For as children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so we in the light sometimes fear what is no more to be feared than the things children in the dark hold in terror and imagine will come true.
When I was a small child, I delighted in scaring my two younger sisters with specters dreamed up by me with the help of radio broadcasts. My mind was a bottomless well of monsters, hobgoblins, and — scariest of all — those amorphous demons whose lack of clarity in shape made them all the more terrifying. I was a Ziegfeld of theatrical production, with sound effects produced by my ghostly vocalizing, the pounding on walls, or the scratching of my fingernails on a door; while my special effects took the form of crawling beneath their beds at night and kicking the bedsprings. The script was nothing special, it being sufficient that the acting would generate the desired screams.
I have been out of the fear-mongering business for many decades now, the field having been taken over by well-financed professionals with whom I am unable and unwilling to compete. The stage props and special effects have become so massive and expensive as to leave little room for a small-time operator to succeed with nothing more than voice-over screeches. For the enterprise to be worthwhile today, economies-of-scale demand that the intended audience be expanded beyond one’s immediate family. The bogeyman has become a multinational operation, leaving a budding young entrepreneur to content himself with annoying the neighbors with a garage band.
Fear-peddling is very much in danger of becoming monopolized by the state, which long ago realized that keeping people perennially frightened was the most effective method of maintaining them in a huddled and obedient mass. From the primitive tribal chief who was able to convince his neighbors of the threats posed by the u201CNine Bowsu201D across the river, to today’s political shakedown artists with their terrorist phantoms, fear has been the essential organizing principle of politics.
As my sisters and I learned at an early age, fear objects are most terrifying when their identities are vague and formless. Lions and tigers and bears are dangerous, but never as frightening as shadowy creatures who haunt darkened streets or hallways. I recall the stark terror I experienced in listening to Lionel Barrymore’s radio presentation of Dickens’ u201CA Christmas Carol,u201D and imagining the ghost of Jacob Marley clanking his way up a lonely staircase. I also recall the disappointment I felt in seeing my first movie version of the story: I had, after all, dreamed up a far scarier specter than Hollywood was able to accomplish with special effects photography.
Like small children, we are now living in a society that the institutional order — particularly the state — tries vainly to hold together through fear. While pointing to u201Cothersu201D as threats to our well-being — one of the clearest symptoms of psychological projection — the state unwittingly acknowledges its terrorist foundations. We must be kept in constant terror of faceless and formless men — or women — who might attack us in some unexpected manner; we must learn to fear unattended packages, or breast-feeding mothers on airliners, or dark-skinned people who speak in languages we do not understand. We have even been warned to feel unsafe at petting zoos and roller-skating rinks, as government officials warn us to be constantly alert to dangers from u201Csuspiciousu201D others.
Lest we not accord world events their u201Cproperu201D potential for threats to our lives, we have been provided with one of the most idiotic of political gimmicks: a color-coded chart identifying the level of fear we should feel. Like Pavlovian dogs, our operant conditioning is apparently designed to elicit from each of us an expected rush of adrenalin as the colors move upwards from yellow to orange to red.
It is rational for men and women to have an awareness of potential dangers in their environments, and to make an appropriate response when needed. Some very dangerous and ill-motivated people did murder nearly three thousand people on 9/11. It is important that the identities and purposes of those involved be revealed, even if doing so requires us to look in directions we are uncomfortable considering. On the other hand, it is quite irrational — to the point of being pathological — to embrace the doctrine of a malevolent universe; to live in constant fear of everything and everybody at all times. I was in college, in the early 1950s, when the shadowy hobgoblin of the u201Ccommunist infiltratoru201D became a useful tool to mobilize fear on behalf of expanded governmental power. I recall one study in which people were asked whether they suspected any of their neighbors of being communists. Many did, offering such u201Cevidenceu201D as a man having National Geographic maps pinned to his walls, or a couple who were accustomed to entertaining people at their home late at night. I also recall a legislator in our state who was convinced of the presence of a communist u201Cconspiracyu201D within the faculty of the state university. When informed that there was no evidence to support such a charge, the solon responded that the lack of evidence only confirmed the effectiveness of the conspiracy! Again, fear-objects are rendered more terrifying when we imagine them operating in shadows, where our imaginations must be employed to fill in the details.
Today’s u201Cterroristu201D or u201Cjihadistu201D would doubtless be defined in the same murky fashion. Of course, u201Cjihadu201D is a word very few people understand, it only being sufficient that everyone fear it. Our fears of such persons are hastened because we do not understand the causal explanations for their actions. Nor are most of us desirous of learning such causes because, to do so, would give rise to an even greater fear: that of discovering the nature of the political games being played at our expense. It is far better that we simply accept the bogeyman du jour as our fear object, and recite all the appropriate mantras on behalf of our attachment to patriotic causes that only lead to our destruction.
We are told, on a daily basis, that our lives are under constant threat of attack from terrorists. But if this is so, where are these supposed terrorists? President Bush and his defenders have been bleating that their expanded police and surveillance powers are keeping terrorists out of the country, a proposition that is rendered laughable by the daily influx of immigrants from Central America! If it has been so easy for millions of people to enter this country in spite of determined government efforts to prevent it, what efficacious mechanisms has the Bush administration put in place to keep out terrorists? Nor does the government’s performance in New Orleans suggest to any thoughtful person that it is capable of making an effective response to any alleged danger.
The so-called u201Cwar on terroru201D is just another of the many state-run rackets designed to benefit governmental, media, and various business interests, all of whom profit from state-induced fears of others. Greater power and more tax dollars flow to political systems; the media enjoys an increase in viewers and readers; while untold numbers of government contractors, along with suppliers of goods and services for a market of frightened people, profit from this protection racket. In threatening to expand the war to other countries, the state increases hostilities from its targeted enemies, thus engendering more fears from Americans who demand u201Cprotection.u201D
If physicians could figure out ways to inject people with deadly viruses that they could then treat with expensive tests, drugs, and medical advice, their profession would precisely correlate with the methods of the state!
President Bush and other politicians — along with the agents of disinformation in the media — spent many hours exploiting the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Mr. Bush went to the World Trade Center site ostensibly to honor the victims of that atrocity, but in fact his purpose was to take advantage of that event in order to reinforce the mindset of fear upon which the state depends for the continuing expansion of its power over our lives. Fear is a condition the state cannot allow to enervate; it must be constantly revitalized. Like a morsel of food to Pavlov’s dogs, Mr. Bush’s memorial wreath served — like Memorial Day ceremonies — to reinforce the conditioning that is the state’s power source.
On the same day that Mr. Bush gave his performance in New York City, Faux News had a feature asking: u201CIs Iraq war a u2018sideshow’ in the war on terror?u201D Intelligent minds would do better to ask: is the war on terror a sideshow in the war on the American people?
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.