By now, even the most chuckleheaded journalist must sense the meaning of Randolph Bourne’s classic comment "war is the health of the state." Political systems depend upon the mobilization of fear if men and women are to subject themselves to being ruled by others. It is for this reason that the state requires enemies, be they foreign or domestic, with which to terrorize us into accepting its authority over our lives. As post-9/11 events demonstrate, the greater the fear the state is able to engender in our minds, the more power most of us are prepared to give to it in order to "protect" us! That so few people have seen the symbiotic relationship between the terrorists who smash planes into buildings, and the state’s need for such terrorists, is a remarkable reflection on our ignorance of both history and the nature of politics.
Look at how the Bush administration has been able to parlay the dreadful attacks on New York City office buildings into a demand for greatly expanded police and military powers at home, as well as a presidential power to engage in wars at any time or place as suits his personal, momentary disposition! All that Mr. Bush needs to do is concoct another bogeyman story — "the Iraqis have weapons of mass destruction" — and many Americans run out and buy more flags to place on their cars!
Perhaps there is a genetic explanation for the willingness of so many of us to grovel before those who most threaten our lives. This tendency is not confined to women who continue to embrace vicious, brutal husbands or boyfriends. A number of interesting experiments — e.g., the "prisoners" and "guards" study conducted a number of years ago — reflect the tendency of most of us to become submissive in the face of threats from others.
When we are motivated by fear we become herd-oriented, seeking the apparent safety that comes from making ourselves indistinguishable from one another. A lynch-mob, driven by some momentary fear, hiding the individuality of its members behind percaled uniforms, is one of the more hideous expressions of mass-mindedness. Nor is the lesson on how to collectivize men and women into a fear-managed horde lost on politicians. One need not confine one’s search for evidence of such practices by considering only the butcheries of Stalin, Hitler, Mao Tse-tung, and Pol Pot.
If you pay close attention to what passes for political discourse in our world, you will discover that it consists almost entirely of different groups erecting bogeymen with which to terrify us into surrendering more of our lives and property. Most of academia and the media become eager participants in this practice, for they are able to provide the appearance of substance for such threats, as well as the means of communicating such fears to the rest of us. In such ways are we told of all kinds of dangers in our lives that none of us would likely have had occasion to become aware of on our own.
Consider just a few of the fear-objects presented to us in recent years: racism, environmental pollution, over-population, under-population, corporate greed, welfare cheats, child abuse, child abduction, cigarettes, oil companies, the hole in the ozone layer, sexual harassers, street gangs, AIDS, drug use, Satanic cults, pornographic films and magazines, animal cruelty, nuclear power, teenage pregnancy, bilingualism, obesity, the PLO, Zionism, depletion of the rainforests, unemployment, pro-abortion and pro-life activists, oil and power shortages, inflation, crime, monopolists, cholesterol, global warming (which was, of course, preceded by the threat of global cooling), insider-trading, multiculturalism, . . . and on and on. The fear-object du jour is terrorism.
It is fear of an impending disaster that keeps us huddled together like frightened children who expect a super-parent to protect them from harm. You will note, in today’s war-frenzy, that the fear need not even be based upon fact: it is sufficient that a potential threat can be hypothesized. The possibility that some dangerous event might occur is enough to cause many of us to rationalize having the United States go to war, and to increase the powers of an already engorged police state.
A colleague of mine inquired as to why I was opposed to war. I responded that war is an instrument for increasing state power, and destroying the lives and liberties of people. He then asked: "but what if Saddam Hussein was to detonate a nuclear bomb in LA?" "Is there any evidence to suggest such a threat, or even evidence of Iraq having such a weapon?," I queried. His response was that we shouldn’t wait until he had developed such a bomb; that even having such a weapon was a threat to our security.
"If that is the case," I went on, "perhaps we should consider going to war with China, Great Britain, Russia, India, Pakistan, or Israel: they all have nuclear weapons, and India and Pakistan seem somewhat inclined to use them. By your reasoning, the fact that the United States has the greatest assemblage of nuclear weapons may provide Saddam Hussein with a rationale for attacking America. Perhaps he has grounds to fear a U.S. nuclear attack of Baghdad."
"But why would the Iraqis think we would do something like that?," my colleague asked. "Because," I answered, "America is the only country in history ever to have used nuclear weapons on another nation, and this was done twice!"
