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By Cliff DuRand
This paper was presented February 14, 2003 in a public lecture series sponsored by Biblioteca Publica in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

"Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword. It both emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind...

"And when the drums of war have reached a fever pitch and the blood is filled with hate and the mind has closed, the leader will have no need in seizing the rights of the citizenry. Rather, the citizenry, infused with fear and blinded with patriotism, will offer up all of their rights unto the leader, and gladly so. How do I know? For this is what I have done. And I am Cesar." --attributed to William Shakespeare

As a nation, for the last 75 years we have lived in fear. During the Great Depression, it was fear of destitution. During World War II, it was fear of fascism. During the Cold War, it was fear of communism. During the Civil Rights Revolution, the fear many whites had of Blacks came to the surface. In recent decades, fear of crime has come to pervade our cities. And now, since 911, fear of terrorism has swept through the body politic.

When we become fearful, we Americans do not fair so well. My Guatemalan nephew arrived for an extended stay with us this fall shortly after the capture of the serial snipers who had terrorized the Washington DC area. When I described to him the fear that had plagued the area, he responded, "welcome to Guatemala."

He had grown up in a country that had learned to live with danger while still going about daily life. We North Americans freak out. We are easily consumed by our fears. We are prone to excesses in an often-vain attempt to escape from what we fear, to protect ourselves from it, to obliterate it. And we are often willing to accept extreme measures to make us feel more secure.

Like you, I remember the years of McCarthyism. But unlike many of you, those were my adolescent years-a period in which I was just beginning to become aware of the larger social world around me. My high school civics class, the daily news, the movies all told me of the grave danger of communism. A sinister force threatened us good Americans. The evil Russian communists were scheming to take over our country and oppress us under their brutal dictatorship. And the fearful threat came not only from abroad (remember the images of a red cancer creeping across the globe), it also came from within. Stalin had his Fifth Column within our borders - union leaders, teachers, entertainers, neighbors and friends, even government officials. Communists were lurking everywhere, perhaps even under you bed. The Reds are goanna' get your momma!

That was the picture of the world I was presented with as I was coming of age. It was scary. It frightened me. It frightened a whole nation. And that fear panicked us into accepting extreme measures - witch hunts for subversives, curtailment of civil liberties, a militarization of society, covert actions abroad. I remember the debate in my high school civics class. To protect our freedoms, we were told, we sometimes have to adopt the evil methods of our opponents in order to defeat them. The debate was over whether we could avoid being corrupted ourselves by such a contest. But it was accepted that the end justified the means, any means. Our fears persuaded us that we had to accept whatever was necessary, no matter how much it violated deeply held American values. All of the crimes committed in our name by our government around the world in the following half-century were legitimated by that rationale.

The main point I want to make about that era is that the climate of fear was deliberately induced by our political elite in order to mobilize a frightened population into supporting its anti-communist crusade. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals alike sought to purge Leftists from the political life of the nation so there could be no dissenting voices from a Cold War to protect capitalism and ensure U.S. hegemony in the world. Never mind that a nuclear arms race made us less secure, that in the name of anti-communism our government sought to crush every progressive movement that emerged anywhere in the world, and that the scope of political discourse at home was limited to a narrow range. A fearful population was willing to accept all this and more. Fear induced an unquestioning, childlike trust in a political elite that promised to protect us from harm. As the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes well understood, those with sufficient fear for their lives, liberties and property will be willing to turn all that over to an all powerful Leviathan in hopes of finding security. [Cf. Iris Young, The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on the Current Security State", forthcoming in Signs]

The politics of fear has governed our national life ever since. With the end of the Cold War up until 911, there was a hiatus. Without a communist bogeyman to scare us with anymore, the national security state was faced with a legitimization crisis. How could it justify its interventions against Third World countries? How could it justify continued high levels of military expenditures? How could it sustain the powers of an imperial presidency? Without an enemy, without a threat to fear, how could the political elite mobilize public support? Through the 1990s you could see it grasping for a new enemy for us to fear. A war on drugs was offered as cover for interventions in the Andean countries and in Panama, even though the problem of drugs had its roots here at home. We were told to fear crime (at a time when crime rates were actually decreasing) so we would support draconian police and sentencing practices that have given us the highest prison population in the industrial world. But the most ludicrous of all was the propaganda campaign launched by the Pentagon to try to convince us that we were threatened by a possible asteroid that could crash into the earth, destroying all life. To protect against that, we needed to develop space laser weapons that could destroy an oncoming asteroid first. Thus did the military-industrial complex seek to frighten us into supporting the development of star wars weaponry.

