A tale of two scares

President Bush wants us to fear bin Laden; everyone else wants us to fear bird flu. We should tell both sets of apocalypse-mongers to get a grip.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Browse any of the numerous left-leaning, anti-Bush ezines, blogs or comment-sheets on the world wide web, and I guarantee you will see two things.

First, an article slamming President Bush and his administration for their cynical terror alert in New York at the end of last week, when they claimed – on the basis of a hoax, it later transpired – that there was a ‘specific threat’ to the New York subway and that a terrorist attack was possible ‘in the coming days’. Second, you will see an article slamming President Bush and his administration for not taking seriously enough the threat of a bird flu pandemic across the Western world, which apparently is the real ‘chief bioterrorist in our midst’, threatening to burst America’s ‘bubble of privilege’, kill 100million people and leave entire cities devastated (1). So it is the birds, not bin Laden, that will bring down the United States.

In the same breath, many of a left or liberal persuasion have a pop at Bush for using the politics of fear, and then use the politics of fear to have a pop at Bush. They criticise the Bush administration for trying to ratchet up fear down New York way in a cynical bid to shore up support for the war on terror and the war in Iraq, and then criticise it for failing to warn people about what they claim is the most grievous threat facing mankind, the real ‘exterminatory threat’ – where ‘the chicken, probably first domesticated in South-East Asia some 8,000 years ago, might prove the death of many of us’ (2).

In this tale of two scares, both sides transform what are undoubtedly real problems – terrorism and Avian Flu – into promises of apocalypse, constantly flagging up the worst-case, ‘What if?’ scenarios. And if anything, the left’s fearmongering over bird flu is even more poisonous, insidious and anti-human than the right’s cheap terror-talk.

Consider TomDispatch, a popular left-wing website run by US writer Tom Engelhardt. On that site you can read an article slating the US authorities for ‘focusing American fears’ on the ‘non-exterminatory threat of terrorism, which made a mobilisation for war possible’ (3). Elsewhere on the site you can read a piece on bird flu which claims that ‘the Bush administration has largely chosen to redirect its public-health budget to preparations for “biowar” possibilities – smallpox, Ebola fever and the like – which may never endanger us, while scanting the kind of biowar (think Hitchcock’s The Birds, not Osama bin Laden) that is actually likely to do so’ (4). So it’s a Hitchocockian nightmare of crazed and diseased birds that should keep us awake at night, rather than a Bushite bad dream about terrorists blowing us to smithereens.

Or click on to, a site associated with anti-war author and journalist William Rivers Pitt, and you can read a republished piece headlined ‘Crying wolf on a crowded subway’, which sarcastically asks: ‘Have you heard this one before: the one about the terrorist who threatened to explode America on the very same day that the Bush White House was imploding? Of course you have….’ (5) It is alleged that the NY terror scare was yet another desperate bid to deflect the nation’s attention from the crises afflicting the White House.

The site has also republished a piece by Mike Davis, the radical left author of The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, which says that America is suffering from ‘acute apocalypse denial’. It is presented as a conversation between Davis and the four new horsemen of the apocalypse – Oil, Proliferation (as in weapons), Global Chaos and Plague. Is your first name Bubonic, Davis asks Plague in his imaginary chat with these doom-bringers? ‘No, that’s my cousin. I’m the avian influenza pandemic’, Plague replies, before chastising: ‘You’re so terrified of the shadows your rulers project on the wall that you can’t see us standing here, right outside your door.’ Plague promises that no longer will ‘your affluent classes [be] sheltered from the bitter winds of history’ (6). Yikes.

It’s not just on the web, of course. Over the past week, American and British media outlets have attacked the US for overplaying the threat of terror while accusing it of ignoring the real threat posed by bird flu, as evidenced by events in Europe and warnings from the EU (7). This is a criticism of terror alerts, not on the basis that they propagate fear, make city life a jittery affair and generally degrade political and public debate, but on the grounds that they distract from the real threat from beyond our borders that could end civilisation. They have a go at Bush’s claims of an apocalyptic showdown between the West and the terrorists by arguing it contributes to a broader ‘apocalypse denial’, where we become blind to the things that really are likely to snuff us out. Our apocalypse is bigger than your apocalypse, they seem to be saying.

Of course the American authorities deserve a drubbing over their bullshit terror alerts, and of course we should ask how much of a threat bird flu poses and how it can be controlled and curtailed. What we have at the moment, though, is the transformation of these practical problems – which ought to be addressed and tackled by experts who know their stuff, preferably discreetly – into big political issues that apparently should terrify us all.

When it comes to terrorism, the authorities certainly should analyse the intelligence they receive, whether it’s the ‘chatter’ they overhear while eavesdropping on al-Qaeda and its associates or information provided by bin Ladenites currently banged up in US custody. And there also ought to be public information about terrorism, specific, targeted information when the need arises and when it might assist the public in dealing with an event or crisis. Yet these are two distinct things: intelligence should be pored over privately and discreetly (and rationally) behind closed doors, by experts; and information should become public only when it is potentially useful or urgent.

In the war on terror, the two things have been thrown together in a dangerous concoction, resulting in the publication of intelligence in the name of permanent vigilance. The authorities issue endless warnings about ‘general’ or ‘specific’ threats, in a bid to demonstrate their great concern for the public and their determination to rid the world of terror – and also as a means of avoiding blame, so that if anything terrible occurs they can say: ‘Well, we did warn you.’ The end result is a generalised sense of paranoia, and a situation where, as in New York last week, warnings are issued which later turn out to be a ‘hoax stemming from false intelligence provided by a normally reliable informant’ (8).