Watch carefully how politicians, military officials, and the news media continually create a bogeyman possibility, then reiterate this possibility enough times so that we (a) become fearful of its reality, and (b) accede to the government’s demands to "do something" about it. President Bush’s "case" against Iraq is a classic example of this tactic: convert a "what if" into a latent threat, and chastise those who insist upon evidence to substantiate such a claim!
None of this is to deny that there are dangerous people and conditions in our world for which we need to take precautions. What we fail to consider, however, is how political systems feed upon threats, and must concoct — or exaggerate — dangers if they are not otherwise forthcoming. Most of us are uncomfortable facing the fact that our world has been rendered far more dangerous to us because of politics.
When I was in college back in the early 1950s, a state senator decided to get into the same kind of anti-communist crusade that Senator Joseph McCarthy was employing at the national level. He charged that there were a number of "communists" on the faculty of the state university, a statement that would have had credibility if applied to men and women of collectivist persuasion, generally. But, in that sense most Americans — including the senator — were collectivists. But he clearly meant something far more sinister, namely, that there were "active agents of the communist conspiracy" — to use one of McCarthy’s trite lines — operating on the university campus. When university officials responded that there was no evidence of communist infiltration of the campus, the senator replied that the lack of evidence only showed how deep-seated the conspiracy was! President Bush is engaged in the same kind of fear-mongering reasoning with regard to Iraq.
When my daughters were very young, they enjoyed staying up late on Saturday nights to watch the scary monster movies on television. On more occasions than I can remember, one would be asked by the others to "go get daddy!" to sit with them while they watched some Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi thriller.
As children, we loved scaring ourselves with ghost stories, eerie sounds in the night, or monsters that might lie under our beds. Occasionally, reality would offer up confirmations of some of our fears, such as a woman friend of one of my aunts coming home to find a stranger hiding under her bed. Perhaps the scariest incident involved friends of my parents, whose home we often visited. The man’s elderly mother lived with them, and had a dark, heavily-draped parlor as her sitting room. One day she hanged herself, and thereafter my sisters and I were terrified to go into her darkened parlor.
The thrill we get from going "aaarrrgghhhhh!" in the presence of scare-objects, spawned a very lucrative mystery, horror, and monster film industry in Hollywood to cater to this appetite. Long-running television series also cashed in on this predilection.
Whatever the venue, we enjoyed scaring ourselves in the company of other kids. Whether sitting around a late-night campfire or in a darkened movie theater, we found comfort in experiencing our fears while in the company of others. In the presence of our friends, we lost our sense of personal vulnerability.
The problem is that most of us have carried this mindset over into our adult lives, with the fear-objects transformed from werewolves and vampires into real-life human beings. It is no longer the entertainment industry, alone, that profits from the mobilization of our fears, but the state. Having learned how tractable men and women are when dominated by fear, state authorities have seen to it that we are fed a steady diet of frightful scenarios. It is ironic that the Bush administration would declare a "war on terror," while the state is able to prosper only by generating terror in the minds of those it would rule!
For decades, the state has emulated Alfred Hitchcock, Rod Serling, Roger Corman, and other movie producers, by offering us a steady stream of monsters and villains. Unlike these Hollywood counterparts, who only wanted us to part with some of our money, statists have longer-range ambitions: to have us surrender our lives and liberties. Such monster-stars from the 1930s and 1940s as Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, have passed from the silver screen of history, their roles now being played by the likes of Ceausescu, bin Laden, and Hussein. Like their predecessors, they will be appearing at a "theater near you," whether of the motion picture or military variety!
What most of us fail to acknowledge, in the aftermath of the WTC attacks, is how our willingness to empower the state to deal with the monsters it has helped us concoct in our own minds, created the very monsters we had been taught to fear. It was because most of us wanted "our government" to go out into the world and slay the evil dragons about which the statists had warned us, that those who were attacked began to retaliate. Anyone who fails to understand this causal explanation for the events of 9/11, needs to review Newton’s "third law of motion."
It is time to abandon our childlike ways, and cease being content with living the lies we have been taught to accept as reality. The consequences of remaining immature are simply too great for us to indulge ourselves in such playground reasoning as "if you’re not with us, you’re against us." Whether we are prepared for the maturity of adulthood that most of us insist upon indefinitely postponing is a decision each of us will have to make. Too many of us still believe, as we did in watching all those Frankenstein movies, that "we" are good, and "they" are evil, all the while failing to comprehend the underlying meaning of Mary Shelley’s great novel, namely, that we have become the creators of our own destruction!
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.