But none of that could quite do what the political elite needed. Finally, in 2001 on September 11 a spectacular mass terrorist crime gave them a new threat for us to fear. Quickly interpreting it as an act of war rather than a crime, the most reactionary sector of the elite declared war on an undefined enemy - a war without end. They offered us something new to fear so we would need the protection they claimed to offer. And they have played the politics of fear masterfully. With frequent alerts, high visibility security measures, constant reminders of vulnerabilities, an atmosphere of fear has been maintained even in the absence of further real attacks. In his January 29 State of the Union address, George W. Bush fed our fear with these words: "Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known." The operative word here is 'imagine.' By fueling a fevered imagination, he promotes a "servile fearfulness", to use Shakespeare's phrase.

This has enabled this reactionary sector of the elite to not only win acceptance of unprecedented regressive policies domestically, with passive acceptance by the rest of the elite, but now push through a war against a country that didn't even have anything to do with terrorism. Again, we can see how fear can be a potent political force in the hands of skilled political leaders.

All this, even though it should be obvious that policies justified in the name of combating terrorism (many of them actually have nothing to do with terrorism) actually make us less secure. Even CIA Director George Tenet admitted that Saddam Hussein is more likely to use weapons of mass destruction if his survival is threatened. And do you now feel more secure since Bush's threats against Iraq have prompted Osama bin Laden to once again mobilize the Muslim world against the U.S.?

When George W. Bush moved into the White House two years ago, the legitimacy of his hold on the presidency was highly questionable. He had little interest in foreign affairs, wanting to focus on pushing through his reactionary domestic agenda. The tragedy of September 11 gave Bush a unique opportunity to rally the country behind his leadership. Not only did this ensure the legitimacy of his hold on the office (with his popularity rising to unprecedented heights), it also reversed the erosion of the imperial presidency that had been under way since the end of the Cold War. He and his cohorts have played the politics of fear masterfully, promoting a climate of near hysteria that has allowed them to pursue aggression abroad and impose reactionary policies at home in the name of a so-called "War on Terrorism". What we are seeing now is the consolidation in the U.S. of a national security state that has been evolving over the last 60 years.

A little historical perspective on the American political system would be helpful here. The founding fathers, as they are called, constructed the federal government for inaction, except when a crisis would produce an overwhelming consensus requiring action. The fabled system of checks and balances was designed to make it difficult for the national government to act. The federalists understood that a central government was needed to ensure domestic tranquility in the face of the class divisions between the propertied class and those who had little. But they worried (and James Madison most clearly articulated this concern in Federalist Paper #10) that a federal government could be used by the common man against those with wealth. So he designed a federal constitution that would make governmental action difficult. Our national political system was built for gridlock.

It would take extraordinary circumstances to overcome this structural impasse. The Civil War was one such circumstance. It allowed decisive, focused action to save the union -- something unprecedented in U.S. history. The American people were so unaccustomed to the powers of a wartime presidency that Lincoln was called "the despot".

The Great Depression of the 1930's is another example. In the face of an economic crisis that called into question the viability of the capitalist system and rising popular demands for fundamental change, Roosevelt was able to forge a national consensus, break through the resistance of other branches of government, and institute far reaching reforms that saved capitalism from itself. Welfare liberalism ushered in an era in which government reflected the demands of the popular classes to an extent seldom seen in our history, confirming Madison's concern that federal government could become an instrument of the popular will. It was fear that made this political advance possible. Under the enlightened leadership of Roosevelt's New Dealers, fear galvanized positive action that could overcome fear. "We have nothing to fear except fear itself," he said to reassure an anxious nation.

Since then we have not been so fortunate in our national leadership. Now, in the opening years of a new century, we find ourselves under the leadership of a cabal that plays upon our fears rather than reassuring us, that uses those fears for reactionary rather than progressive purposes, and that offers us not a future with greater security but an endless war. Now we have an imperial presidency, constrained only by popular protest from the grassroots.

