Fear, Incivility, and the State

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Fear is an emotion whose consequences can either protect or destroy us. I have a daughter who hikes in the mountains and occasionally encounters rattlesnakes. When she does so, she recognizes the danger and avoids it. She does not, however, forego future walks in wooded areas. There are dangers in the world which we must deal with, but to become obsessed by fear is to turn oneself into a security freak who is easily manipulated by others.

Though economic decision-making is driven by both a desire to avoid losses — a fear-based purpose — and to promote gain, it is the latter motivation that predominates. Insurance companies thrive on fear (e.g., of death, property losses, etc.), but marketplace activity, generally, is premised upon the production and exchange of goods and services that increase our material well-being. A healthy economy is thought of more in terms of the amount of wealth that is generated than in the prevention of losses.

Political systems, on the other hand, are mobilized almost entirely by fear. Our allegedly more u201Cprimitiveu201D ancestors were frightened into obedience by tribal leaders, with warnings about the dreaded u201CNine Bowsu201D who lived on the other side of the river. The u201CNine Bowsu201D have now morphed into u201Cterrorists,u201D and the river has widened into an ocean, but the logic of the fear-based political racket has not changed.

Fear causes people to herd together for protection, thus its generation is essential to the accumulation of state power. The marketplace — which is premised upon individual autonomy — decentralizes decision-making; and the profit-seeking benefits of cooperation cause men and women to freely organize into groups. Those who subject themselves to coercion as an organizing method do so because of a threat to something they value. This is what makes individualism and collectivism irreconcilable. As fear erodes as an influence in our lives, so does collective power.

The power of the state, in other words, has its origins in our individual weakness which, in turn, is generated not simply by our fears of others, but of our capacities for self-direction. To reinforce such fears, the state continually reminds us of the hostile nature of our world, and of our personal inadequacies for dealing with its dangers and uncertainties. We have been warned of threats ranging from violent criminals to street-corner gangs to price-gouging retailers, against which the state promises us protection if only we will submit to more of its powers and authority. We are told that we are not capable of raising our children on our own; that u201Cit takes a villageu201D (i.e., the government) to do so. Those with designs upon our lives then compete with one another to become president of that u201Cvillage.u201D

In this television-age in which the visual has become increasingly dominant as the basis for learning, the state has provided a meter of varying colors with which it manipulates our fear level. We need only check our Crayola box to recall that orange is a more intense expression than yellow, while red reminds us of war and bloodshed. Blue and green — colors we associate with peace and life — are never offered as the hue-of-the-day by the Department of Homeland Security, other than as an implied promise of a world to be realized only when state power reaches its zenith.

The military/police-state purposes behind the state’s current fear-mongering have been unwittingly revealed by the unsubtle George W. Bush. He has announced plans to place the country under martial law in the event of another terrorist attack, or a major natural disaster (such as hurricane Katrina), or an u201Cavian fluu201D epidemic. His primary objective is to militarize the nation. The fear-based rationale for doing so consists of varied options, part of the unfettered u201Cdiscretionu201D that so many herd-oriented Americans are prepared to give the president.

It cannot be denied that there are dangerous people in the world, and not all of them work for the state. Even in the best of societies, there always have been, and always will be, brutes and thugs with whom we must occasionally be called upon to deal. This fact confirms the Jungian insight that whatever degree of order exists in society derives from the inner lives of people, not from institutional mandates or systems. It is also true that how we fare against such social misfits always depends upon our individual strategies and resources, and never upon how many police officers, squad cars, or prisons the state has available to it.

It is in the realm of politically-contrived violence and destruction that we face the gravest threats to our well-being. As a child, I was warned that Hitler wanted to take over the world, and my friends and I, in our innocence, scanned the Nebraska skies watching for German dive-bombers. Later, communists were held up as threats to my liberty and prosperity. Now my children are told that Islamic terrorists want to destroy them. At no time, of course, do the statists acknowledge the symbiotic relationship they and these specters have with one another; an association that makes these threats causally connected to state policies. The photo of a smiling Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein ought to serve as wallpaper on the conscious minds of each of us.

Instead, we are told to look to our neighbors as a source of danger. As we increasingly distrust our own judgments and abilities, we also widen our distrust of the actions and motives of others. We are encouraged to u201Cstay alertu201D — although not aware — and to report to the police any u201Csuspiciousu201D persons. In my lifetime, Nazi bundists with short-wave radios were replaced by communist subversives who, in turn, have been succeeded by crazed terrorists with suitcase bombs. This manipulation of fear produces a vicious circle of paranoia, as we learn to distrust all but the puppet-masters.

Such fear-manipulating practices energize the worst of human emotions and behavior. As in a lynch mob or a race riot, such conduct brings people down to the lowest common denominator. Social relationships become characterized by the most depraved of dark-side impulses: dishonesty, lies, brutishness, violence, a disregard for the pain and suffering of others, and a general disrespect for life itself. Paradoxically, such statist behavior produces the very u201Cwar of every man against every manu201D that Thomas Hobbes saw as necessitating political systems.

