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The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
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October 10, 2005

Do You Feel Any Safer?


Fear as blowback

by Dr. Teresa Whitehurst

"Commuters headed to work today under the watchful eyes of police after a newly disclosed terror threat against the New York subway system raised the specter of an attack with explosives concealed in a baby stroller." (Oct. 7, 2005)

"Police with bomb-sniffing dogs interrupted a Rolling Stones show at the University of Virginia Thursday night after officials received a bomb threat concerning the stage." (Oct.7, 2005)

"The Washington Monument was evacuated and the streets around it blocked off because of a bomb threat, a law enforcement official said on Friday." (Oct. 7, 2005)

Do you remember the America that was – the good life we knew before the Bush administration? You could ride the New York subways without fear of anything more troublesome than getting off at the wrong stop. Going to a Rolling Stones concert carried the risk of temporary deafness, but little else. And the only warning I ever heard about the Washington Monument in America's pre-Bush salad days was to avoid racing up the steps to the top, as this foolish feat had led to the occasional heart attack.

But that was long ago and far, far away from the fearful nation we've become after five long years under the childish Bush administration. After years of divide-and-conquer strategies within and enemy-making without, bomb threats are steadily increasing in frequency. If this trend continues – a trend that feeds into the Bush administration's fondness for military encroachment into and "pacification" of civilian domains – the U.S. will soon be added to the list of volatile, divided, fearful countries, an object of pity and scorn.

We are fast learning that leaders with a zest for military aggression eventually exact a price that their supporters as well as their opponents must pay: As Americans of every political party are learning, the costs to their quality of life (freedom of movement, ease, confidence, feelings of safety and well-being) far outweigh any benefits derived from tax cuts.

To be a citizen in Bush's America is to be a frightened child of a bully father who creates dangerous enemies with vendettas while "defending" his offspring. The child/citizen may at first feel protected but eventually realizes that he or she has instead been "protected to death" – left alone to face the enemies created by his defender's antagonizing bravado and violence.

And so we find ourselves having to face the backlash, protected by nothing more potent than impressive-looking security measures such as:

  • Mind-numbing recordings, e.g., "If you see something, say something" and "Report any suspicious behavior." (Would a terrorist really be so stupid as to behave suspiciously?)
  • Idiotic body searches of little old ladies. (As my antiwar "fiscal Republican" father always said, unlike naďve young ideologues, elderly people have obviously put a lot of effort into staying alive and thus are not inclined to blow themselves up.)
  • Equally pointless searches of one-way ticket holders. (What are the odds that a terrorist would still purchase a red-flagging one-way flight?)
  • The Bush administration's "send in the Marines" strategy, as if the mere sight of armed troops (which is, if anything, an incitement to those already enraged by U.S. military violence) is sufficient to deter suicidally inclined terrorists.
  • Startlingly ineffective random backpack searches.
  • Educating the public about the need to stay kinda tense and vigilant every time we leave the house – but also to act naturally.

On the bus, the subway, the train, the airport, and even the mall, we're advised to look at our fellow travelers and shoppers not with friendliness but with suspicion: We are all, supposedly, qualified judges of what is and is not a threat – which means that individuality or idiosyncratic quirks are fast becoming unacceptable. (As the militaristic murder of young Mr. de Menezes by London authorities amply illustrated, the wrong clothing choice or skin color can be quite hazardous to your health.)

A Day Without Fear Is a Day Without a Submissive Citizenry

Nowadays, we don't even expect to have a day without fear. In stark contrast to the elation felt during our "Power of Pride" pro-war frenzy, Americans now think in terms of how much terror we should be feeling.

When we see "Terror Level: Elevated" or "Terror Level: High" scrolling ominously beneath every newscast, we're reminded that we are not safe. We automatically translate the levels into color codes and feel the appropriate anxiety: Orange! Red! Help! 911!

Of course, it doesn't stop there. News anchors talk about our non-safety every chance they get. "You could be next" stories are a classic ratings ploy; fear glues viewers to newscasts when they'd rather be watching Seinfeld.

Bush's popularity ratings have taken a dramatic nosedive; observers have tracked the link between bad news for the White House (the latest targeting Bush's closest adviser, Karl Rove) and highly publicized but bogus terrorist threats. On the other hand, many critics believe that Bush's promotion of war and his brazen support of torture have made a world of enemies for Americans, both domestic and foreign, thus putting us genuinely at risk.

Only the most faithful Bushians believe these threats have nothing to do with Bush's sagging ratings or blowback from his violent foreign policies.

For die-hard Bush supporters, the right to kill people there so that we'll be safer here is beyond question: If we're running for cover from one bomb threat after another, it's because we haven't yet wiped out all the bad guys (and anyone else in their vicinity). We just need to infiltrate more terrorist cells, torture more suspected terrorists, and start more wars. Then we'll be safe – at least that's what Mr. Bush always says – and the terror will end.

But that's not the case. Fear boosts ratings and distracts attention. Dramatic televised "terror threats" of varying color and intensity will continue as long as they work. Whether they're fabricated by the Bush administration or generated by the enemies our merciless smart bombs have created, and whether or not they have anything at all to do with al-Qaeda, the fact remains that we're fast becoming one nation under constant threat.

Both Republicans and Democrats are learning to do things we never dreamed we'd be doing, things like avoiding the subway, evacuating buildings, and looking over our shoulders everywhere we go – the polar opposite of what was supposed to happen after ridding the world of evil, as Bush promised he would.

Instead of walking tall, Americans are running for cover.


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Dr. Teresa Whitehurst is a clinical psychologist, author of Jesus on Parenting(2004) and coauthor of The Nonviolent Christian Parent (2004). She offers parenting workshops, holds discussion groups on Nonviolent Christianity, and writes the column, "Democracy, Faith and Values: Because You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Just One." Visit her website.

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