The expectation that government provide absolute safety is both dangerous and irrational
(updated below – Update II)
I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but David Brooks actually had an excellent column in yesterday’s New York Times that makes several insightful and important points. Brooks documents how “childish, contemptuous and hysterical” the national reaction has been to this latest terrorist episode, egged on — as usual — by the always-hysterical American media. The citizenry has been trained to expect that our Powerful Daddies and Mommies in government will — in that most cringe-inducing, child-like formulation — Keep Us Safe. Whenever the Government fails to do so, the reaction — just as we saw this week — is an ugly combination of petulant, adolescent rage and increasingly unhinged cries that More Be Done to ensure that nothing bad in the world ever happens. Demands that genuinely inept government officials be held accountable are necessary and wise, but demands that political leaders ensure that we can live in womb-like Absolute Safety are delusional and destructive. Yet this is what the citizenry screams out every time something threatening happens: please, take more of our privacy away; monitor more of our communications; ban more of us from flying; engage in rituals to create the illusion of Strength; imprison more people without charges; take more and more control and power so you can Keep Us Safe.
This is what inevitably happens to a citizenry that is fed a steady diet of fear and terror for years. It regresses into pure childhood. The 5-year-old laying awake in bed, frightened by monsters in the closet, who then crawls into his parents’ bed to feel Protected and Safe, is the same as a citizenry planted in front of the television, petrified by endless imagery of scary Muslim monsters, who then collectively crawl to Government and demand that they take more power and control in order to keep them Protected and Safe. A citizenry drowning in fear and fixated on Safety to the exclusion of other competing values can only be degraded and depraved. John Adams, in his 1776 Thoughts on Government, put it this way:
Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.
As Adams noted, political leaders possess an inherent interest in maximizing fear levels, as that is what maximizes their power. For a variety of reasons, nobody aids this process more than our establishment media, motivated by their own interests in ratcheting up fear and Terrorism melodrama as high as possible. The result is a citizenry far more terrorized by our own institutions than foreign Terrorists could ever dream of achieving on their own. For that reason, a risk that is completely dwarfed by numerous others — the risk of death from Islamic Terrorism — dominates our discourse, paralyzes us with fear, leads us to destroy our economic security and eradicate countless lives in more and more foreign wars, and causes us to beg and plead and demand that our political leaders invade more of our privacy, seize more of our freedom, and radically alter the system of government we were supposed to have. The one thing we don’t do is ask whether we ourselves are doing anything to fuel this problem and whether we should stop doing it. As Adams said: fear ”renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable.”
What makes all of this most ironic is that the American Founding was predicated on exactly the opposite mindset. The Constitution is grounded in the premise that there are other values and priorities more important than mere Safety. Even though they knew that doing so would help murderers and other dangerous and vile criminals evade capture, the Framers banned the Government from searching homes without probable cause, prohibited compelled self-incrimination, double jeopardy and convictions based on hearsay, and outlawed cruel and unusual punishment. That’s because certain values — privacy, due process, limiting the potential for abuse of government power — were more important than mere survival and safety. A central calculation of the Constitution was that we insist upon privacy, liberty and restraints on government power even when doing so means we live with less safety and a heightened risk of danger and death. And, of course, the Revolutionary War against the then-greatest empire on earth was waged by people who risked their lives and their fortunes in pursuit of liberty, precisely because there are other values that outweigh mere survival and safety.
These are the calculations that are now virtually impossible to find in our political discourse. It is fear, and only fear, that predominates. No other competing values are recognized. We have Chris Matthews running around shrieking that he’s scared of kung-fu-wielding Terrorists. Michael Chertoff is demanding that we stop listening to “privacy ideologues” — i.e., that there should be no limits on Government’s power to invade and monitor and scrutinize. Republican leaders have spent the decade preaching that only Government-provided Safety, not the Constitution, matters. All in response to this week’s single failed terrorist attack, there are — as always — hysterical calls that we start more wars, initiate racial profiling, imprison innocent people indefinitely, and torture even more indiscriminately. These are the by-products of the weakness and panic and paralyzing fear that Americans have been fed in the name of Terrorism, continuously for a full decade now.
Ever since I began writing in late 2005 about this fear-addicted dynamic, the point on which Brooks focused yesterday is the one I’ve thought most important. 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. This is what I wrote about that back in early 2006 in How Would a Patriot Act?:
The president’s embrace of radical theories of presidential power threatens to change the system of government we have. But worse still, his administration’s relentless, never-ending attempts to keep the nation in a state of fear can also change the kind of nation we are.
This isn’t exactly new: many of America’s most serious historical transgressions — the internment of Japanese-Americans, McCarthyite witch hunts, World War I censorship laws, the Alien and Sedition Act — have been the result of fear-driven, over-reaction to external threats, not under-reaction. Fear is a degrading toxin, and there’s no doubt that it has been the primary fuel over the last decade. As the events of the last week demonstrate, it continues to spread rapidly, and it produces exactly the kind of citizenry about which John Adams long ago warned.
UPDATE: Talking to one’s friends and co-workers is not a reliable way of gauging public opinion on an issue. Those who want to claim that the media’s hysteria over this incident is not matched by the general public’s are going to have to explain this:
Fifty-eight percent (58%) of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day. . . . Seventy-one percent (71%) of all voters think the attempt by the Nigerian Muslim to blow up the airliner as it landed in Detroit should be investigated by military authorities as a terrorist act. Only 22% say it should be handled by civilian authorities as a criminal act, as is currently the case.
Does that sound like a calm and sober citizenry?
UPDATE II: On Fox News yesterday, Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney (ret.) announces that he wants to strip search all Muslim males between the ages of 18-28, and explains that “political correctness” — the only possible reason one might have to object to such a proposal — is going to result in our mass slaughter at the hands of jihadists. It’s hard to overstate — or even fathom — what happens to people who have sat there for years and ingested this sort of ugliness and panic.
More Related Stories
- Is the Environmental Defense Fund ruining environmentalism?
- Top 5 investigative videos of the week: "Winning" Afghanistan
- Jester clowns Westboro Baptist Church
- GOP: Party of crybabies
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Guantánamo prisoner on hunger strike cries for help on Twitter
- 3 possible solutions to international tax avoidance
- “I just want the U.S. to send my father home”
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- David Vitter's hypocritical, punitive, horrible new amendment
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- Could hackers destroy the U.S. power grid?
- Democrats may be even worse than Republicans at regulating Wall Street
- Eric Holder versus journalism
- A progressive defense of drones
- There's no substitute for government disaster relief
- Holder signed off on search warrant for reporter
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- Closing Gitmo is not enough
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11