We are faced with this bleak prospect not only because of a political system built for inaction except in times of crisis, a system now in the hands of corporate wealth. This is also a historical turn facilitated by our popular culture. A century of grade B movies have taught us to look to a hero to save us. We idolize the courageous, lone individual who stands outside the law, taking decisive action for our benefit to protect us from the bad guys, and then, once good has prevailed over evil, he rides off into the sunset to the grateful thanks of the common folks. The Western hero selflessly remains outside the community he saves (he doesn't even stay to marry the school marm who has fallen in love with him); he remains the rugged individualist. [Cf. John Lawrence, The Great American Monomyth]

Two points should be made about this cultural icon of the Western hero. The first concerns its paternalism. The community is seen as unable to protect itself. It needs this strong figure from outside. Thus this cultural icon is profoundly undemocratic. It puts its faith not in the common people collectively solving problems through their own action, but in a kind of deus ex machina that intervenes in its behalf. The Western hero is not a democratic hero who inspires us to be like him; he is a substitute for our action. Thus this icon disempowers people, making them the passive, if grateful, beneficiaries of the goodness of a powerful hero. In other words, it makes us childlike.

Second, it is a Manichean morality play in which Good is pitted against Evil. We are the good, innocent victims of an evil from which we must be saved. There is no middle ground; there is no ambiguity. We are good, our opponent is evil. Everything is either black or white; "you are either with us or you are against us." This Manichean view is blind to any flaws within ourselves as it is also blind to any good in the opponent. Both sides are viewed as cardboard characters, rather than human beings with contradictory impulses within. Thus, we, who are the Good, must seek to destroy the other who is the embodiment of Evil.

George W. Bush clearly sees himself as the Western hero, called upon to save civilization from Evil. You can see it in the John Wayne swagger with which he walks. You can see it in the way he seeks to round up us fearful town folk for his posse to hunt down the evildoers everywhere in the world. And in this he draws on another element in our national culture: our messianism. America sees itself as a new world, a symbol of progress and enlightenment, with a historical mission to show the tired societies of the old world the way forward. Overcoming an earlier isolationism, in the 20th century this sense of a manifest destiny to lead the world has taken on a messianic character. We have a responsibility to make the world over in our own image, saving it from itself, confident that the American Imperium is Good. For after all, we're the guys in the white hats.

Unfortunately, in a Manichean world divided by an endless conflict between Good and Evil, each side believes itself to be Good and thus justified in whatever it does to destroy Evil. Osama bin Laden is as convinced of this as is George W. Bush. These two fundamentalists are worthy opponents, each convinced of the Rightness of his crusade and unable to see his own inhumanity or the humanity of the other. With that, let me turn our attention from how our political elite has used a politics of fear to foster an agenda not in our interests but theirs, to how such a politics corrodes even the noblest of ethical ideals.


The term 'terrorism' has come into such wide usage today that it has been applied to any number of practices to which one is opposed. As such, it is similar to the blanket usage of 'communism' up until a decade ago. We need to try to be a little more rigorous in our use of the term.

First of all, terrorism is an action that is intended to induce fear, an indiscriminate fear. It is a use of violence, or the threat of violence, either directed at no one in particular or at no specific time. The element of uncertainty is essential. One doesn't know when it will strike or whom it will strike. So one is left with the knawing fear of impending danger. This terror is designed to immobilize, to petrify, to turn one into an object, unable to act.

The purpose of instilling such a state of terror is political, whether that purpose is publicly stated or not. In the 20th century, one of the best known political uses of terrorism was in the Algerian war for independence from France. France had a large settler population in its North African colony. Frantz Fanon, who became a major spokesperson for the Algerian Revolution, sought to justify the use of terrorism against the French settlers. The political purpose was to undermine their will to remain in Algeria. Militarily, France was stronger. The strategy was to defeat them politically by terrorizing the settler population, undermining their will to remain. In such asymmetric warfare, as it is now called, terrorism is one of the few weapons available to defeat a militarily stronger opponent.

Fanon offered not just a strategic, but an ethical justification of this use of terrorism. He argued that colonialism sought to petrify the natives, instilling fear in them to the point where they could only passively accept French rule. Philosophically, they seemed to have lost their human capacity to initiate action as conscious, free subjects. In the violence they directed against the settlers, they reclaimed their humanity, they rediscovered their capacity to initiate action. Fanon argued that it is because of this action for humanity that violence was ethically justified.

The fact of the matter, however, was that this violence was taken as justification for an even greater counter violence by the French. And that in turn justified further violence in an escalating paroxysm of dehumanizing brutality. The strategic objective of independence was finally achieved. But the ethical objective of humanizing what Fanon called 'the wretched of the earth' eluded the revolution's grasp.

Today, a similar tragedy is being played out in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Since last spring with the Israeli incursion into the West Bank, the headlines have told of atrocities. Houses bulldozed with families inside. People left to bleed to death in the streets as the Israeli army prevents ambulances from bringing medical treatment. Suspected Palestinian "terrorists" summarily executed with a bullet in the back of the head. Screaming through these headlines is the anguished cries of a Palestinian people forced to flee or cower in fear of the overwhelming military might of the Israeli invasion of the West Bank.

