The Department of Fear and Uncertainty
In President Bush's war of 'freedom v fear', freedom is losing.
A good way to lose the ‘war on terror’ is to keep scaring Americans with shadowy, unsubstantiated warnings.
When he announced a government shuffle and the creation of yet another post-11 September damage-control department on 7 June, President George W Bush said: ‘America is leading the civilised world in a titanic struggle against terror. Freedom and fear are at war – and freedom is winning.’ (1)
Of course he didn’t provide any evidence for his statement – but then again, it should be obvious. US troops are bagging just a few Taliban soldiers a day (if they’re lucky), meaning that Mullah Omar’s men are either in full retreat or just plain dead. Authorities in several countries have thwarted terror attacks since last autumn, and Iraq is looking like a juicy next target.
So all thinking people should know that the US/British coalition forces (that is, freedom) are winning the war over fear. Right?
Maybe not. It’s pretty much an axiom by now that the situation is always more complex than Bush makes out – and the issue of who is ‘winning the war’ is a fine example of this point.
A fortnight ago, Americans were enjoying – or trying to enjoy – the annual start-of-summer Memorial Day holiday when, in the previous week, their leaders had made statements such as:
‘There will be another terrorist attack. We will not be able to stop it’ (FBI director Robert Mueller) (2);
‘I think that the prospects of a future attack on the USA are almost a certainty’ (vice president Dick Cheney) (3);
‘We need to keep reminding the American people of our vulnerabilities’ (national security adviser Condoleezza Rice) (4);
‘I believe [terror attacks are] going to come’ (Senator Richard Shelby) (5);
‘There is no doubt they wish to strike again and are working to acquire the deadliest of all weapons’ (Cheney, again) (6).
‘Various terrorist elements have sought to develop an offensive scuba diver
capability’ (FBI) (7).
Security was stepped up near the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and New York’s City Hall. Police weren’t only worried about rogue scuba divers, but also vague plots to poison Orlando’s water supply. And these warnings came on top of previous alleged threats against apartment buildings, banks, shopping malls, rail and transit systems, Italian cities, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Liberty Bell.
No Americans were killed by terror in Milan or Florida or Philadelphia or anywhere else (besides Pakistan, interestingly). Yet through the agency of government, people were warned and frightened, and perhaps started to think twice about driving over bridges or flying cross-country or going to work.
In the end, the warnings produced exactly what terrorists want: fear.
What makes the US government’s advancement of terrorist goals even more foolish is that the warnings themselves are utterly non-preventative and meaningless. Authorities readily admit they don’t know when or how the terrorists will strike, but they insist on scaring – sorry, ‘warning’ – the public anyway.
When issuing the New York warning, for example, the FBI’s head office said the bureau ‘has no information as to the time, date or method of attack’ (8). When asked about the Orlando water-supply scare, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement admitted there was no solid evidence pointing to an attack, but that the authorities ‘didn’t want to be caught with our pants down’ (9).
So instead of conducting discrete investigations and stepping up security patrols and maybe even developing a sophisticated foreign policy that moves at least one step beyond ‘Us v Them’, the US authorities prefer to repeat any urban legend that ‘high ranking’ al-Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah (currently being held at Guantanamo Bay’s extra-legal prison) cares to tell them.
Zubaydah has obviously realised that he can sow terror as effectively from a jail cell as he could from a cave in Afghanistan. All he has to do is dream up a plot against banks next Monday, malls next Wednesday, and so on, and the FBI will repeat it, journalists will write about it, and bingo: fear.
Maybe it’s not right to heap all the blame on US officials for wanting to sound the alarm, no matter how ambiguous the warning signs may be. After all, if a diligent reporter finds out about a threat that the public is unaware of, or if citizens find their nearest river crossing suddenly and inexplicably crawling with police, then an even greater panic could ensue.
But some of the latest warnings were at best highly dubious and at worst patently absurd. A report printed in Variety, Hollywood’s newspaper
of record, on 29 May, tracked down the source of the warnings against the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. It turns out Zubaydah’s cryptic references to ‘Godzilla’ and the ravages wrought on New York by the fictional giant lizard caused the New York terror warning (10).
This kind of madness can result in a literal kind of madness. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, thousands of people who were lucky enough to survive the 11 September attacks on New York now have post-traumatic stress disorder (11). New Yorkers are smoking and drinking more. Doctors at Yale University suspect that America’s mental health (not in the best shape in the first place) could be adversely affected by all the post-11 September warnings (12).
Meanwhile, the stock markets remain jittery, the world economic outlook is dubious and Bush’s cabinet shuffle looks like a desperate move by a man who is, in the words of Democratic senator Edward Kennedy, ‘shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic’ (13).
This doesn’t quite sound like a hands-down victory for freedom over fear. But if Bush and co really want to beat the amorphous spectre of terror that is their enemies’ primary weapon, the first thing they can do is quit warning Americans about acts of destruction that average citizens are powerless against – and that probably won’t happen anyway.
Mike Wendling is London bureau chief for the Washington-based website CNSNews.com.
spiked-issue: After 11 September
spiked-conference: After 11 September – Fear and Loathing in the West
(1) Bush wants broad ‘homeland security’ overhaul, CNN.com, 7 June 2002
(2) ‘Washington’s terror warnings present a glass half-empty’, Associated Press, 28 May 2002
(3) ‘Americans hit with terror warnings’, Associated Press, 25 May 2002
(4) ‘FBI chief says suicide attacks in America inevitable as warnings escalate’, Associated Press, 28 May 2002
(5) ‘FBI chief says suicide attacks in America inevitable as warnings escalate’, Associated Press, 28 May 2002
(6) ‘Americans hit with terror warnings’, Associated Press, 25 May 2002
(7) FBI warns of possible scuba diver terror attacks, Reuters, 24 May 2002
(8) ‘Terror warning puts NY on high alert’, Associated Press, 22 May 2002
(9) ‘More terror warnings may go public’, Associated Press, 20 May 2002
(10) Terror goes to the movies, Variety, 29 May 2002
(11) Psychological sequelae of the September 11 Terrorist Attacks in New
York City, New England Journal of Medicine, 28 March 2002 (you will have to register to view this article)
(12) ‘Vague terror alerts called hurtful’, Hartford Courant, 22 May 2002
(13) FBI director promises change, BBC News Online, 6 June 2002
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