Monday, April 28, 2008

America, the Frightened Fortress

Fortress America, one of the safest places on the globe with respect to external military threat, is presently embarked on a foreign policy overtly based on the notion that its very existence is imperiled by foreign enemies. Whether because the political leaders of the US truly believe that grave, existential threats imperil the nation or whether this is merely an appeal to those Americans who believe they are persecuted, one cannot deny that large segments of the US do feel threatened even though decades have passed since the US has faced any foreign enemy capable of inflicting serious harm by force of arms. Rather, the most serious threats to the safety of US come from within from homegrown terrorist and radical groups and a policy of exporting American soldiers to other countries where they make easy targets for those few groups that do want to kill Americans. The solution is difficult, if not impracticable. When a large segment of the population that makes decisions based on fear in a nation whose leaders are freely elected public officials, the only tenable solution is to offer a stronger, more powerful narrative in the marketplace of ideas.

This feeling, that of being insecure, that affects so many US citizens is somewhat baffling to me. Unlike other countries, like Israel, the US is bordered by friendly nations, counts most (if not all) of the most powerful countries in the world as its military allies, and has a military apparatus capable of reducing any other nation on earth to rubble. So I find it exceedingly odd to see sentiments expressed by American politicians, preachers, pundits, and citizens that could have come from the lips of an Israeli. In a recent interview with Israeli Novelist Jeffrey Grossman in The Atlantic, Grossman gave voice to part of Israel's existential dilemma, ``Our army is big, we have this atom bomb, but the inner feeling is of absolute fragility, that all the time we are at the edge of the abyss'' [Goldberg, Jeffrey. Unforgiven. The Atlantic Monthly. May, 2008. Vol. 30. Nbr. 4. pp32-51. p.37]. In a country where only half of the bordering nations recognize their right to exist in a region where the popular sentiment seems to be remove Israel from the map, such a statement is made in the context of a very real threat. Yet, this statement could easily have been made by an American. Despite the fact that there is presently no country in the world that poses a serious military threat to the US and despite the fact that the US possesses the atom bomb and a delivery system capable of delivering it anywhere on the planet, large numbers of US citizens live their lives in the fear that an attack by foreign enemies is imminent.

But in reality, the largest threat by violence faced by Americans is other Americans. In the FBI 2002/2005 report on terrorism states that from 2002 to 2005, the overwhelming majority of terrorist incidents were perpetuated by domestic rather than foreign terrorists. It is not those outside our borders that threaten us but those inside our borders.

Twenty three of the 24 recorded terrorist incidents were perpetrated by domestic terrorists. With the exception of a white supremacist’s firebombing of a synagogue in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, all of the domestic terrorist incidents were committed by special interest extremists active in the animal rights and environmental movements. The acts committed by these extremists typically targeted materials and facilities rather than persons. The sole international terrorist incident in the United States recorded for this period involved an attack at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport, which claimed the lives of two victims. [FBI. Terrorism 2002/2005.]
Yet it is events of 9/11 and a handful of terrorist plots attributed to individuals allegedly associated with al-Quaeda that stands out in the minds of many Americans who somehow forget the long history of terrorism committed by Americans on their own: Eric Rudolf's bombing of the Olympics, Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Murray Federal building in Oklahoma City, Theodore Kaczynski's mail bombings, the as yet uncaught culprit behind the Anthrax mailings in 2001.

Yet, 9/11 looms in political discourse in the US in a way that these domestic threats do not. A large part of this is undoubtedly the sheer magnitude of death that resulted from this heinous crime and the shock of removing a sizable landmark from the New York City skyline. But that the victims of Osama bin Laden's plot to fly airplanes into skyscrapers exceeded Timothy McVeigh's plot to build a truck bomb by an order of magnitude has more to do with the McVeigh's relative lack of access to funds and people willing to take part in a suicide attack. Were McVeigh a billionaire like Osama bin Laden, it is not unforeseeable that he could have constructed a plot as large and as damaging as 9/11. Further, 9/11 was a rather exceptional even that will not repeated in our lifetimes. Now that US citizens understand what could result from a plane being hijacked, never again will airline passengers allow a few men armed with razor blades to take over a plane. What is more important to focus on is that, despite his stated intent and the fact that he remains at large with apparent freedom of movement through the mountains that divide Afghanistan from Pakistan, Osama bin Laden has been either unable or unwilling to organize another attack on American soil since 2001 while various domestic groups have launched dozens.

