Be very afraid

President Bush has used the politics of fear to sell his policies and stifle opponents. With events turning against him, will that strategy backfire?

Mark Follman
April 9, 2004 11:08PM (UTC)

In millions of American homes last month, a small, dim image flickered repeatedly on television screens. An olive-skinned man, vaguely Arabic, turned toward the camera. Malice was plain in his dark eyes and hard expression. A few seconds later, a voice-over delivered the payload: "John Kerry: Wrong on taxes. Wrong on defense."

The image played only briefly in President George W. Bush's "100 Days" ad, and it was largely overshadowed by a far more controversial campaign spot that featured a flag-draped coffin being hauled away from the smoldering ruins of ground zero after Sept. 11. But "100 Days" was fraught with a high-voltage emotional charge of its own. The ad's message was straightforward: These are frightening times, and if you elect John Kerry, you will be even more vulnerable than you are now. The face of the anonymous terrorist was designed to appeal to one primal, irreducible emotion: fear.


Like the now-infamous Willie Horton ad that helped sink Michael Dukakis, the Bush ad makes a visceral appeal to voter insecurity -- and such fear-mongering is certain to play a central theme in his reelection campaign over the next seven months. With the economy staggering and voters concerned about a hemorrhage of jobs, with healthcare costs soaring and corporate crime at epidemic levels, Bush is emphasizing the one issue where his poll numbers have shown him to be strongest: national security. The recent bombings in Spain, a rising tide of violence and political instability in Iraq, and the devastating attack on Bush security policy by former counterterrorism director Richard Clarke have damaged Bush's credibility even on that issue. Nonetheless, Bush's political strategists are certain to keep playing up the security risks Americans face, and why his leadership is necessary to confront them.

Indeed, since Sept. 11th, fear has been the animating principle of nearly all of Bush's policies. The administration has invoked terrifying specters -- biological and chemical weapons rained from crop dusters or spewed into subway systems, a "dirty bomb" radiating entire downtown areas, a nuclear "mushroom cloud" rising over an American city -- to justify everything from the USA PATRIOT Act to racial profiling to the indefinite detention of "enemy combatants" to the invasion of Iraq.

Of course, 9/11 was a catastrophic event, and no president could afford simply to ignore it. The attacks injected a new shiver of insecurity into American life; the genuine threat of terrorism shadows us in airports and office towers, in subways and stadiums. An airplane rumbling overhead is no longer benign white noise. But some observers argue that Bush and his political strategists, rather than helping Americans overcome the fear inspired by the terrorist attacks, have exploited that fear to drum up support for controversial policies, stifle dissent and help Bush win reelection.


"I think they deliberately emphasize 9/11, and have turned post-9/11 fear into a political weapon," says Robert Lifton, a Harvard psychiatrist whose books have explored the nexus of political power, cult violence and mass trauma. "They assert that the absence of terrorist activity is due to their show of strength, but at the same time, they feel the need to mobilize fear and emphasize the threat in order to sustain their image as the great protectors. Both elements are part of the same constellation of manipulation. Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, while hardly political allies, have been profoundly valuable to the administration in manipulating the public to support its policies."

If a majority of Americans have bought the image of Bush as a strong wartime leader, they're starting to watch that image crack apart, on both the 9/11 and Iraq fronts. Richard Clarke's charges had already damaged Bush's credibility on 9/11, and Condoleezza Rice's testimony before the 9/11 commission on Thursday did little to reassure the nation that the Bush White House had made al-Qaida a top priority before 9/11. Iraq is potentially even more damaging to Bush. The president used fear -- hyping Saddam's ties to al-Qaida and his supposed weapons of mass destruction -- to convince a doubtful nation that invading Iraq was necessary to protect America. But as the military and political situation there spirals out of control, Bush's war appears more and more to have unleashed the very type of violent Islamic fundamentalism the administration pledged it would defeat by removing Saddam. Ironically, a war sold by pumping up terrifying claims (which turned out to be untrue) may now leave Americans with much more to fear.

