Without the fear of life-threatening enemies, Homo sapiens would have never survived. Sabre-toothed tigers no longer lurk at every bus stop these days, but panic has nonetheless infested the American mind. Fear-mongering is used by the elites to perpetuate the status quo and it has worked perfectly; one need only look at today’s surveillance society. It has worked too well, as a matter of fact: Barack Obama is currently worked up about the irrational warnings being spread — mainly but not exclusively by Republicans — about an Ebola epidemic in America. In mid-October, the Syracuse University Department of Journalism withdrew an invitation to a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter when it was learned the reporter had been in Liberia covering an Ebola outbreak three weeks earlier. The university’s provost explained to The Washington Post that they wanted to avoid creating panic. All old hat: A travel ban on anyone with AIDS or HIV was enforced in the United States from 1987 to 2010.
There’s a disconnect here somewhere: In their national anthem, Americans celebrate the land of the free and the home of the brave, yet nowadays, Americans are afraid of one another and the world in general. They have over 200 million privately-owned firearms; about one-third of all U.S. households are armed. Supposedly intelligent media outlets warn of increasing chaos outside U.S. borders: Ukraine, Egypt, Libya, nuclear weapons in Iran, Boko Haram and the unpredictable Vladimir Putin. The potential of global terrorism — particularly from the Islamic State — against which we must act now before we’re all massacred in our own homes, as one U.S. senator warned. In the context of American fear, “act” means bomb them into oblivion.
In America, al-Qaida has been replaced as the ultimate evil along with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, whose assassination touched off crowds chanting, “USA! USA!” in joyous celebration, but that didn’t herald the end of terrorism. When the country is afraid, it buys a round of beer for its uniformed heroes — provided they’re over 21. Nineteen-year-olds are trusted to shoot at people far from home, but the thought of them drinking a Budweiser? That’s scary stuff!
Home of the Brave?
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” This often-quoted but less-often-heeded warning was given by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his March 1933 inaugural address. That was the high point — or the low point — of a great depression during which the United States was undergoing a major economic crisis.
Fear: Politicians win elections with it, security companies and “experts” get rich from it, and threats become headlines that sell newspapers or make money from online clicks. Little cell phone screens show overpowering images of catastrophe that cause suffering for others, but have nothing to do with the lives of most Americans. But they still cause fear. The news-consuming public audience over the past few years has been through bird flu, swine flu, mad cow disease, a bedbug invasion, computer viruses of greater or lesser severity, Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, air in passenger planes unfit to breathe, and on and on. Is there anything that doesn’t cause cancer? And what’s the final verdict on butter? Good for you? Bad for you?
And on top of all that we now have Ebola! For the West African people who have minimal health care even in the best of times, the virus is an existential catastrophe. For people in the United States of America and Europe, it isn’t. Thousands more Americans die of ordinary flu every year. Advising people to wash their hands more often would save far more American lives than broadcasting frightening warnings that Ebola came across the Mexican border because of Obama’s refusal to put up more walls. Governments need to look rationally and more humanely, with more energy and with less concern for costs, at what aid West Africa needs to get the job done.
The early 21st century doesn’t have a monopoly on “unjustified” and “paralyzing” terror. Scapegoats are simply part and parcel of politics as usual. The reality is that the U.S. and most of Europe is less threatened now than at any other point in history. You almost have to admire the ingenuity of the U.S. government for figuring out a way to convince its people that despite having the most powerful military in the world and peace and quiet at home, they are more threatened since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon than ever before. And America’s friends and allies buy into that.
Author James Risen, one of the first American journalists to address the topic of total government surveillance, wrote as early as 2004 that the war on terror deregulated the national security apparatus. He has now written a book with the engaging title, “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War.” He recently took the fear industry to task in a radio interview, saying those making war on terror did so for many reasons: Ambition, status, power and money. That puts this war on a par with the Thirty Years’ War in 17th-century Europe, where a new class of mercenary was created — one for war without end. Today, it’s considered normal that civilian police patrol neighborhoods with armored vehicles; that data transmissions and telephone calls are routinely monitored and stored indefinitely; that cameras record every aspect of daily life. Total security is an impossibility; that’s just common sense.
Whoever walks through a seedy neighborhood with a lot of money in his pocket is more edgy than someone carrying just small change. America is walking through the world today with its pockets stuffed full of big bills.
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