History affords abundant examples of fear eating away at our souls and destroying our sense of humanity. The increase in lynchings during economic depressions; the Nazi atrocities that were grounded in German economic and social instabilities; the post-9/11 willingness of most Americans to sanction any course of violence against anyone George W. Bush chose to target, regardless of the factual basis for his doing so. These are but trifling examples of how fear dehumanizes us and fosters the incivility that helps to destroy societies.

I remember a u201CTwilight Zoneu201D episode in which the residents of a neighborhood experienced an electrical blackout: save for one homeowner whose property was not affected. The neighbors gathered in the street to ask why none of them had power, and why this one man did. The discussion quickly turned to fear and anger, with the neighbor becoming accepted as the cause of their problem. Soon, fear of interplanetary invaders was brought up, with the neighbor being suggested as an agent for sinister forces.

The lights in this neighbor’s house mysteriously went off at the same time that another neighbor’s lights came on. The crowd quickly turned its paranoia upon the owner of the now-lighted home. The electricity in other homes continued to play upon this theme. Then, an unidentified figure came down the street toward the crowd. Fearing that this was one of the aliens, someone shot and killed what turned out to be another property owner from the next block who had come to check on the problem people on this street were having.

In the final scene, we see two aliens standing on a hillside with a machine that can turn electricity off and on in various houses. One alien tells the other that they need not destroy the earthlings in order to take over the planet; all that needs to be done is to frighten them with the loss of some of their attachments and they will destroy each other.

This is how the manipulation of fear degrades us both individually and socially. The torture and death that men and women so eagerly inflicted upon subdued strangers at Abu Ghraib prison; the videotaped brutalities visited upon individuals by gangs of police officers; and the surliness with which airport security people routinely deal with passengers — not one of whom poses a threat to any airliner — is evidence of how politics, driven by fear, degrades us all, whether we are the victims or the perpetrators of such conduct.

I was going through a security check at a major American airport recently, when I observed a plug-ugly TSA agent behaving toward his conscripts like a demented Marine Corps drill instructor. He was angrily yelling out u201Chut-two-three-fouru201D as people worked their ways through these lines of interminable insanity. He ordered people to u201Cgrab that rope and get up against the wall.u201D He was not trying to be humorous. When a young man well ahead of me in the line glared back at him, this storm-trooper shouted u201Care you looking for trouble?u201D If such a slug worked for any private employer, he would likely have been fired on the spot. But for those who work for the state, mannerly conduct is rarely exhibited.

Such unprovoked rudeness is infectious. I have noticed a number of airline employees emulating this insolent behavior, perhaps unconsciously absorbing the atmosphere of state-generated hostility around them. They seem to have forgotten what those who work in the marketplace cannot afford to disregard, namely, that passengers are their customers, not their prisoners. I have experienced none of this incivility on the few airlines I find it more pleasurable to fly; airlines which, to my knowledge, are not in the bankruptcy courts.

One of the more vivid examples of how fear brutalizes us was the shooting of an innocent Brazilian man by police officers in a London subway. After earlier subway bombings, this man became — for no apparent reason — a u201Csuspiciousu201D person. When he got into the subway, a number of police officers tackled and held him down while seven shots were fired into his head, instantly killing him. Eager to strut his moral collapse to the American public — and before all of the facts were available — Fox News’ John Gibson praised the London police for being u201Cruthless.u201D u201CFive in the noggin is fine,u201D he reported. A lynch mob mentality is troublesome enough when standing by itself. It is made all the more dangerous when celebrated on network television.

We need to become aware of the dynamics of fear, and how its energies affect our personal and social behavior. The contrast between the marketplace and the state is particularly instructive. Most marketplace activity appeals to our desire for pleasure, material gain, or other life-enhancing ends. u201CThe Belchfire-8 sedan will make you happy;u201D or u201CHyper-Scent after-shave will make you attractive to women.u201D I have never been attracted to the Las Vegas lifestyle, but I think it is marvelous that a major city exists whose principal purpose is to promote pleasure.

By contrast, politically-minded people believe that societies can only be held together by fear — of punishment, prison, death, or other people. One need only contrast the language of market advertising — with its promises of benefits to be enjoyed — with that of legislative statutes — with threats of u201Cfines, imprisonment or both,u201D as polar opposite inducements for your response.

It is interesting to observe the happy, eager, energized behavior of children at Disneyland, and compare it with the more somber expressions of students as they slowly and reluctantly make their ways to the government middle school one block from our home. People want to spend time at Disneyland or Las Vegas; nobody wants to spend time in after-school detention or San Quentin.

As I have stated, there are people and conditions in our world that can harm us, but we need to confront such dangers with intelligence, not with a herd-driven frenzy. We need to understand our fears, not repress them or allow them to be exaggerated into collective energies by which political engineers despoil and destroy us in their lusts for power.

Our irrational fears have been a major contributor to the destruction of Western civilization. But what will arise from the ashes? Will it be a phoenix that generates a new, vibrant civilization, or only vultures to feed upon the decaying remnants of what was once a marvelous culture? The answer to this question will likely depend upon whether we meet the world with a passion or a fear of life itself. To put the matter in perspective, we ought to recall the observation of Andre Gide: u201CThere are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.u201D

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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