme. This climate of fear in America is pervasive. It is echoed in the news media, in Hollywood films, and in the halls of government itself.

Here are 7 important things to know about the politics of fear.

1.   The politics of fear is not new.

nazi-swastika-badgeThe Nazis knew how to politicize fear back in the 1940s. Herman Göring, founder of the Gestapo, stated

The people don’t want war, but they can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.

2.  Fear is a powerful political tool.

Zbigniew Brzezinski DePauw 1Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter, stated

Constant reference to a “war on terror” [by the Bush administration] stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.

3.   Fear is built on fantasy.

The Power of NightmaresIn the opening to the documentary mini-series, The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (2004– ), the narrator states:

Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us: from nightmares. They say that they will rescue us from dreadful dangers that we cannot see and do not understand. And the greatest danger of all is international terrorism, a powerful and sinister network with sleeper cells in countries across the world, a threat that needs to be fought by a War on Terror.

But much of this threat is a fantasy, which has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. It’s a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services and the international media.


4.   Fear generates bad decisions.

national-capitol-washington-dcFear needs a definable enemy and a constructed narrative. This narrative may take the form of an imagined conspiracy or imminent threat. Focusing on the fantasy rather than on reality diverts the public’s attention from the real issues that should be dealt with. As Steve Benen recently noted in his blog article “Tinfoil Hats, Black Helicopters, and the Politics of Paranoia,”

We couldn’t pass a [UN] disability treaty because [certain politicians] believed conspiracy theories. We can’t address global warming because [some politicians] believe the entirety of climate science is a giant conspiracy. We couldn’t pass bipartisan health care reform in part because [some politicians] were too heavily invested in the “death panel” conspiracy theory.

5.   Fear is captivating.

newspaper-headlinesMedia personalities like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh regularly stoke public fears on their talk shows and have huge audiences. In the words of Danah Boyd,

Fear-mongerers leverage our willingness to pay attention to fearful stimuli in order to generate attention. A fearful newspaper headline captures people’s attention. This draws people into paying attention to the newspaper as a whole, which is precisely the intention of headlines. Likewise, when TV anchors are spouting off fearful information, people are far less willing to turn the channel.

6.   Fear leads to social disintegration.

gunLast week Farleigh Dickenson University released the results of a national survey of registered voters in the U.S. which found that “29 percent of Americans think that an armed revolution in order to protect liberties might be necessary in the next few years, with another five percent unsure.” (18% of Democrats held this view compared to 44% of Republicans.)

7.   Fear is profitable (for some).

department_of_homeland_security_sealsvgIt was recently reported that America has spent $791 billion on “homeland security” since 9/11. According to The New York Times, within 3 years after the Department of Homeland Security was set up at least 90 officials who had worked there or at the White House had already found work in the private sector as “executives, consultants, or lobbyists for companies that collectively do billions of dollars’ worth of domestic security business.” This past weekend USA Today reported that “firearms and ammo sales have surged to record highs after the December tragedy in Newtown reinvigorated debate about gun control.” Also this past weekend the National Rifle Association held its annual convention this past weekend in Houston, Texas. It reported an 86% increase in new memberships and upgrades, a 54% increase in NRA store sales and the largest attendance ever.

Overcoming Fear

Americans live in a pervasive culture of fear. But it need not be so. Fear is paralyzing rather than empowering. Fear focuses on weaknesses rather than strengths. Fear makes people defensive rather than providing confidence. Fear divides people instead of uniting them around a common purpose. Fear focuses on problems rather than striving for solutions.

f-d-roosevelt-1Eighty years ago, at the height of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave us these memorable words:

Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

People can resist the politics of fear. They can see beyond its illusion, its fabrication, and its captivating allure. Fear is the problem, not the answer. Courage, determination, and hope are the solution. Fear is but the enemy.

Finding: U.S. Engaged in Torture Post 9/11

The Report on Detainee Treatment

mqdefaultOn Tuesday, April 16, a high-level task force released a massive 577 page report on the interrogation and detention programs carried out by the Bush administration in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It concluded that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” and the nation’s highest officials, including those in the Executive branch, bore ultimate responsibility for it.

Guantanamo-1As reported by The New York Times, the work of this investigative body represents “the fullest independent effort so far to assess the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and at the C.I.A.’s secret prisons.” The study took two years to complete, and was carried out by an 11 member task force commissioned by The Constitution Project, an independent non-partisan non-profit organization that focuses on the law, constitutional liberties, and the criminal justice program.

The task force was led by two experienced former congressmen: Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, who served as under secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in the Bush administration, and James Jones, a Democrat, who was an ambassador to Mexico in the Clinton administration. According the New York Times, Mr. Hutchinson stated that he “took convincing” on the torture issue. But after the panel’s nearly two years of research, he had no doubts about what the United States had done.

Use of Extreme Interrogation

88176899-waterboardingAlthough it has been argued by some that extraordinary means was required to gather information from these detainees, the task force found “no firm or persuasive evidence” that these extreme interrogation methods produced valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means. They state that while “a person subjected to torture might well divulge useful information,” much of the information obtained by force in these interrogations was not reliable.

In its findings, the task force was critical of “the ethical lapses of government lawyers in the Bush years who served up ‘acrobatic’ advice to justify brutal interrogations, and of medical professionals who helped oversee them.” While recognizing that brutality often occurs in war, there has never before been “the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”

The Task force also criticized the Obama administration’s use of expansive claims of secrecy to keep the details of rendition and torture from becoming public and to block victims’ lawsuits. It noted that the United States is a signatory to the international Convention Against Torture, which requires the prompt investigation of allegations of torture and the compensation of its victims.

Violation of International Law

The findings of this report have important consequences for the United States. The panel found that the United States violated its international legal obligations by engineering ‘enforced disappearances’ and secret detentions. It also contains a detailed 22-page legal and historical analysis explaining the basis for the task force’s conclusion that the United States did indeed engage in torture. It provides “dozens of legal cases in which similar treatment was prosecuted in the United States or denounced as torture by American officials when used by other countries.”

GeorgeWBushHIjoIn 2011, when then former President Bush attended an economic summit in British Columbia, there were public protests and Amnesty International even submitted an extensive legal brief to Canada’s Attorney General arguing that “Canada is required by its international obligations to arrest and prosecute former president Bush given his responsibility for crimes under international law, including torture.”

The Canadian government declined to take any such action at that time. But it serves as a warning that President Bush and other key officials in his administration should take care when visiting other countries in the future. In Malaysia in November 2011 a seven-member panel chaired by a former Malaysian Federal Court judge unanimously found George Bush guilty of committing “crimes against peace” during the Iraq war in a mock tribunal.

Now further evidence is in, and various parties may be quite willing to go beyond mere symbolic gestures to see President Bush and his associates indicted for war crimes.