What’s so funny ’bout fear and hate?

by Daniel Bayer

I’m sick and tired of living in fear.

President Bush is at it again, threatening dire consequences for the United States if Congress fails to pass legislation loosening post-Watergate restrictions on government eavesdropping or confirm Michael Mukasey as attorney general. The president once again reminded Americans that we’re “at war” and, in one of his usual fits of historical overreach, compared opponents of his policies to those who ignored Hitler and Lenin.

It should come as no surprise to students of history that laws passed in a climate of fear and paranoia are seldom good ones, and often turn out in retrospect to be embarrassingly unjust. The internment of US citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II comes readily to mind, as well as the loyalty oaths government employees and academics were required to take during the McCarthy era in the 1950s. As I learned in the Boy Scouts, the best thing to do when one (or in this case, one’s country) has lost his (or its) way in the wilderness is to sit down, take a deep breath and count slowly to 10. The purpose of this exercise is to quell your understandably rising panic, so as not to make a decision that merely makes matters worse. The president would be wise to try this before he embarks on a military confrontation with Iran.

Unfortunately fear, not common sense, makes good politics. A Zogby poll last week ( revealed that 52 percent of telephone respondents would support a military strike against Iran to prevent them from building a nuclear weapon. The poll didn’t ask people if they had read the recent International Atomic Agency Report that said Iran was years away from building a nuclear weapon and that they could find no evidence that Iran was even intending to do so in the first place. Apparently all it takes to move the American public towards an unprovoked attack on another nation is the continued insistence by the Bush administration (and several presidential candidates, both Republican and Democrat) that the country in question – however improbable, impossible and unlikely – poses an existential threat to the United States.

Such irrational fearmongering is nothing new for the media. A February 2006 MSNBC poll found that 27 percent of respondents believed Iran to be a bigger threat to the US than China, Iraq or North Korea. Never mind that none of these countries has threatened the United States – except to promise to defend themselves in case we attack them or, with the possible exception of China, has the military power to even face the United States Army successfully in a straight fight. In fact, one of the four – Iraq, for those of you who have been hiding in a cave for the last four years – was unable to prevent itself from being occupied by the US military, which seems to be a rather strange military strategy if their goal is world domination, as some would have us believe.

And it’s not just erstwhile foreign foes that have us peeking under our beds in terror. Home invasion robberies, street gangs, missing white women, legalization of gay marriage… somewhere in this country someone is quaking in fear at the mere thought of one or another of these possibilities coming to pass, and somewhere some politician is playing on those fears to garner votes, or a 24-hour media outlet is doing yet another “special report” on some deadly threat lurking under our sinks, on the internet or hidden in our popular culture (“Risqué Halloween costumes: Are they turning our daughters into hos? Live now on CNN!”).

For a people who, in terms of consumer options, enjoy the greatest standard of living on the planet, we sure seem to live in fear a great deal of the time. Maybe it’s sublimated guilt at how good we’ve got it. Surely those in the world who aren’t doing as well as us are just waiting for the opportunity to get even. It’s not our freedoms that they hate; it’s our plasma TVs.

We as a society face a lot of problems on many levels, ranging from drought to terrorism. But these challenges aren’t going to be met by falling back on what appears to have become the default method of problem solving in this nation: pants-pooping fear and terror followed by hysterical hand-wringing, with a good dose of frantic finger-pointing and Orwellian overreaction thrown in for good measure.

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