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The failed attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas is rekindling a fear of terrorism in the U.S., at least if you believe a lot of the media coverage of the reaction to the incident.  This is, I think, unfortunate.  Our fear of terrorism has been excessive, unreasonable, and irrational since 9-11, and it has caused us to tolerate and even to encourage poor decisions by our government.  Since 9-11, the government’s decisions to wage war, abrogate domestic civil liberties, and violate the law have all been justified as necessary to keep us safe from terrorists — a minuscule threat when compared to many of the threats we face every day.  We’re too willing to surrender our freedom to an increasingly authoritarian government because we’re afraid.  We have been effectively terrorized.

Glenn Greenwald continues to say what needs to be said:

What matters most about this blinding fear of Terrorism is not the specific policies that are implemented as a result.  Policies can always be changed.  What matters most is the radical transformation of the national character of the United States.  Reducing the citizenry to a frightened puddle of passivity, hysteria and a child-like expectation of Absolute Safety is irrevocable and far more consequential than any specific new laws.  Fear is always the enabling force of authoritarianism:  the desire to vest unlimited power in political authority in exchange for promises of protection.

If I’m afraid of anything, it’s that our exaggerated fear of terrorism has blinded us to the very real danger of domestic authoritarianism.  We’re a long way from living under the kind of authoritarian regime that exists in China, but our current trajectory will eventually take us there.  Advocates of a robust response to the terrorist threat in the U.S. (Dick Cheney is perhaps the best example) have said too little about where the government should stop.  How much surveillance is too much?  How many middle east wars are too many?  How often may executive branch officials violate the law without facing prosecution?   Are there any reasons not to torture people in pursuit of terrorists?

So far, the Supreme Court is the only branch of the federal government that has unequivocally placed some kind of limit on our government’s turn toward authoritarianism as an antidote to terrorists.  The Congress has been supine.  The executive branch even under Obama continues to reserve to itself the right to unilaterally imprison without charge anyone it wants, for however long it wants; and it refuses to investigate whether senior Bush administration officials violated the law in their prosecution of the “war on terror.”

But the most disappointing thing is that the American public, from whom power is ultimately supposed to flow in a democracy, has tolerated these government power grabs.  It re-elected George W. Bush.  Despite choosing Obama over McCain, it has tolerated Obama’s continuation of the authoritarian counterterrorism policies of the Bush administration.  Why?  I suspect Greenwald has it right; the public is terrified of terrorists, and this probably because the news media is doing too little to put the terrorist threat in proper perspective.

I’m so pessimistic about the eventual outcome of our response to terrorism that I’ll make a bet with David E. Williams, who predicts that in five years we’ll be engaging in pleasant conversation with robot nurses.  The bet is this: at such time as these robot nurses stalk our hospital hallways, providing encouragement to the patients within, those patients and their families will have civil liberties approximately equal to those granted by the regime in China.

Hopefully, we’ll have to wait a lot longer than five years for that sorry state of affairs.


  1. Carey,

    I agree with your post. Another very serious negative consequence of 9-11 is that the US has become less welcoming to immigrants, who have traditionally fueled innovation in the economy and kept the US ahead of more closed-minded Western European countries.

    In the past, conditions in countries such as India were bad enough that we might have gotten away with erecting barriers. But with economic and social improvements elsewhere, we can no longer count on ambitious people from overseas putting up with our views.

    See for example:

    I have several anecdotal examples of this effect from friends at MIT and Harvard.

    (One small point of clarification: I don’t expect robots to take over in five years. Rather I think at that point the potential will become clearer.)


    Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 6:30 am | Permalink
  2. Robert wrote:

    Been reading some Deneen, huh?

    Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  3. Kaydog wrote:

    I agree that this terroism scare is a sociologial poison instilled in the drinking water in order to maintain order by force in the middle east. The end result being the extraction, and control of a very lucrative resource-oil (In addtion to suppling some security to its colony Israel). One simply needs to look no further than the 1830′s when Andrew Jackson passed the Indian removal act of 1830. This law essentially made all previous treaties witn native americans null and void, allowing American forces to relocate Indians east of the mississippi with whatever force necessary. The same thread of fear and asinine necessity of present day law and propaganda can be found in Jackson’s presidental address to the nation in the spring of 1830:

    “Philanthropy could not wish to see this continent restored to the condition in which it was found by our forefathers. What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?
    And is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian?”….
    Nothing could be further from the truth. But american people of the 1830s were made to fear Indians and think of them as savages. Now…after all of their land and resoures are essentially in our control, we can look back and have pity on them; we can name national parks and streets where they bled defending their rightful land. They aren’t considered savage anymore (however maybe spiritual…in their music, herbs and textiles), because there isn’t anything left to take.

    When oil ceases to flow from the persian gulf miraculously middleast terrorism will semmingly not be an issue for mainstream media….Maybe the far east will be the next “evil empire”…there is alot to fear from the two billion chinese

    Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Permalink
  4. Carey wrote:


    How did you know?

    Deneen’s essay hit the nail on the head, I think, even if Ross Douthat is right that it speaks only for the “deep, deep pessimists.

    But I think Douthat’s wrong — it’s the realists Deneen is speaking for, even if his imagined future isn’t set in stone.

    Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  5. Carey wrote:


    Do you remember back in the old days, when George H.W. Bush was president, and the loony leftists were all shouting about the first Gulf War being “all about oil”?

    Well, I thought they were right then, and I wish they were still around to point out that our military adventurism in the middle east is still mostly about oil. Somehow, though, after 9-11 that charge isn’t leveled even when it would do much to improve the debate.

    Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  6. Carey wrote:


    I agree, and I’ll speculate about why these anti-immigration policies are tolerated in spite of the consequences you point out.

    Why do we need immigrants any longer when we can and do send the jobs overseas? The internet and global telecom enables someone in India to stay in India to work for “us.” Immigration isn’t as necessary when the jobs are all emmigrating.

    Of course as you know, the downside is that an Indian in India can’t innovate as well in the USA, or start a business, or contribute their energies to the political, cultural, and economic climate here in the U.S.

    But if Patrick Deneen (see above comments) is right — if the marriage between Stratification and Equality is unraveling and “they” (Deneen ascribes the action to “that arrangement” rather than to any actual people, which is a weakness of his essay) are choosing prosperity for themselves by condemning the rest of us to living under the thumb of an authoritarian government — then “they” have stopped caring about these benefits that immigrants can bring to our shores.

    Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

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