Loss of Fear Itself

As the presidential campaign heats up, the allegations of fear-mongering are also picking up steam. While it was utilized frequently in the last Congressional elections, it is now appearing in a variety of non-candidate voices. In a recent cover story, Newsweek’s Fareed Zacharia stressed that the new post-Bush era must see the American public get out from under the fear that had been created by the administration to justify its global war against terrorism. He also often attacks the Giuliani campaign for trumpeting fear to sell him as the candidate best suited to respond to our frightening situation. In “Sicko”, Michael Moore describes the use of fear as a critical tool in the government’s arsenal keeping us unwilling and unable to stand up and demand that to which we are presumably entitled. Paradoxically, in warning us against the fear tactics supposedly utilized by the administration, these voices have, in fact, merely asked us to replace the fear of the enemy with the fear of Bush. We must guard against them being guilty of the very same political gamesmanship they seek to expose.

When we react to something overzealously, it is not uncommon to overcompensate by retracting or withdrawing from it. Whether it be a new technology (automobiles, the internet), a new political system (democracy in the Middle East), or even a new love interest, initial enthusiasm is often exaggerated and then followed by a contraction in the other direction which is almost equally guilty of excess. The internet “bubble” of the 90’s, which became so irrationally funded, was met with a collapse that virtually blacklisted most internet investments in the early 2000s. As a result, many opportunities were missed which later became great success stories. Many were just as blind to opportunities during the collapse as those who missed the initial bubble.

We must be vigilant that such an overreaction does not take place with respect to the fear of our terrorist enemies. Following 9/11, Americans not only felt massive fear; they began to perceive their enemies in new ways based upon that fear. As they learned more about the Islamic world, they rearranged their priorities to fit those perceptions. This allowed most Americans to support aggressive military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq and the more aggressive pursuit of terrorists around the world. As the threat became clearer, fear seemed not only appropriate but a critical motivating force. To various degrees, we have gotten used to fear as part of the fabric of the war we fight.

Faced with the frustrations not only of the Iraq war but of the broader terrorist threat many today are seeking a relief from the debilitating consequences fear can have on us.
Precisely because fear is so difficult to maintain and manage, we seek to find ways to eliminate it. The most effective tool for doing so is to reorder our perceptions to eliminate the need for fear. We are prone, therefore, to candidates’ descriptions of the current situation as one that can be easily handled. We can be coaxed to believe that the enemy cannot easily hit us at home, that it can be tamed through proper respect, statecraft, and skilled negotiation, that it has little to do with Islam itself and thus represents only a small fraction of the 1.2 or greater population of Muslims worldwide, that state sponsors such as Iran and Syria can be dealt with and really want the same things we want, etc. Mostly, we are easily assuaged by the image of an upbeat, attractive, articulate presidential figure regaining our lost respect in the world, winning back our friends and allies, and demonstrating to the enemy that we are ready to acknowledge their place in the world we share.

The allegation of fear mongering greatly adds to these perceptions as it simply tells us that we did not need to be afraid as we have been. To some degree, perhaps, that is true. There is, arguably, a great tendency to overreact. In great part, however, that is the goal of the enemy: to wear us down so that we defeat ourselves. The path of this defeat is not military. Rather, it is to get us to change our perceptions that give rise to the fear in the first place. Once we so change our description of the enemy, the problem, the value of what we are fighting for, we become vulnerable to all this enemy seeks to do.

Unfortunately, the nature of this war does not tolerate our wishes for emotional peace. Nor does this escape our notice. Rather, at least unconsciously if not consciously, we seem to realize on some level that we are confronted with an enemy that simply will not just go away and desires only our destruction. There is no negotiation with this type of foe despite our wish to presume that it is just like us and, ultimately, desires peace. There is no response to this type of threat other than fear. And fear, while distressing, is a guide which can help us to navigate this new threat properly. Therefore, we should not be in a rush to eliminate fear.

As Democrats seek the White House, relief from fear is one of their most powerful promises. Oddly, the same candidates who claim that Bush never asked the citizenry for a sacrifice fail to see that the emotional beatings this war has and will continue to create for us all are part of the sacrifice asked and made.

Bush has repeatedly made clear that fighting this enemy will take many years if not generations. Fighting is itself a learning process. We must continue to learn, adjust, and press forward. Part of what we will learn better is how to use and maintain our fear in a more positive way while simultaneously remaining acutely vigilant over the enemy. All the while, we must be careful to not pull back excessively from our fear into the delusion that we are not really in a war for our existence. That is precisely what the enemy is trying to sell us.