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.
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.