Fear as a Weapon

How the Bush administration got away with its abuses of power


[The following essay is exerpted from How Would a Patriot Act? by Glenn Greenwald (Working Assets Publishing). The book, a bona fide publishing phenomenon, was developed, written, edited, published, and distributed in three months, and made the New York Times bestseller list earlier this summer.]

In one sense, it is difficult to understand how the Bush administration has been able to embrace such radical theories of executive power, and to
engage in such recognizably un-American conduct—first in the shadows
and now quite openly—without prompting a far more intense backlash
from the country than we have seen. It is true that the president’s approval
ratings have sunk to new lows in 2004 and 2005. The broad and bipartisan support he commanded for the two years after the 9/11 attacks has vanished almost completely. And yet, despite all of the public opinion trends
and the president’s steadily declining popularity, there has been no
resounding public rejection of the administration’s claim to virtually limitless executive power and its systematic violations of the nation’s laws.

That is because the Bush administration has in its arsenal one very
potent weapon—and one weapon only—which it has repeatedly used:
fear. Ever since September 11, 2001, Americans have been bombarded with
warnings, with color-coded “alerts,” with talk of mushroom clouds and
nefarious plots to blow up bridges and tall buildings, with villains assigned cartoon names such as “dirty bomber,” “Dr.Germ,” and so on. And there
has been a constant barrage from the White House of impending threats
that generate fear—fear of terrorism, fear of more 9/11–style attacks, fear
of nuclear annihilation, fear of our ports being attacked, fear of our water
systems being poisoned—and, of course, fear of excessive civil liberties or
cumbersome laws jeopardizing our “homeland security.”

Our very survival is at risk, we are told. We face an enemy unlike any
we have seen before, more powerful than anything we have previously
encountered. President Bush is devoted to protecting us from the terrorists. We have to invade and occupy Iraq because the terrorists will kill us
all if we do not. We must allow the president to incarcerate American citizens without due process, employ torture as a state-sanctioned weapon,
eavesdrop on our private conversations, and even violate the law, because the terrorists are so evil and so dangerous that we cannot have any limits
on the power of the president if we want him to protect us from the dangers in the world.

That terrorism is a real and serious threat cannot be denied. But
America has never been a nation characterized by fear. Yet, for the last five
years, we have had a government that has worked overtime to keep fear
levels high because doing so served its interests. More than four years after
the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration continues to keep up the relentless drumbeat of fear. Here is Dick Cheney in early January 2006, proudly
defending the administration’s illegal eavesdropping program by invoking
the specter of terrorism fears:

As we get farther away from September 11th, some in Washington are
yielding to the temptation to downplay the ongoing threat to our
country, and to back away from the business at hand….
The enemy that struck on 9/11 is weakened and fractured, yet it
is still lethal and trying to hit us again. Either we are serious about
fighting this war or we are not. And as long as George W. Bush is
President of the United States, we are serious—and we will not let
down our guard.

Cheney never once addresses the fact that the administration had full leeway to eavesdrop on terrorists without breaking the law. He ignores that
fact because he is not making a rational argument. He is attempting to play
on the fears of Americans to justify their violations of law.

President Bush has also been fueling the fires offear in almost every
speech he has given since September 11, 2001. Here he is in a typical speech,
delivered on October 6, 2005, transparently attempting to whip up as
much fear as possible in order to try to prop up Americans’ diminishing
support for the country’s ongoing occupation of Iraq:

The militants believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments
in the region, and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from
Spain to Indonesia. With greater economic and military and political power, the terrorists would be able to advance their stated
agenda: to develop weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, to intimidate Europe, to assault the American people, and to blackmail
our government into isolation.

Our enemy is utterly committed. As Zarqawi has vowed, “We
will either achieve victory over the human race or we will pass to the
eternal life.” And the civilized world knows very well that other
fanatics in history, from Hitler to Stalin to Pol Pot, consumed whole
nations in war and genocide before leaving the stage of history….
With the rise of a deadly enemy and the unfolding of a global
ideological struggle, our time in history will be remembered for new
challenges and unprecedented dangers.

Islamic terrorists, here as always,are depicted as omnipotent villains with
quite attainable dreams of world domination, genocide, and the obliteration of the United States. They are trying to take over the world and murder us all. And this is not merely a threat we face. It is much more than
that.It is the predominant issue facing the United States—more important
than all others. Everything pales in comparison to fighting off this danger.
We face not merely a danger, but “unprecedented dangers.”