While Bush's Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, has warily avoided attacking Bush too strongly on Iraq, former Vice President Gore has taken the gloves off. "The administration did not hesitate to heighten and distort public fear of terrorism after 9/11, to create a political case for attacking Iraq," Gore charged in a speech at New School University in February. Gore also warned of the geopolitical isolation the U.S. now appears to be confronting as Spain and other members of the coalition turn unwilling, and as Iraq teeters on the brink of chaos. "At the level of our relations with the rest of the world, the administration has willingly traded in respect for the United States in favor of fear. That is the real meaning of 'shock and awe.'" In a similar vein, a number of Bush critics have cited a famous line uttered by the sociopathic Roman emperor Caligula, "Oderint dum metuant" (Let them hate as long as they fear), as summing up the Bush administration's entire approach to the world.


But if Bush's I-will-protect-you image is taking some heavy hits right now, it's highly unlikely that he will change his strategy of appealing to fear while simultaneously presenting himself as a strong, steady leader. It has been his political trump card from the beginning -- and he doesn't really have any other options.

George W. Bush is not the first American leader to exploit fear to justify harsh national-security policies. Decades, even centuries before the PATRIOT Act, presidents in turbulent times used fear to justify the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the Red Scare and the anti-communist Palmer Raids after World War I, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the McCarthy abuses of the Cold War.


It is, of course, also possible for leaders to exploit fear in a positive way. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office during the depths of the Great Depression, he challenged Americans to steel themselves with confidence and optimism, and to participate in the nation's renewal. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," he famously said. And the way Roosevelt defined fear in that inaugural speech has uncanny resonance today. It is, he said, "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Later, FDR marshaled the nation's moral resolve to confront the twin specters of Hitler's Nazism and Japanese imperialism.

On the eve of the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill likewise spoke to the fear of his countrymen and summoned them to rise above it. "The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us," he told the House of Commons in 1940, after France had fallen. "Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'"

Bush, too, has at times used this kind of transcendental rhetoric, claiming that fighting "evil" is part of America's destiny. "In a single instant, we realized that this will be a decisive decade in the history of liberty -- that we have been called to a unique role in human events," he said in his 2002 State of the Union address.


But Bush's message is dramatically different from Roosevelt's or Churchill's. First, he has not called upon Americans to make many, if any, actual sacrifices. The "America: Open for Business" campaign that was launched a few weeks after airliners slammed into the World Trade Center, encouraging Americans to go shopping, was hardly a call for blood, sweat and tears. Second, even when he does summon Americans to surmount the challenge, there seems to be a constant, subliminal message that says something else altogether: You have much to fear, and we are the only ones who can protect you.

It's a strategy based on a psychological double-game, one whose core message draws from a paralyzing current of dissonance: Go about your normal daily business, but also be afraid. The nation is at grave risk, but we have the exclusive power to keep you safe.

In her testimony Thursday, Condoleezza Rice repeated the theme: "We're safer, but we're not safe."


Some experts think that team Bush appeals to fear because it really is afraid. "I'm not so cynical as to say they have a deliberate strategy to incapacitate the American people for political purposes," says terrorism expert Jessica Stern, who served on President Clinton's National Security Council and now teaches public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "I think the truth is that the administration itself is afraid." Bush's militarism, she says, was a result of 9/11. "The attacks really shook us to the core, and some of our leaders believe the way to deal with such an event is to strike out. Even if you can't find the enemy responsible, you still have to strike out somewhere."

George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen believes that Bush officials may be hyping threats so as not to be accused of negligence. In his new book, "The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age," Rosen writes, "We've seen the temptations for politicians to pass along vague and unconfirmed threats of future violence in order to protect themselves from criticism. This cycle fuels the public's demand for draconian and poorly designed laws and technologies to eliminate risks that are, by their nature, difficult to reduce."

