by Robert F. Seibert

...fear, itself

In a famous and reassuring phrase, Franklin Delano Roosevelt comforted and reassured a nation staggering under the impact of economic depression. The times were certainly frightening, with unprecedented unemployment and a world plunging toward war. His words calmed the public and inspired the government, permitting us the luxury of finding solutions to the problems that faced us. Roosevelt similarly struck the right note after the preemptive attack on Pearl Harbor, labeling it a "day that would live in infamy" and calling us to the sacrifices necessary in pursuing global war. In both instances, Roosevelt sought to reassure the public, not to alarm it; and to prepare the public for the challenges ahead, not to mislead it.

The times were certainly terrible ñ a possible two front war against two heavily armed and determined adversaries and a world in which ideological extremism ñ communism and fascism ñ seemed likely to swamp the reasonable pragmatism of American civilization. Roosevelt was right, of course, to steer us away from overreaction to the threats we faced. Fear, uncontrolled and constantly nourished, is destructive of social logic and political wisdom. Even with the restraining counsel of the president in our minds, we still interned innocent Japanese citizens, continued the segregation of our armed forces, and unleashed the power of weapons of mass destruction against civilian noncombatants. We also successfully prosecuted a world war and presided over one of the most generous peace arrangements the world had ever seen, the Marshall Plan.

There are almost eerie parallels now to the events of World War II. We have enemies on multiple fronts (Iraq, Al Qaeda, North Korea).There are contending ideologies and rampant fanaticism (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, even Buddhist and Confucian religious fanatics). And there are innovations. Terror as an instrument of political resistance has developed to unprecedented levels of sophistication. A media network of tremendous scope and influence magnifies and extends the immediate effects of war, famine, weather, terror, murder, epidemics and politics. Still the similarities between the two eras are startling.

And yet there are differences. Instead of a chief executive telling us that we have "nothing to fear but fear itself", we now have a government constantly telling us to fear, to be afraid. We are near the highest level of our new threat warning system (Code Red) and we are assured of danger. But we are also told we can’t tell what the danger is, or where or when the danger might materialize. It is almost as though fear itself is a government priority.

I have seen and heard things in the last month that confirm my suspicions that we are now in the "fear" business. Less than 10 minutes after the space shuttle Columbia was declared "missing," I heard the first speculation that this just might be a terrorist act. And shortly after that, a N.Y. radio station began interviewing people on the street to determine their reaction to that possibility. Some citizens and an occasional pundit or two mentioned a surface to air missile attack, and others hypothesized sabotage. These are, of course, the least likely causes of the shuttle disaster and few people take these ideas seriously. But the speed with which such speculation raised its head in our mass media suggests that we have lost all sense of proportion about the dangers, terrorist and otherwise, that we face as a nation.

Recently, we have been told that it would be a good idea to stock our homes with duct tape and plastic sheeting. Many stores, if the media can be believed, have run out of both. Ditto for bottled water, batteries and other survival stores. They will prove useful, we are told, in the event of a biological or chemical attack by a terrorist organization. I have seen media interviews with people who have already draped their houses in plastic tarps and sealed their windows with duct tape. They profess to feel safer.

I have my doubts about the efficacy of such homemade barriers, and I have even less reason to expect a terrorist attack on Galesburg or its environs. I think having some water and extra food in the basement is a good idea, but I think our threats come more from unexpected weather, earthquakes, or epidemics (the old fashioned kind, like the flu) or rail accidents than from the sophisticated deployment of biological or chemical weapons by al Qaeda.

I am also aware of reasonable and sane people changing their travel plans, dropping visits to pleasant and safe destinations, because of vague feelings of anxiety and vulnerability. Travel agents report declining reservations for travel and its possible now to get huge discounts on the best hotels around the world, including hotels in New York, London, and Chicago.

Bush, Ashcroft, Ridge, Lieberman, Rice, Rumsfeld, Cheney and even (sob) Powell constantly invoke the threats and dangers we face. Their comments are faithfully repeated by anchors, reporters, and man on the street interviewees. The culture of fear is upon us and we are at a political crossroads.

This, of course, is exactly what Osama bin Laden and his confederates had hoped for. They intended in their terrorist attack, to create a climate of fear in the United States that would push us towards self-destruction. They are getting exactly what they dreamed of, a society so frightened of a generalized and immaterial enemy that it is willing to destroy its own culture in the flight to psychological safety.

Only in bin Laden’s most unrealistic fantasy would he have anticipated the Patriot Act and its consequences. He would have prayed for, but not expected, the cooperation of Falwell, Robertson, Swaggart and Graham in the demonization of Islam. Not in his most fevered fantasies could he have hoped for an American president to praise Ariel Sharon as a "man of peace," a characterization that won’t fly even in his home country. And, for the icing on his cake, he would not have dared to hope for a U.S. unilateral attack on a weak and vulnerable Muslim country. We are about to award him that one final piece in his jigsaw of terror.

Fear now permeates our country as once optimism did. I heard, last week, in Galesburg, a community leader say that his remarks in this room would probably get him and his business "surveilled" as potential enemies of our "war on terror." Here, of all places. And he is right, the culture of terror, fear and hatred is loose among us.

In this war against terror, the terrorists are winning. Until we can take our own best advice seriously, and live our lives under our normal assumptions, we are likely to continue headlong in the destruction of our most cherished traditions and political rights.

Incarceration without trial, secret courts and hearings, racial profiling, impossible immigration standards, unilateral interventions around the world are all products of 9/11 and do as much damage to our civilization as that horrendous attack accomplished in and of itself.

To view the world as threatening, not inviting; to view our guests as potential enemies; to assume that everyone is wrong and we are right; to nourish our sense of fear and loathing, instead of trust and love; in doing all of these things, we embrace the wish of our true enemies. We transform ourselves into the thing we loathe.

Terrorists 1, America 0.