Likewise, the problem of bird flu should be put into context and dealt with rationally. For all the warnings of tens of millions of humans possibly being killed, there have been 117 confirmed cases of the disease in humans to date, 60 of whom have died. Most of the nightmare scenarios are based on asking ‘What if…?’ (in Hitchcockian tones, perhaps) rather than asking, ‘How big is the problem, and what should be done about it?’ So fears are focused on the H5N1 virus subtype, which has been known, since 1997, to transmit from bird to human and which can mutate rapidly. But to go from this to warnings of 100million dead and whole cities turned to wasteland is to assume that the transmission from bird to human will become massively more frequent than it is at present, and also that it will then mutate into a form that can be easily transmitted from human to human. A basic fact needs to be restated: at present bird flu does not easily transmit from human to human. And experts do not know whether or when such transmission will become more common.

It is pure speculation, and a serious case of imaginations run wild, to watch current events in Europe – where bird flu has been spotted in birds in Romania and Turkey – and say it could kill millions of Europeans, Brits, Americans and others. The possibility of a flu epidemic is something that scientists and public health authorities should concern themselves with, by conducting the kind of research and discreet preparations – developing vaccines and anti-viral drugs, for example – that proved so impressive in response to the emergence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003. As with the endless terror alerts, no purpose is served by the EU’s dire warnings about bird flu, or the attempts to get British birdwatchers keeping their binoculars peeled for birds acting strangely, or the American left’s (somewhat self-centred) predictions of millions of Americans expiring upon contact with diseased chickens.

The terror-talkers and the bird-flu panic merchants play the same game. But those ratcheting up fear about bird flu – and left-liberals and environmentalists are often at the forefront of this – are doing even more damage than the anti-terror brigade. Their message about humanity is even more degenerate and degraded than that spouted by the Bush administration.

When it comes to terror, Bush, Blair and other European leaders want to increase surveillance in the city, by sticking up more CCTV cameras, bringing in ID cards, and stopping and searching random individuals. That makes city life a drag and curbs our freedoms. The left-wing commentators raising fears about bird flu, however, are worse: they point the finger of blame at city life itself, or at the aspiration to create cities on the part of people in the third world. One says the problem is that ‘throughout the third world, impoverished human beings have been gathering in far greater urban concentrations than anything imaginable a century ago, and any of these are potential hatcheries for a pandemic’ (9). Mike Davis, author of The Monster at Our Door, argues that ‘large concentrations of humans’ help to ‘increase the speed of evolution of viruses’ (10). Where the anti-terror lot attempt to stifle life in the city, the bird-flu worriers question the wisdom of having or building cities in the first place – willfully overlooking the fact that the health and life expectancy of people in industrialised cities in the West is far better than that of peasant villagers in the third world.

The anti-terror warriors also place restrictions on our freedom of movement around the world, bringing in stringent security checks at airports everywhere. Those concerned about a bird-flu pandemic say movement is itself part of the problem, since ‘globalisation and global air travel have made the spread of a pandemic, once started, almost instantaneous’ (11). It’s not enough that we have our scissors and matches taken away lest we try to blow up a flight; perhaps we should stop flying altogether. Where the anti-terrorists panic about evil individuals sneaking on to flights and doing bad things, the bird-flu worriers see all people moving around the world as the potential harbingers of death and disease.

The Bush and Blair governments stoke up fears of a terrorist ‘Other’, evil men from overseas who want to attack us in our beds (despite the fact that many al-Qaeda associates are Western-born or Western-educated). Their critics, on the other hand, in spreading panic about bird flu, say the problem is us, humanity as a whole. Davis writes of the ‘human accomplices’ to disease pandemics, while the health editor of the green magazine The Ecologist says we need to trace how ‘the human hand’ gave rise to bird flu and a possible subsequent pandemic (12). They have little to say about the role of ‘the human hand’ in developing vaccines and treatments that have seen off many of the diseases that threatened our forebears.

So it’s humans we should fear, not terrorists; and development is the problem, rather than offering a solution to the world’s ills. Such fearmongering overshadows anything that Bush and Blair have thrown at us since 9/11. We urgently need an antidote to apocalypse-mongering, of both the right and left varieties.

Read on:

Fearing flu, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

(1) The birds, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, Village Voice, 9 September 2005

(2) Mike Davis on the monster at our door,, 16 August 2005

(3) Jonathan Schell on the Democratic Party’s Urge to Lose,, 12 October 2005

(4) Mike Davis on the monster at our door,, 16 August 2005

(5) Crying wolf on a crowded subway, Philadelphia Daily News , 7 October 2005

(6) Mike Davis on the monster at our door,, 16 August 2005

(7) Nine isolated in bird flu fears, BBC News, 14 October 2005

(8) New York terror alert ‘was hoax’, The Times (London), 12 October 2005

(9) Mike Davis on the monster at our door,, 16 August 2005

(10) The birds, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, Village Voice, 9 September 2005

(11) Mike Davis on the monster at our door,, 16 August 2005

(12) Channel 4 News, 12 October 2005

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Topics Politics


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