The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
When Tom Ridge appeared with a pre-Christmas scare!
Just four days before Christmas, Mr. Ridge was the principal source of network entertainment as he announced that he was raising the "terror alert" in America from "yellow" to "orange." The upcoming holidays might, he supposed, provide an opportunity for some ill-defined group to attack some possible targets someplace in the homeland he imagines it his province to protect. When a 6.5 earthquake hit central California the following day, I almost expected members of the Busheoisie to praise Tom for his foresight and for making us aware of the threat of tectonic terrorism!
There will be those who will commend Mr. Ridge for keeping America informed of terrorist threats. But his words informed us of nothing. To "inform" means to give shape to, to communicate knowledge. His words were of no value whatsoever in helping individuals make plans. Were these uncertain terrorists going to attack airliners, shopping malls, college bowl games, concerts, freeways, or amusement parks? People were advised to "be vigilant," but about what? His warnings were as irrelevant to the contemplation of human action as are the pre-holiday predictions of the numbers of people likely to die in traffic accidents. His predictions had no more substance than do those of the psychics who show up in the media this time of the year to tell us that a "major catastrophe" will occur, or a "prominent person" will die, in 2004.
Mr. Ridge’s "alert" was designed for one purpose only: to keep us terrified so that the state can continue to manipulate our fears for its purposes. Had he been candid about the matter, he might have said: "lest any of you people get caught up in the u2018peace on earth’ sentimentality that is going around this time of year, we want to keep you in fear of the unknown, so that we can continue to enlist your energies on behalf of the war system we have worked so hard to maintain and develop." Ridge urged people to go ahead with their holiday plans. He might have added: "but don’t enjoy yourselves."
Those of you who, like myself, were around during World War II and the early days of the Cold War will recognize the scare tactics being employed. As children, living in Nebraska in the 1940′s, we were encouraged to scan the skies with our binoculars to watch for German or Japanese warplanes. As an adult, I figured out the logistical absurdity of the threat of German dive-bombers and fighter planes traveling from Germany to the middle of the United States. We were likewise told by Mr. Ridge’s 1950′s counterpart, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, of the threat of "communists" in our schools, businesses, government, the media, and neighborhoods. Many movies and television programs helped to reinforce this state-induced fear of the unknown, as did rumored threats of poisoned food and water supplies.
The dominant fear propagated during the Cold War was that America had to respond, militarily, to the "threat" of an international communist conspiracy. Nowhere was this campaign more energized than in a quarter-century of vicious warfare in southeast Asia. I wonder if the families of the nearly 100,000 American soldiers who died on behalf of the "domino theory" in the Korean and Vietnam wars might have gagged at the recent sight of President Bush and his Chinese counterpart exchanging smiles and agreeing that they were opposed to independence for Taiwan. If those wars were fought to prevent Chinese communism from taking over southeast Asia, would that alleged purpose not have been served by America’s insistence that Taiwan remain free of Chinese control? I wonder if Bush and his gang regard the names on the Vietnam War monument as anything more than a "suckers list" of young Americans who, not having had the advantages of political connections, were conscripted to die to protect the liberties of South Koreans and South Vietnamese from a prior generation’s assemblage of "evildoers"?
We are held hostage by our own fears, and the more amorphous the fear-object the more terrified we become. When fear combines with the unknown, our imaginations know no restraint. No film presentation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, for instance, can begin to match the fearfulness I experienced in listening to Lionel Barrymore’s radio broadcasts of that tale. My imagination horrified me much more than did the special effects images of Marley’s ghost.
As we listen to the fear-mongering of Messrs. Bush, Ridge, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, et al., we need to recall how, as children, we frightened one another with ghost stories or tales of murderers or monsters lurking in the darkened hallways of our homes. Have we outgrown this vulnerability to fear-objects? Before answering this question, first assess your responses to current news stories designed to mobilize fears and reinforce support for the "big brothers" who promise you their unspecified "protection" from the unknown.
Political systems have always depended upon the dynamics of fear to mobilize individuals into a servile herd. From primitive tribesmen who were told of the dreaded "Nine Bows" across the river, to the modern "terrorists" on the other side of the planet, the manufacture and management of fear has always been essential to statist ambitions for power. It is impossible to watch a television news report without being reminded of a myriad of agents in our world who will likely visit great harm upon us unless we grant the state more power over our lives. Child abductors, spousal abusers, obesity, drug usage, terrorists, ozone holes, money launderers, racists, smokers, cell-phone users, and "hate groups" (i.e., people who oppose your political agenda), are among the more prominent examples.