For four years, this is what Americans have heard over and over and
over from our government—that we face a mortal and incomparably
powerful enemy, and only the most extreme measures taken by our government can save us. We are a nation engaged in a War of Civilizations, a
nation whose very existence is in peril. All of our plans for the future,
dreams for our children, career aspirations, life goals—these are all subordinate, all for naught, unless, first and foremost, we stand loyally behind
George Bush as he takes the extreme and unprecedented measures necessary to protect us from these extreme and unprecedented threats.

It is that deeply irrational, fear-driven view of the world that has been used to convince Americans to acquiesce to the administration’s excesses
and abuses of power. And it is not difficult to understand why it works.
After all, if it really were the case that terrorism constituted the sort of
imminent, civilization-ending threat the administration has spent the last
four years drumming into everyone’s head, then it might be extremely
difficult to gin up much outrage over an eavesdropping program—war-
rants or not—or over a few American citizens being rounded up and put
in military prisons without any charges. When our very survival is in
imminent danger, all else pales in importance, and we may feel extreme gratitude toward those who seek to save us, even if hey break a few laws
to do it.

In fact, it has become unacceptable in polite company to even raise
the prospect that the threat of terrorism may be exaggerated. During the
2004 election, John Kerry stumbled in his clumsy way towards challenging this fear-mongering when he was quoted in The New York Times Magazine as saying, “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists
are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance.” This provoked the
predictable outrage from the Bush camp that Kerry, along with Bush’s
other opponents, was not serious about fighting terrorists and was too
weak to protect our children from this unparalleled menace, and the issue
was never spoken of again.

It has become an inviolable piety that there is no such thing as over-
stating the terrorism risk. One is compelled to genuflect to, and tremble
before, the supremacy of this ultimate threat, upon pain of being cast aside
as some sort of anti-American, terrorist-loving radical.

That we are a strong enough nation to defeat terrorism without fundamentally changing our nation is a message that Americans are clearly ready
to hear. We are more than four years away from September 11, 2001, and
despite the dire warnings of the Bush administration, people in rural Kansas
and suburban Georgia and everywhere else are beginning to realize that on
the list of problems and threats that endanger their children and impede
their dreams, the potential of a terrorist attack does not predominate.
In a rational world, risk is equal to impact multiplied by probability.
As the Linguasphere Dictionary puts it: “In professional risk assessment,
risk combines the probability of a negative event occurring with how
harmful that event would be.” But the administration has spent four years
urging Americans to ignore that way of thinking and instead assent to any
government measure,no matter the costs of comparative harms, as long
as it is pursued in the name of fighting this ultimate evil.

But one can protect against the threat of terrorism with courage,
calm, and resolve—the attributes that have always defined our nation as it
has confronted other threats, including many at least as significant. Hys-
teria and fear-mongering are the opposite of strength. The strong remain
rational and unafraid.

Most people know individuals in their lives who live in this type of
irrational, all-consuming fear—people who are scared, pathologically
risk-averse, always hiding and exerting excess caution lest something go
wrong. In its more extreme version, that sort of fear manifests as a life-
destroying mental disorder. It is a pitiful image, and such people typically
achieve very little. They cannot, because their fear is paralyzing.
The Bush administration has been trying for four years to reduce this
country to a collective version of that affliction. And it is hard to imagine
what a nation fueled by such fear can accomplish.

The administration has managed to get away with the Orwellian idea
that fear is the hallmark of courage, and a rational and calm approach is a
mark of cowardice. They have been aided in this effort by a frightened
national media and political elite that lives in Washington and New
York—two “target-rich” cities—and that has been so petrified of further
attacks that they were easily pushed into a state of passive, uncritical compliance in exchange for promises of protection. But we now have some
emotional distance from the shock of September 11, and the power of that
fear weapon is diminishing.

We must now see that fear is a by-product of weakness and cowardice.
A strong nation does not give up its freedoms or sacrifice its national character in the face of manufactured fear and panic. But that is what George
Bush has spent the last four years urging the country to do, and it is what
he is counting on—that this NSA lawbreaking scandal will soon join the
litany of other scandals that have inconsequentially receded in the public
consciousness.