But other critics say Bush's aggressive anti-terrorism agenda is driven more by ideology than by visceral impulse or political cover. Robert Lifton argues that 9/11, and the fear it created, simply gave the administration a potent backdrop for its long-desired plans to assert American global military supremacy. "Our recent technology revolution allows a powerful country like the U.S. to imagine what I call 'fluid world control,'" says Lifton. "I believe that's what the Bush administration seeks: It's described in their national security strategy, which combines a powerful apocalyptic current with a military fundamentalism. Appealing to uncertainty and fear makes it easy for many Americans to lapse into a simplistic embrace of such aggressive militarism."

Corey Robin, a political science professor at Brooklyn College, says that the Sept. 11 attacks empowered a reactionary movement in American politics that was pent-up for decades. "There was a long-standing right-wing movement that said the 1960s and '70s produced too open of an American society, with too many civil liberties concessions," says Robin, who studies the history of fear as a political tool. "Conservatives have long believed in a deep connection between the domestic social and moral order, and foreign policy. J. Edgar Hoover sincerely thought that you needed a kind of racist, racial hierarchy inside America in order to deal with the foreign threat."


That vision closely linking hard-line social conservatism to national security, says Robin, seems to rule Washington again today.

"I think the likes of John Ashcroft also believe that too open a society will lead to another 9/11," he says. "Intense public fear in the wake of the attacks offered a perfect opportunity to turn the clock back."

For two years now, the United States has been in a constant, officially designated state of alarm about terrorism. Since launching a five-tiered, color-coded "advisory system" in March 2002, Bush's new Homeland Security Department has never dropped the threat level below yellow, or "elevated risk" of an attack. The nation has endured a nerve-racking code-orange, or "high-risk" alert, five times in the same period.

In a dangerous new era for proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, with Osama bin Laden still at large and terrorism spreading beyond al-Qaida, few would dispute that terrorism remains a serious threat. But some intelligence experts say that many Bush anti-terrorism policies, from the color-coded alert system to aviation security, are far better at stoking public anxiety than at stopping attacks. Some poorly conceived measures, argues one counterterrorism expert, may even help terrorists plan their next deadly mission.


Proponents of the color-coded alert system argue that it's the fastest, most effective way to alert thousands of law enforcement officials nationwide, especially at the local level and among private security services. Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Brookes believes the administration has been "judicious" with the system. "There's a lot to be said for people paying attention when we're at a higher level of alert," says Brookes, now a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Terrorists can be deterred by the knowledge that their plans have been exposed. I don't believe the administration has been crying wolf."

Others are not so sure, pointing to the murkiness and unreliability of the intelligence on which the alerts are based, and their suspicions that the Bush administration turns up the threat level for political purposes. "I do think the intelligence agencies are doing a good job and have stopped quite a few attacks since Sept. 11," said one FBI agent with close ties to the CIA, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But there's a huge political aspect to the administration's message which seems to orbit way outside the real issue at times."

Larry C. Johnson, a former CIA analyst and deputy director of the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism, is more blunt: "I call the color-coded system the 'terrorism mood ring,'" he says. "Security isn't green, yellow and purple. This is a public relations ploy, run by people who are making decisions on security who don't really know what they're doing. They make statements that aren't backed up by any real data or empirical evidence. It's faith-based security."

Johnson believes that the administration is spreading inordinate fear about future terrorist attacks -- what author Jeffrey Rosen describes as "public fixation on low probability but vivid risks."


"They continue to insist that this is the greatest threat we've ever faced, and that's just ludicrous," says Johnson, who now runs a private security consulting firm in Washington. "I don't want to minimize the terrible losses of 9/11, and we have to take the terror threat seriously. But let's be real: We've heard the likes of Gen. [Richard] Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say that terrorism is the greatest threat we've faced perhaps since the Civil War. Are you kidding me? There were more than a half million deaths in that war. There were nuclear missiles pointed at us by the Soviet Union during the Cold War that could've incinerated millions instantly. Terrorists on their best day can't kill millions."

