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January 06, 2006

Fighting the fear-mongers

Glenn Greenwald is guest blogging over at Digby and has an excellent piece titled Attacking Bush's only weapon: Fear that extends what I wrote two days ago. He quotes a Bush speech delivered on October 6, 2005 where Bush says:

"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.

"The murderous ideology of the Islamic radicals is the great challenge of our new century. Yet, in many ways, this fight resembles the struggle against communism in the last century

….

"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."

Greenwald then analyzes the speech and others like it by Bush and Cheney and the rest of the administration and what they are trying to achieve. He really nails it.

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, in Bush’s words, an "unprecedented danger" -- the worst, scariest, most threatening danger ever.



And literally for four years, this is what Americans have heard over and over and over from their Government - that we face a mortal and incomparably powerful enemy on the precipice of destroying us, and only the most extreme measures taken by our Government can save us. We are a nation engaged in a War of Civilizations whose very existence is in imminent jeopardy. All of those plans for the future, dreams for your children, career aspirations, life goals - it’s all subordinate, it’s all for naught, unless, first and foremost, we stand loyally behind George Bush as he invokes extreme and unprecedented measures necessary to protect us from this extreme and unprecedented threat.



It is that deeply irrational, fear-driven view of the world which has to be undermined in order to make headway in convincing Americans that this Administration is engaged in intolerable excesses and abuses of its power. The argument which needs to be made is the one that we have seen starting to arise in the blogosphere and elsewhere: that living in irrational fear of terrorists and sacrificing our liberties and all of our other national goals in their name is the approach of hysterics and cowards, not of a strong, courageous and resolute nation.

Greenwald goes on to say what must be done to counter this fear-mongering and the paralysis that it induces:

What must be emphasized is that one can protect against the threat of terrorism with courage, calm and resolve – the attributes which have always defined our nation as it has confronted other threats. Hysteria and fear-mongering are the opposite of strength. The strong remain rational and unafraid.

In a rational world, the basic principle of risk is that it equals impact times probability: "In professional risk assessments, 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 or comparative harms, as long as they are pursued in the name of fighting this Ultimate Evil.

In fact, it is now essentially prohibited in good company to even raise the prospect that the threat of terrorism is exaggerated. It is an inviolable piety that there is no such thing as overstating the terrorism risk. One is compelled to genuflect to, and tremble before, the paramounce of this Ultimate Threat upon pain of being cast aside as some sort of anti-American, terrorist-loving loon.

The Administration has managed to get away with the Orwellian depiction of fear as being the hallmark of courage, and conversely, depicting a rational and calm approach as being a mark of cowardice.

In order to persuade the population that George Bush must not be allowed to claim the powers of a King, literally including the power to break the law, Bush opponents must attack that fear as the by-product of weakness and cowardice which it is. A strong nation does not give up its freedoms or sacrifice its national character in the name of fear and panic.

It is a great article. You should read the whole thing.

For those who are worried about being killed in a terrorist attack, you should see this site which gives you the statistics of all the other ways we can be killed. The point of this is not to frighten people more but to help them keep things in proportion. There are about 15,000 murders in the US per year, five times the number killed on 9/11, (and this happens every year) yet most people do not get paralyzed with fear at the thought of being murdered by criminals. We just go on with our lives.

POST SCRIPT: Combating obfuscation

One of the things that have puzzled me about the Bush Administration's decision to wiretap people without warrants is "why"? The law allows for emergency situations since the government can wiretap first without a warrant and ask for retroactive approval from the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court within 72 hours. The court has shown a great deal of deference for administration requests for wiretaps. From 1979 through 2004, the FISA court has approved 18,742 warrants and rejected only four! So why did the administration not apply for warrants?

My suspicion is that they wanted to wiretap people that they suspected that even this highly compliant court would find objectionable. Who could such people be? Here are my guesses:

1. Journalists
2. Political dissidents (antiwar activists, peace and justice movements, etc.)
3. Politicians

There have been some attempts at obfuscation about the seriousness of the warrantless wiretapping program by the NSA. For a good list of the baseless arguments that are being made (such as "Bush did not violate the law" and "Every President did it") and the actual facts of the case that rebut them, see here.

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Comments

I think this all gets back to the fact that people don't understand statistics. People continue to buy lottery tickets even though statistically they could be struck by lightning hundreds of times throughout their lifetime without ever winning the lottery. Or like the website noted above shows, thirteen times as many people die every year in car accidents than died on 9/11.

Posted by Joe on January 6, 2006 01:29 PM

I'm proud to say that 366 of those annual deaths occur in my great city of Detroit! That's just over 1 per day in a city of only 900,000 people.

That means that during the Super Bowl week, at *least* 7 people are going to bite it as national attention descends on this craphole.

As for the lottery, it's even funnier when you consider that people who normally don't play will buy a ticket when the jackpot gets really high (over 300 million for example) even though the odds are then *worse* to win big.

Posted by Barry on January 6, 2006 02:44 PM

I don't know if it is just the lack of understanding of statistics. It may also have something to do with how dramatic the event is or how commonplace. The fact that murders occur every day almost everywhere means that we get used to them and don't fear them, whereas a plane crash is rare enough, and spectacular enough, to make it seem more dangerous.

Actually, although I do not buy lottery tickets myself, I have less difficulty understanding why people buy them. After all, the cost of buying a single ticket is minimal (assuming people aren't going berserk and buying vast numbers of them at the expense of food and rent) and the payoff is huge.

But the cost of giving up civil liberties is high and the benefit is small, even negative, which is why I think it is a bad idea.

So perhaps what we need are better ways of judging cost-benefit trade-offs.

Posted by Mano Singham on January 6, 2006 03:42 PM

Perhaps people do not fear murders as much because murders are targeted actions, and if people have no specific enemies then they think the chances of being randomly murdered are much smaller. People can choose to live in safe areas or avoid situations where they could be hurt.

Terrorist attacks could happen anytime, in any place no matter how careful you are. I think the fact that people have little control in avoiding places where attacks could occur could lead them to feel overly fearful and thus not pay as much attention to probability.

Posted by Dashi Singham on January 9, 2006 09:11 AM