Where fear can’t take us
By Ira Chernus
Who can deny it? It’s an almost physical pleasure to watch President George W Bush’s fall from grace. And it’s so easy. All you have to do is say, “Bush has botched the war on terrorism. Bush is not keeping us safe from terrorists - or from the terrors of nature.” You’ve already got over half the country with you, and more are jumping on board the anti-Bush train every day. But before we settle in to ride that train to political glory, we ought to consider whether it can really take us to a better future.
A recent TV ad from MoveOn.org sums up the commonest theme of the campaign to cripple, if not topple, the Bush presidency: “We’re no safer today than we were four years ago.” The rest of the case goes something like this (and who can deny its accuracy): We have good reason to be afraid. We’re more vulnerable than ever to another attack on our soil, because the Bush administration is fighting the “war on terrorism” totally the wrong way. In fact, in Iraq it isn’t really fighting the “war on terrorism” at all. In growing numbers, critics, even conservative ones, agree that the president’s misadventure in Iraq has diverted us from the war we have to fight, the war against the real threat: al-Qaeda.
At the recent huge Washington peace rally, speakers denounced the war as a diversion from another pressing threat. “National security begins in New Orleans, homeland security begins at home,” Jesse Jackson told the crowd. When real danger was upon us, the president’s critics charged, you were busy doing something else. You failed in your solemn duty to protect us. How can we trust you to protect us in the future from the threats that we fear? One demonstrator’s sign summed up the point succinctly: “Make levees, not war.”
Again, who can deny that making levees makes much more sense than sending more Louisiana National Guards to Iraq? But if we only hold back the peril we fear, and stop at that, we won’t ever get real safety or security. Here’s why:
Hurricane Katrina has sealed the public image of Bush as a failure. He is, after all, a one-issue president. His success hinges completely on getting high marks in protecting us from danger. Now his big gamble - turning the “war on terror” into a war on Iraq - is backfiring big time. When the waters of Lake Pontchartrain washed away much of New Orleans, they also washed away most of Bush’s “political capital”. But he had already been losing plenty of that between the Tigris and Euphrates.
The Bush administration still doesn’t seem to get it. With hundreds of thousands descending on Washington to protest his war, the president could only repeat his stale old mantra: “will, resolve, character.” With more of the same coming from the White House, we can pretty well count on a steadily weakening presidency - unless there is another terrorist attack that kills a large number of Americans or destroys a symbol of American nationalism.
The president’s only chance to recoup would be a reprise of September 11, sending another chill of fear up the spine of the body politic. Bush’s success has always depended on the fear factor, on the prospect of threat without end.
Fear does move public opinion. That’s a lesson the anti-Bush forces have learned well. Their nemesis in the White House has turned out, in this way, to be their master teacher. They are using fear most effectively to bring down a presidency built on fear. It’s a delicious irony.
It’s also a blessing, at least in the short run. A weakened presidency suffers on every front. The privatization of social security is moribund and will soon be pronounced dead on Capitol Hill. Chief Justice Roberts will be bad, but he may not be the Antonin Scalia clone that Bush promised his right-wing base. And when was the last time you heard the words “compassionate conservatism”? Though there is plenty to worry about under a weak Bush, it would have been far worse under a strong Bush.
But what price will we pay for this blessing in the long run if we purchase it with the currency of mounting public fear?
The price of fear
Fear can be an energizing emotion. It can move us to fight or flight. But fear, when it becomes overwhelming, is more likely to paralyze - think of the proverbial deer in the headlights. Long ago, in Hiroshima, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton discovered that when there’s too much fear, it curdles into despair. If threat seems to be everywhere, with no escape in sight, people stop trying to imagine how things could get better. In fact, it seems that they stop imagining anything at all, except more peril. Lifton called this condition “psychic numbing”.
His great insight was that the bomb didn’t have to fall for this tragedy to befall us. In a sense, Hiroshima had already come to America. During all those Cold War years, when Americans lived under the shadow of superpower “mutual assured destruction” or MAD (as the madly accurate acronym of that moment had it), seeing no way out, psychic numbing took its toll. What historians often call the “national security state” has actually been a national insecurity state, based on the sort of numbing fear that was bound to make Americans more conservative, more fearful of change.
The idea of a whole society working together to imagine a better world, and then turning imagination into reality, has been off the American radar screen for some six decades now (except for a brief ray of light in the 1960s). When it seems safer to allow no significant change at all, politics naturally becomes an exercise in circling the wagons and hunkering down for an endless siege. The September 11 attack and the Bush-orchestrated response ensured that the United States would continue to be a hunkered-down national insecurity state (and now a homeland insecurity state) well into the 21st century.
