The Culture of Fear

A culture of death is a culture of fear and ours is a culture of death.  Fear is a sort of background radiation, a certain slant of light coming through red, lowering clouds and casting a strange pall over what used to be called “normal life”.

The signs of it are everywhere. 

Here’s some Muslim parent asking for a couple of Ramadan decorations to go with the traditional Christmas stuff.  Result: the jittery school district panicked and forebade both Christmas and Halloween and had to be talked down off the roof by the soothing voices of both Christian and Muslim parents.

Here’s a recent ABC special in which reporters whip the audience into a secular apocalyptic fear fest by rehearsing various ways in which we are all doomed while one of the allegedly smartest men in the world—Stephen Hawking—urges us to abandon Spaceship Earth in favor of some other planet.

Here’s some little old lady who got a case of airline jitters and had to be pulled off a flight on August 16, 2006.  Now people have gotten agitated and have been pulled off flights for as long as there have been commercial planes. But since this little old lady got the jitters on the first anniversary of a foiled terrorist plot, Matt Drudge made sure to run a big “CLAUSTROPHOBIA IN THE SKIES” headline and turn his site into a sort of free billboard for fear.  Drudge essentially announces “Mission Accomplished, Terrorists! We Americans and Brits are panicked and fearful of you! This lady speaks for us all! Keep it up!”

Fear is like a drug.  Sometimes it’s good for you, but too much is guaranteed to addict and possibly kill you.  And like many drugs, it can destroy your mind before it destroys the rest of you.  Case in point, the current Suspense Movie Template of American political discourse.

Recently, Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani was taking questions from the audience at a campaign stop when he was asked by a little boy what he would do in case the earth was attacked by aliens from another planet.

Everybody laughed.

A few months before that, Giuliani was asked what he would do if he was faced with the “ticking time bomb” scenario: would he torture prisoners or not?

Nobody laughed.

Likewise, nobody laughed when Tim Russert proposed substantially the same scenario to a bunch of Democratic hopefuls.

That’s because many people in our fear-drunk culture think that ticking time bomb scenarios are a crucial part of a “realistic” approach to the War on Terror and that people who don’t leave plenty of room for such scenarios in the moral calculus of the nation are dooming America. 

The proof of this: the vigorous applause Giuliani got when he declared, “I would tell the people who had to do the interrogation to use every method they could think of.”   Similarly, the great “gotcha” moment of the Democratic debate (at least for Hillary Clinton) was the revelation that Bill Clinton would likewise authorize the use of torture in a ticking time bomb situation.

Ever since 9/11, Americans have been living in fear of (among many other things) the Next Big Attack.  And, having seen any number of Bruce Willis movies and episodes of 24, we have become convinced that the barely-averted horrors they portray require us to set aside the charming-but-outdated code of chivalry that used to guide the conduct of war and get down to brass tacks with waterboard and cold cell.

The White House, drunk on this fear, has fought long and hard to make torture part of the “tool box” the President thinks he needs and has, on multiple occasions, authorized the torture and abuse of detainees.  The result—very predictably—has been the murder of detainees, the rendition and torture of innocent men, the threat of torture not merely against innocent men but against their families (and the resulting phony “national security” claims attempted to cover this up), the transformation of the press into an Excuse Machine for the American use of techniques pioneered by the Gestapo, Stalin, and the Khmer Rouge, the use of repellent euphemism by our Vice President (whereby waterboarding becomes the teenage horseplay of “dunking”), the corruption of the highest law enforcement office in the land into a rubber stamp for torture and the deployment of naked, unmitigated, bald-faced lies by the President (such as “We do not torture”) to deny what he is, in fact, doing.

And the great irony of this? As another GOP candidate, John McCain, pointed out, the actual odds of a ticking time bomb scenario are a million to one.  Because, before you have one, all these things to happen:

a) A weapon of mass destruction planted somewhere in the US.

b) We apprehend someone we know knows where it is and/or how to disarm it safely.

c) We really know that they know and we don’t just suspect it.

d) We have sufficient time to get it out of him using torture or other forms of coercion but insufficient time to find out using any other way.

In other words, the odds of getting all those circumstances to line up is about the same as the likelihood of an attack by Klingons.  And yet, in our fear-drunk climate, candidates on both sides of the aisle (and their supporters) imagine that they are being “realistic” in predicating a national policy of legal torture on such scenarios.

Now, we need accurate intelligence in order to forestall another 9/11.  But transmogrifying America into a torture regime is not the way to achieve that goal.  Instead of living in a Hollywood fantasy, presidential candidates should address the real danger: Caesar (yet again) authorizing what the Church calls a gravely and intrinsically immoral act.  And before that is likely to happen, Americans—especially Christians—need to clear their minds of cant and listen again to the gospel counsels and not the yahyah of the fearful voices of this world.

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