We live in an institutionalized world that requires the submission of individuals to organizational purposes. Systems that seek to control the behavior of people must invariably resort to fear as a way of overcoming individual resistance. We live in a fear-driven culture: politics feeds on the fear of others and the fear of punishment; most school systems emphasize the fear of failure; organized religions offer fears of eternal punishment; our economic lives are underlain by a fear of losing our job or our credit rating; movies and computer games entertain us with monsters, mass murderers, and other threats while the fear of disease, death, the loss of our worldly attachments, etc., add to this mindset of dread.
Is it any wonder that, having become preoccupied with fear, the state would find it so easy to convince most of us that "terrorists" — the very embodiment of fear — are the latest specters against which we require the "protection" of a totalitarian state?
But fear-mongering has its limits. Just as having too much information can saturate our minds and immobilize us, our psyches can experience an overload of fear and make us immune to more threats. There is a lesson to be learned from the study of Zen Buddhism. It is common for a Zen master to take a long piece of bamboo — one with a good whipping action — and surprise his students by hitting them across the backs of their legs when they do not expect it. He might hide behind a curtain or a pillar, or jump up from behind a piece of furniture, and give them a solid whack. The students try to anticipate his moves, and become overly cautious when out walking, but the Zen master always manages to surprise them. In time, the students simply give up their fears of being whacked and go about the business of learning, which is the purpose of the teacher’s exercise.
Should our minds begin to overload on fear we may, like the Zen students, no longer find ourselves responsive to the contrived threats by which we allow others to control our lives. Should this occur, the future of the state may be a bleak one, as there are a number of factors whose conflation is rendering the political organization of society increasingly untenable. As the study of chaos informs us, the assumptions of vertically structured planning and control upon which state power rests are incompatible with the dynamics of a complex world. As a consequence of this, we have been witnessing a movement toward more decentralized, unstructured, horizontally-based systems. The growth of private schools and homeschooling; the increased use of alternative health systems; the challenge the Internet poses to traditional institutional sources of information; the spread of secession movements in many parts of the world; are some of the more prominent expressions of the weakening of centrally-structured systems.
One must appreciate the significance of these decentralizing forces in driving the state’s "war on terror," a war that Mr. Bush promises will go on forever. It is the incipient collapse of state power that terrorizes the political system. Since the state, by definition, is the established order, any fundamental change that would bring about the liberty of men and women to generate a diversity of organizational systems, would represent "terror" to itself. It is the life process itself, as reflected in the spontaneity and autonomy of individuals, that is feared not only by the state, but by those of us who remain conditioned by political thinking.
But what if, like the Zen students, we can transcend our fears? Upon what basis would the state be able to sustain its authority over our lives? It is rather evident that the state no longer inspires people with what they like to imagine are noble purposes of social betterment. In a world that has become accustomed to the Realpolitik that awards billions of dollars in favored government contracts to firms like Halliburton and Bechtel, while the families of American soldiers in Iraq must have recourse to charities for their sustenance, the classic JFK admonition to "ask not" could no longer be uttered with a straight face.
It is clear to growing numbers of people that the political system they have been conditioned to believe they control is under the control of the state itself, and that the "democratic process" is nothing more than an empty ritual by which voters confirm the establishment’s choice of future leaders. It is not apathy that continues to drive down voter participation in elections, but a sense of realism, an unwillingness to participate in a meaningless charade.
When the state is seen as ineffectual even for the accomplishment of its avowed purposes; when it no longer provides inspiration or even entertainment value to people; and when it overloads our minds with endless fears of unspecified dangers about which we are expected to do no more than remain obedient to established authority, such influences may very well coalesce to bring about its collapse. I suspect that the demise of the state will come about not by revolution, subversion, or other violent means, but by a profound sense of boredom with the system. Like the dinosaurs — whose gigantic and cumbersome structures rendered them nonresilient to the kinds of fluctuations with which life must always contend — the downfall of the state will likely be the product of its own dead weight upon the body and soul of humanity.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.