The spectacle of Israeli soldiers firing on stone throwing Palestinian youth that horrified us just a few months earlier, now pales in comparison with the terrifying violence of this invasion that seems to ignore the civilized world's standards of what is permitted in the admittedly uncivilized business of war. Protests of moral outrage erupted not only from Arab nations, but Europe and most of the rest of the world. And the United Nations was called upon to investigate what the Goliath Israel did against the present day Davids of the refugee camps. While claiming to have nothing to hide, Israel prevented an investigation while the evidence decayed.

From the Palestinian side there is also the use of terrorism against an occupying force. By far weaker militarily, Palestinian militants have found their most effective weapon to be the suicide bomber. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not taking sides in this deadly conflict. I'm simple trying to point out the dynamic between the two that produces escalating cycles of terror and counter terror in which any moderating voice is extinguished.

What is especially ominous is the popular support within Israel for this campaign "to destroy the infrastructure of terrorism," to quote Ariel Sharon's adaptation of George Bush's words. While a brave few in Israel protest this state terrorism, a fearful public supports whatever measures are thought necessary to bring them security. This is the telling feature of the whole tragic story. Terrorism by the weak brings forth a greater terrorism from the strong, and civilians on both sides find this justified as they seek for security. Moral scruples, ethical principles, any sense of justice, is set aside along with respect for the decent opinions of the rest of mankind, as frightened populations seek security through war. It is especially disturbing to see this happen among a people who through their own painful history of suffering had become the bearers of the highest moral values.

In this case, the theory of terrorism is wrong. The theory had held that a militarily weak people can defeat a much stronger enemy by demoralizing its people through random violence against civilians. When it is not only soldiers who die, but the violence is brought home, public opinion will turn against war. So the theory holds. But as we have seen in Israel (and we saw here in the U.S. in response to September 11) terrorism can frighten the public into supporting an even more violent response. The cycle of violence is ratcheted upward as the people unify behind ever more reactionary political leadership.

As a people looses it moral compass, it also looses sight of the social causes of the terrorism they fear. What are those causes? They are not just poverty. Most of the world's population lives in poverty and yet they do not strike out. Compounding the poverty is the sense of despair, the hopeless feeling that there is no future under the oppressive power of the enemy. It is that that can turn one into a suicide bomber. No matter how effective state terrorism is in killing terrorists, its violence only increases the hatred and despair, schooling a new generation of terrorists. And with that, the fear of civilians further increases their illusory quest for security through heightened state terror. Gandhi was right; an eye for an eye leaves us all blind -- morally blind.

Is this tragic numbing of the moral sensibilities of the Israeli people also our future under the War on Terrorism? I shudder at the thought that in the Manichean struggle between Israel and the Palestinians we might see our own future written small.

Again, I return to George W. Bush's State of the Union address. In solemn terms he reported to us, "All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. And many others have met a different fate." Then, leaning forward with a sly smile on his face, he added, "Let's put it this way: They are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies." With that the entire Congress rose in a standing ovation. What Bush was referring to was, of course, assassinations and perhaps death under torture. Did anyone stop to think about the ethics of state sponsored death squads? A moment later in his speech, Bush added, "We've got the terrorists on the run. We're keeping them on the run. One by one the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice." With that there was another standing ovation as the television cameras zoomed in on the military brass sitting in the front row. Again, the message was clear. The military, not the courts, is the instrument of American justice. Did anyone stop to think about due process, the right to confront witnesses, the presumption of innocence, and other legal niceties? No, there was the implicit assumption of the rightness of a state whose armed agents are at once police, prosecutor, judge, and executioner, all under the command of an imperial president. Our leaders tell us that those who oppose us are evil, while we are good and those who take up the War on Terrorism are men of peace. War is peace. Their violence is evil, ours is good. This simplistic Manichean view is used to justify all manner of misdeeds. It is blind to the wrongs that our government has committed and that breed the poverty and despair that now strikes back at us. Failing to understand the causes of this terrorism, it thinks we only need to eliminate the terrorists, thereby engendering more terrorism in our future. Our nation is now on a slippery slope into a moral abyss. The fate that reactionary Zionism has led the Israeli people into could also become our fate.

Dr. Cliff DuRand is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. Other of his writings on this and related topics can be found at (Click on Anti Intervention Project and then on 911)


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