President George W. Bush is trying to scare us. On July 24, 2007, at Charleston Air Force Base, he mentioned al Qaeda 93 times in a 29-minute speech. For nearly all Americans, mention of al Qaeda brings to mind frightening images of the World Trade Towers crashing to the ground. Nothing reminds us more compellingly of the threat that terrorists pose to our lives, even here in the United States. The president’s speechwriters are not fools; they would not write such scripts for their boss unless they knew that he wanted to scare us. So the intent is transparent.
But why does the president want to scare us? Will his doing so serve any useful purpose?
In fact, no matter how much the president’s rhetoric may frighten us, the American people at large can do nothing useful to deter terrorism by al Qaeda operatives. What are we supposed to do? Be vigilant, the homeland-security authorities always tell us. They give us no useful guidance, however, about what we are supposed to be vigilant of. Should we watch for persons who act suspiciously? That’s a huge, heterogeneous, and almost entirely innocuous group. Should we keep our eyes peeled only for Arabian-looking persons who act suspiciously? That, too, includes an enormous number of persons, many of whom are not even Arabs, much less terrorists. Besides, an individual or an action that looks suspicious in one person’s eyes looks normal in another’s. Public reports of suspicious persons are likely to present thousands of false positives for every genuine potential terrorist and therefore to inundate the authorities in a flood of worthless information, prompting a multitude of fruitless investigations and diverting attention from any real terrorist who might be afoot.
Truth be told, being scared does us no good at all in this case, and Bush’s advisers, because they are not dunces, must know full well that it does us no good. But they hope it will do the administration some good, which explains why the president and his lieutenants continue to try to scare us about the alleged threat of terrorism here in America, as they have since 9/11 with almost drumbeat regularity.
In speaking about the politics of fear, some commentators talk as though the Bush administration is unusual in its resort to bogeyman rhetoric and related policies, but it is not. All governments rely directly or indirectly on the cultivation of fear to prop up their rule. If the people were not afraid, either of the government itself or of some threat from which the government purports to protect them, they would not submit to being fleeced and bullied as they are by their rulers, and the government would collapse. Direct government threats against the people generally prove to be inefficient means of control, however, so all regimes, even the most tyrannical, resort to posing as the people’s indispensable protector against a variety of hazards to life, health, and economic well-being.
Of course, people are not always equally scared, and therefore the extent to which they will submit to their government’s abuses varies. Immediately after 9/11, for example, nearly all Americans were extremely frightened of further terrorist acts like those in New York and Washington. Rumors of all sorts of threats circulated, pertaining to suitcase nukes, poison gases, toxic materials, deadly pathogens, and so forth. For the government, this situation was a godsend because it greatly diminished the difficulty of pushing through the USA PATRIOT Act, nationalizing the airport-security industry, jacking up the rate of federal spending, running up the national debt, and taking many other measures that were rushed through while people were still in shock about the horrifying recent events and not inclined to question the wisdom of actions being taken in the name of enhancing their security.
Soon after 9/11, however, the public’s fright began to subside, as it always does after a crisis unless reinforced. Then, midway through 2002, the president and his chief subordinates mounted a strenuous campaign to promote new fears in order to gain support for the planned attack on Iraq. This fear-mongering featured an alleged Iraqi capacity to employ directly or to pass on to terrorists so-called weapons of mass destruction. The administration’s campaign made repeated use of the imagery of the mushroom cloud, tapping into the ordinary American’s deep-seated fear of all things nuclear. Despite the government’s substantial success in these efforts, the people’s enthusiasm for the war that began in March 2003, which was very high in the beginning, began to evaporate soon after the invasion, and it has diminished almost without pause ever since. By now, of course, both the war and the president who launched it have become extremely unpopular.
Lately, in an attempt to thwart his increasingly vociferous partisan critics, the president has been attempting again to tie the war in Iraq to al Qaeda and 9/11. According to the Whitehouse fact sheet issued in connection with Bush’s Charleston speech, “The al Qaeda terrorists we face in Iraq are part of the same enemy that attacked the United States on 9/11, and they still intend to attack us at home.” Well, not exactly. The group known as al Qaeda in Iraq did not exist before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and various experts on terrorism — not simply the president’s political enemies — agree that the invasion and occupation have created many more Islamic terrorists worldwide than existed previously. As CNN’s Michael Ware, who is based in Baghdad, remarks, “It makes one wonder why the president is hammering this point home [that al Qaeda in Iraq has links to the more extensive group led by Osama bin Laden] when he glosses over the fact this war is creating more al Qaeda jihadis rather than reducing their number.”
One need not wonder long, however, because the president’s motives for playing the fear card on this latest occasion, by repeatedly invoking al Qaeda, are obviously the same as they were on the many previous occasions when he played it. The president’s speeches garner more attention from the news media than anyone else’s views get. Even if every terrorism expert on earth regards the president’s statements as misleading, many people will never be exposed to that conflicting view — the average American’s attention span for the fine points of foreign affairs is very short in any event — and therefore the president’s scare stories will always produce the effect he desires to some extent, at least in the short run. Otherwise, he would have abandoned this political tactic long ago.
Most Americans, however, have learned to disregard the president’s scary declarations. For them these statements have no more effect than the twenty-fifth scream in a grade-B horror film.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society.