All of us, supporters and critics alike, have absorbed this lesson. When we criticize Bush because he has failed to keep us safe, we score valuable political points. But we pay a price for those points, because we reinforce the basic premises of the national insecurity state - that danger is everywhere and can never be eliminated; that all systemic change is dangerous; and that our best hope lies in a government strong enough and pugnacious enough to prevent significant change and so protect us from fear’s worst effects.
The urge to be safe, to keep fear at bay, is certainly natural and understandable. But after more than half a century in a state of heightened national insecurity, Americans have largely forgotten the other side of the human coin: the urge to be daring, to take chances that can lead to positive change. Insecurity is now in the national bloodstream. That’s why anti-Bush campaigns that evoke fear can be so successful. To be successful in the longer term, though, we have to constrict that sense of insecurity, to return it to the more modest place where it belongs, until actual security comes into sight.
Otherwise, no matter how much anti-Bush campaigns weaken the president, they end up reinforcing the pervasive insecurity that has been the key to his political success. They make it more likely that the public will want future leaders in the Bush mold, who demand “peace through strength”. No flip-flops need apply.
Securing a politics of hope
The human resource - potentially so readily available - that can help us break out of this cycle of fear and numbing is imagination. Imagine American political language and life no longer based simply on the question, “How can we be safe?”, but on the question, “How can we make life better for all of us?” Imagine it for a little while, and you begin to realize that such a profound shift would give us the best chance - maybe the only chance - to be really secure.
Consider, for example, Class 5 hurricanes. It’s a good idea to build stout levees, if they are just a first step. For real security, though, we have to move beyond fear to hope. We have to focus on the positive changes that will help everyone, even if there is never another great storm. We should reclaim wetlands - nature’s own buffer against flooding - to create a stable environment where myriad species, including humans, can flourish creatively. We should support the decades-old local organizations in poor, stricken areas, the folks who know how to build vibrant communities in their own neighborhoods. We should take steps to cool down the Earth to make wetlands more stable, growing seasons more predictable, and harvests more bountiful.
The prospect of really making things better gives people a reason to think and act together. It makes them feel empowered. Once set loose, hopeful attitudes and actions build on each other. That’s when genuine change begins - whether in relation to wetlands, poverty, global warming or any other issue, including the “war on terrorism”.
You hardly have to be as well educated as the average al-Qaeda activist (who, it turns out, is pretty well educated) to see that present American efforts to “make the world better” are mainly efforts to protect US power and interests. The president and the power brokers can hide that truth behind a verbal smokescreen, using phrases like “protect America”, “keep our nation safe” and “defend our homeland against foreign enemies”. It’s an easy rhetorical trick.
Once you start talking the language of “protecting and defending”, though, you’re on your way into the land of self-fulfilling prophecies. To make the smokescreen work, the administration then has to turn everyone who disagrees into “the enemy”. It’s a natural next step to set out to destroy them, which, of course, turns them into genuine enemies.
But suppose the US had spent the past six decades letting other people decide what “a better world” means to them and then helping them achieve their own goals. That’s so far from the pattern of our foreign policy that it takes a wrenching effort just to imagine. Try to make that effort; then ask what kind of “terrorist threat” we would have. There’s no way to know for sure. But it seems a reasonable bet that we’d be a lot safer than we are today.
It makes sense to join the liberal chorus of “end the war in Iraq so we can protect ourselves against terrorists” as long as it’s just a first step, as long as we go on to say things like: “Instead of draining our national treasury for endless war, we demand that our tax dollars be used to repair the damage done to Iraq and to fund services in our communities.” Those words, from the United for Peace and Justice website, echo the sentiment of hundreds of groups that are imagining a better future.
Many demand that our tax dollars be used to fund services and repair damage all over the world. After all, that’s actually the best way to begin to protect ourselves from danger. But even that won’t work if we do it simply because we are scared. We’ll never be safe if we make safety our ultimate goal. We’ll be safe only if we let safety be a by-product of a society working together to improve life for everyone.
The best way to be secure is to imagine a genuine politics of hope. Imagine. Unfortunately, when John Lennon said, “It’s easy if you try,” he was quite wrong. After six decades of our national insecurity state, it’s incredibly hard. But it’s an effort that anti-Bush forces ought to make. The alternative is, however inadvertently, to reinforce the politics of fear that Bush and his kind thrive on. The belief that danger is everywhere - that we must have leaders whose great task is to keep us safe - is the one great danger we really do need to protect ourselves against.
Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea, and is currently working on Monsters to Destroy, a book about religion and the neo-conservative “war on terror”.
(Copyright 2005 Ira Chernus)
First published at Asia Times http://www.atimes.com and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.