The Politics of Fear

Article excerpt

Especially in a contentious election year, I find it difficult not to be skeptical when the Department of Homeland Security issues terror alerts. When the alert level was raised just after the Democratic Convention, for example, the specific details seemed convincing. But when the cited sources and vintage of the intelligence kept shifting, you didn't have to be a conspiracy theorist to question the administration's motives.

And yet, terrorists are real and they want to attack me. Or you. Or Capitol Hill legislators. Or Midwestern mall shoppers. Nothing personal: Terrorists just need stage props. For the most part they don't care about who dies, specifically. What's important is the theatrical power of violent, unpredictable deaths, in a symbolic setting if possible--and the reverberations of notoriety, panic, revenge, suspicion, and repression that inevitably follow.

Sept. 11 strained the body politic. Traumatized, our democracy--grieving, harried, and surveilled--was dragged to brutal places or ran there headlong, raging. Our country's belligerence and abiding anxiety are both part of the terrorist script. Our leaders don't need to manufacture or manipulate the chaos for Machiavellian ends: They are propelled into chaos as haplessly as the rest of us, at least initially.

But according to some political theorists, fear of all sorts does serve our government, regardless of who's in power. As Corey Robin, author of the new book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, told New York magazine recently, "When you no longer believe government is the source of goodness or wisdom, the one argument Thomas Hobbes thought everyone had to agree on was that government protects you. And so you had to educate people to be afraid, because they're not automatically afraid."

In the name of protection, our government exerts a certain amount of control over us. When fear is front-page news, the sacrifices we make of our citizen birthrights can become drastic, often with relatively little government pressure. …