Terrorized by ‘War on Terror’
Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, argues that the phrase “war on terror” has “created a culture of fear in America” which is wasting billions of dollars, innumerable man hours, and aiding the terrorists.
The culture of fear is like a genie that has been let out of its bottle. It acquires a life of its own — and can become demoralizing. America today is not the self-confident and determined nation that responded to Pearl Harbor; nor is it the America that heard from its leader, at another moment of crisis, the powerful words “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”; nor is it the calm America that waged the Cold War with quiet persistence despite the knowledge that a real war could be initiated abruptly within minutes and prompt the death of 100 million Americans within just a few hours. We are now divided, uncertain and potentially very susceptible to panic in the event of another terrorist act in the United States itself.
This is a too-nostalgic view of the past and a bizarre view of the present.
We responded to the 9/11 attacks every bit as forcefully as we did Pearl Harbor.
FDR was responding to the Great Depression, not a series of assaults on the homeland, when he uttered the famous phrase about fear. Regardless, President Bush repeatedly told the public that we would persevere and that they should go on with their own lives. Indeed, he’s been repeatedly criticized for failing to call on the citizenry to make sacrifices. (See Joe Katzman‘s essay “War As A Spectator Sport” from this morning for an updated take.)
We had all manner of ridiculous panic during the Cold War, including the nonsense bout a “missile gap” that caused us to race the Soviets to the moon, proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam, people building bomb shelters in their back yards, and nonsensical drills where children were taught that they could survive nuclear Armageddon by cowering under their desks.
Conversely, most of us are incredibly cynical now about color coded terror alerts and the various silly security procedures enacted to protect us against them. Who among is panicking and worried about the next terror attack? I live in the Washington, D.C. metro area, the most obvious target of such an attack, and have no sense that we’re at war except when I enter an airport or certain buildings.
That is the result of five years of almost continuous national brainwashing on the subject of terror, quite unlike the more muted reactions of several other nations (Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan, to mention just a few) that also have suffered painful terrorist acts. In his latest justification for his war in Iraq, President Bush even claims absurdly that he has to continue waging it lest al-Qaeda cross the Atlantic to launch a war of terror here in the United States.
Those countries suffered isolated attacks by domestic terrorist groups. None suffered anything like the scale of the 9/11 attacks, let alone repeated attacks by foreign terrorists. And, indeed, why is the idea that al Qaeda could attack on American soil “absurd.” They already have. Multiple times.
Such fear-mongering, reinforced by security entrepreneurs, the mass media and the entertainment industry, generates its own momentum. The terror entrepreneurs, usually described as experts on terrorism, are necessarily engaged in competition to justify their existence. Hence their task is to convince the public that it faces new threats. That puts a premium on the presentation of credible scenarios of ever-more-horrifying acts of violence, sometimes even with blueprints for their implementation.
There’s not much doubt about this. Then again, acting as if the possibility of terrorist attacks doesn’t exist is hardly a viable option.
That America has become insecure and more paranoid is hardly debatable.
The hell it isn’t. Indeed, if by “America” you mean its 300 million-odd citizens, the idea is laughably absurd. How many people do you know that are seriously worried about terror attacks on a day-to-day, let alone hour-by-hour or minute-by-minute basis?
I’ve flown in and out of Dulles airport, launching point for two of the 9/11 planes, dozens of times over the last five years. I’ve never had the sense that anyone was particularly worried about anything but missing their flight, too small seats, or screaming babies. Most view the security checks as, it best, an annoying inconvenience that one must endure.
A recent study reported that in 2003, Congress identified 160 sites as potentially important national targets for would-be terrorists. With lobbyists weighing in, by the end of that year the list had grown to 1,849; by the end of 2004, to 28,360; by 2005, to 77,769. The national database of possible targets now has some 300,000 items in it, including the Sears Tower in Chicago and an Illinois Apple and Pork Festival.
That ain’t fear, Zbig, it’s politics.
