The Politics of Fear

Especially in a contentious election year,

Especially in a contentious election year, I find it difficult not to be skeptical when the Department of Homeland Security issues terror alerts. When the alert level was raised just after the Democratic Convention, for example, the specific details seemed convincing. But when the cited sources and vintage of the intelligence kept shifting, you didn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to question the administration’s motives.

And yet, terrorists are real and they want to attack me. Or you. Or Capitol Hill legislators. Or Midwestern mall shoppers. Nothing personal: Terrorists just need stage props. For the most part they don’t care about who dies, specifically. What’s important is the theatrical power of violent, unpredictable deaths, in a symbolic setting if possible—and the reverberations of notoriety, panic, revenge, suspicion, and repression that inevitably follow.

Sept. 11 strained the body politic. Traumatized, our democracy—grieving, harried, and surveilled—was dragged to brutal places or ran there headlong, raging. Our country’s belligerence and abiding anxiety are both part of the terrorist script. Our leaders don’t need to manufacture or manipulate the chaos for Machiavellian ends: They are propelled into chaos as haplessly as the rest of us, at least initially.

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Sojourners Magazine October 2004
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