Part of the view that US is under continued threat undoubtedly comes from the American experience. In large part the US was settled by those who fled religious and political persecutions. It is fair to say that the American experience, and the American religious experience, has been formed among other factors by the traditions of those who were killed for who they were and what they believed. From those who were raised in the Anabaptist tradition, persecuted in Europe both by other Protestants and by Roman Catholics, to the Puritans and Roman Catholics, quite a few of the original 13 colonies were settled by those fleeing persecution. Even though American style Christianity is now the dominant form of religion in the country and our very constitution warrants freedom of conscience, large numbers of Christians in the US believe that they are a persecuted minority and it is precisely these Americans who make up the largest group of those most likely to express fear of foreign attack and be willing ``to fight them over there so that we do not have to fight them here.'' Clearly, not all Christians in the US are maintain this belief. But many do and those that do seem to be controlling most of the discourse over war and terrorism in the US in this post 9/11 world.

This view is fundamentally paradoxical. On the one hand, it tends to lead to a Hobbesian style of political theory where the government is given the power to tread over virtually every other right in the name of security. But on the other hand, it sets up an inherent distrust of that very government which wants to take away the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. Part of the dilemma can be seen in some of the very groups resorting to force of arms to act out their ideology: white supremacists and Christian extremists are both groups that argue that the US has very real foreign enemies capable of doing very real harm to the US and yet they are the ones attacking their fellow citizens, or even their own government. By promoting the message of fear, these groups are feeding the authoritarian trend in US politics that will lead to the very thing that these groups fear.

Worse, this situation is presently being exacerbated by politicians that appeal to fear. A good example is Hillary Clinton's `3 AM' television ad that tries to lock the viewer into thinking that his or her sleeping children are under immanent and immediate hostile threat. Ads like this serve only to reinforce the fear that is already far too widespread in US culture. We watch talking heads on the television explain how dire the current threats to the US are. We hear the radio addresses of the Bush '43 administration that talks about how the war on terror is a threat to our very existence. We hear justice department officials and members of the US Congress argue that it is necessary that we lay down our right to privacy so that the government can protect us from immediate danger. We hear these messages for one reason alone, regardless of whether the politicians in question believe it is the truth, it works. When people are scared, or even only subconsciously nervous, they turn to those who make them feel safe. An incumbent politician is easily able to position his or herself as the protector in a time of grave peril and create an astonishingly powerful image in the minds of voters. A challenger who is rejoining that it just is not true, that the danger just is not as grave as the incumbent portrays it, even if correct, is unable to compete with the powerful image of the would be protector. And in a society where ideas are formed freely in the marketplace, the power of an image is sometimes far more important than whether or not that image is accurate.

On the Science Progress blog, admittedly in a very different context, Chris Mooney made the very same point regarding the persuasive power of the narrative and images in the marketplace of ideas.

From Michael Crichton’s State of Fear to Stein’s Expelled, there is nothing to prevent the most awful, misleading drivel from reaching and influencing mass audiences. There are no standards. There is no filter. And the truth is not just automatically going to win in the competition of ideas when the playing field tilts against it. [Mooney, Chris. Hearts and Minds. Science Progress. Accessed April 27, 2008.]
The key observation Mooney makes is that ``the truth is not just automatically going to win in the competition of ideas.'' Various ideas bounce around in the heads of the American public and the ones that are true are not necessarily going to win simply because they are true. Rather, the ideas that win will do so because they are powerful images that tell a compelling narrative.

So, in the end, our best hope is for a generation of politicians, pundits, preachers and journalists capable of telling the American story from a position of strength rather than from a position of fear. Those who would use the rhetoric of America being under siege need to be crowded out of the marketplace of ideas by a powerful narrative of a strong US which at present has no enemies capable doing it serious military harm. With strong allies along our northern and southern borders and oceans to the east and to the west, those few countries and organizations that do want to do the US harm face a large logistical problem of even getting to the US, let alone doing serious harm when they get here. We have no real reason to fear for our very existence. And while the future is always uncertain and we may someday once again face a military foe who does threaten our way of life as Americans, for the present, in the words of Walt Kelly, `we have met the enemy and he is us.'


Anonymous said...

Lee, really nice piece!

A couple of thoughts:

- I'm almost positive that "immanent" is spelled "imminent" (interesting that Word accepts them both).

- Politicians use fear because it's a STRONG motivator that seemingly everyone can understand. Think of Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech, which was universally panned by the public because it put the blame on the public, compared to Reagan/Bush speak, where the enemy is always someone other than us.

I agree with your point that negativity and fear breed negativity and fear, just don't know how to more strongly get that point across to our politicians and the American public.

Take care. John Davis

Lee Malatesta said...


Immanent (actually present within) and imminent (close at hand) are two separate words. Alas, I used the wrong one and will shortly correct that error. I blame my Jesuit education where immanence was discussed far more frequently than imminence. Marcus Borg and some of the other fellows of the Jesus Seminar are large proponents of an immanent God.

And thanks for the correction and the kind words.

grant_writer_pro said...

Your piece is thoughtful and should be on the front page of the newspaper.
I am proud to be American, but some of us are so ignorant.
:), Mom