Just last week, here in Washington, on my way to visit a journalistic office, I had to pass through one of the absurd “security checks” that have proliferated in almost all the privately owned office buildings in this capital — and in New York City. A uniformed guard required me to fill out a form, show an I.D. and in this case explain in writing the purpose of my visit. Would a visiting terrorist indicate in writing that the purpose is “to blow up the building”? Would the guard be able to arrest such a self-confessing, would-be suicide bomber? To make matters more absurd, large department stores, with their crowds of shoppers, do not have any comparable procedures. Nor do concert halls or movie theaters. Yet such “security” procedures have become routine, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and further contributing to a siege mentality.
This is CYA at work, not a show that we’re genuinely scared. Is it kabuki? Yep. Should we stop it? Yup. But companies, let alone government agencies, that don’t adopt these procedures assume massive liability in the incredibly unlikely event a terrorist attack does happen.
Government at every level has stimulated the paranoia. Consider, for example, the electronic billboards over interstate highways urging motorists to “Report Suspicious Activity” (drivers in turbans?). Some mass media have made their own contribution. The cable channels and some print media have found that horror scenarios attract audiences, while terror “experts” as “consultants” provide authenticity for the apocalyptic visions fed to the American public. Hence the proliferation of programs with bearded “terrorists” as the central villains. Their general effect is to reinforce the sense of the unknown but lurking danger that is said to increasingly threaten the lives of all Americans.
Have you ever watched local television during tornado season? Hurricane coverage? Car chase coverage? The Anna Nicole Smith, Jean Benet Ramsey, O.J. Simpson, Natalie Holloway, and dozens of similar stories? That’s tabloidization and low culture, not paranoia.
The atmosphere generated by the “war on terror” has encouraged legal and political harassment of Arab Americans (generally loyal Americans) for conduct that has not been unique to them. A case in point is the reported harassment of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for its attempts to emulate, not very successfully, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Some House Republicans recently described CAIR members as “terrorist apologists” who should not be allowed to use a Capitol meeting room for a panel discussion.
Dude. I’m no fan of AIPAC but CAIR ain’t no AIPAC.
The record is even more troubling in the general area of civil rights. The culture of fear has bred intolerance, suspicion of foreigners and the adoption of legal procedures that undermine fundamental notions of justice. Innocent until proven guilty has been diluted if not undone, with some — even U.S. citizens — incarcerated for lengthy periods of time without effective and prompt access to due process. There is no known, hard evidence that such excess has prevented significant acts of terrorism, and convictions for would-be terrorists of any kind have been few and far between. Someday Americans will be as ashamed of this record as they now have become of the earlier instances in U.S. history of panic by the many prompting intolerance against the few.
Not much argument there. We’re fighting a stateless enemy and haven’t figured out how to do it. The existing rules of the game don’t work because this isn’t pure “war” nor is it simply “crime fighting.” The natural course of action for governments, let alone bureaucracies designated to ensure Homeland Security, is excess.
Phil Carter agrees with Brzezinski, at least at the high level:
It strains reason to include a Pork Festival on a list of high-value targets that Al Qaeda might hit within the U.S. But such are the decisions engendered by nearly six years of rudderless policy in this area. To paraphase Sen. Barack Obama, I’m not against all anti-terrorism measures — I’m against stupid ones. It’s been clear to me for some time that we were doing a great deal in the anti-terrorism arena, but not accomplishing very much. The reorganization of federal agencies into DHS, the passage of multiple omnibus legislative packages, the whole 9/11 Commission process — these were all acts of Kabuki theater, done more for symbolic value than operational reasons. The results have been telling.
I agree completely. I though creating DHS was nuts, federalizing airport security guards idiotic, and think subjecting citizens to invasive searches without probable cause not only pointless but unconstitutional (see Mark Kleiman on the latest outrages in that department).
Again, though, that’s the natural outgrowth of the political process. Politicians have a natural instinct to try to “do something” when there’s a big screw-up in order to appease the public. Assembling blue ribbon panels to investigate is virtually always a part of that as is bureaucratic reorganization. It’s annoying and sometimes even dangerous; it’s almost unavoidable, however.
Where is the U.S. leader ready to say, “Enough of this hysteria, stop this paranoia”? Even in the face of future terrorist attacks, the likelihood of which cannot be denied, let us show some sense. Let us be true to our traditions.
Such a leader would be destroyed by demagogic TV spots and debate one-liners. A platform of “less security” isn’t going to sell.