Others find it suspicious that so many warnings seem to spike around holiday time. The nation's fifth code-orange alert came during the 2003 Christmas season, and the Bush administration has spotlighted nonspecific terror threats around July 4 two years in a row. While the administration did not raise the threat level for July 4 either year, mainstream media carried a wave of stories in which U.S. officials discussed, among other concerns, "reports of heightened operational activity by terrorists around the world," an unspecified al-Qaida plot in Texas, terrorist "interest" in football stadiums in St. Louis and Indianapolis, unspecified plots targeting the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty, and concerns about dams and water supplies from New York to Florida to California. An ABC News report last summer noted "similar discussions" by U.S. officials prior to every national holiday since Sept. 11, 2001.

Al-Qaida has demonstrated its acumen for targeting the greatest symbols of American power and culture, and might well be eager to strike on a national holiday. But such occasions also offer the Bush administration a poignant opportunity to remind Americans of a menace in the shadows.

"I've wondered why we seem to keep getting terror warnings around the holidays, like July 4 and Christmas," says the FBI agent. "Terrorists will try to strike whenever they can; they aren't going to wait for Christmas to blow something up."

Aviation security also remains a contentious issue. Just days after the country went on high alert on Dec. 21 of last year, several international flights into the U.S. from London, Paris and Mexico City were canceled due to the threat of hijackings. More were canceled in January and February, stranding thousands of passengers and costing airlines, according to some industry analysts, up to a quarter-million dollars per grounded plane. Many passengers, skeptical about the whole process, were furious.

Brookes believes it's a necessary price. "The bottom line is protecting lives. We have to be right 100 percent of the time, and a terrorist only has to be right 1 percent of the time," he says. "Even in the best security situations, somebody can get through with something. The Arab names are very difficult; what happens if you get one mixed up, and the guy you're after gets on the plane?"

But Johnson, who helped investigate the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in the early 1990s, says that the December flight cancellations were "a low point" in U.S. security policy.

"Homeland Defense Secretary Tom Ridge announced there were no air marshals on inbound international flights, and that we'd only put them on select flights based on specific threat information," he says. "At the same time, he's alleging they've got information that al-Qaida is targeting those kinds of flights. Well, for God's sake, all we've done is tell al-Qaida those flights are unprotected -- we've helped them do their mission planning. The stupidity of that is breathtaking. When I see that from someone in Ridge's position, it just shows me they don't know what they're doing."

Sounding the alarm is a crucial aspect of the double-game: Even as Bush officials have advised Americans to go about their normal daily business, they've often drawn a picture of approaching Armageddon.

When Tom Ridge put the nation on code-orange alert last December, he described the terrorist threat as "perhaps greater now than at any point since September 11th," with America's enemies anticipating "near-term attacks" to "either rival or exceed" those of 2001. On Jan. 14, Vice President Dick Cheney warned during a speech in Los Angeles that "terrorists continue plotting to kill on an ever larger scale, including here in the United States." If terrorists with weapons of mass destruction were able to hit us, Cheney inveighed, "instead of losing thousands of lives, we might lose tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives as the result of a single attack, or a set of coordinated attacks."

But during a routine press conference just two days later, on Jan. 16, White House spokesman Scott McClellan sounded a familiar refrain for reporters: "Our country is much safer today than it was on Sept. 11."

How were Americans supposed to react?

Brookes, at the Heritage Foundation, maintains that the administration's wartime message has been "very sober and straightforward," as well as pragmatic. "We can't let down our vigilance," he says. "We know al-Qaida has begun recruiting non-Arabs, especially in Europe. There were non-Arabs involved in the recent attacks in Tunisia and Morocco. They're changing their tactics to try to get at us."

But in lieu of strategic discussion, the president often reverts to evangelical language to frame the mission. "A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it," Bush intoned during a radio address to the nation in December 2001, as thousands of U.S. troops were deployed in Afghanistan.

That message may play well with Bush's evangelical Christian voter base -- those accustomed to viewing global turmoil through an apocalyptic lens -- but what about mainstream America?

"It's interesting how much the term 'evil' has cropped up in the administration's rhetoric," says terrorism expert Jessica Stern. "The spiritual dread related to terrorism makes us extremely prone to overreaction, so Bush's rhetoric makes many of us profoundly uncomfortable. I do think 'evil' is an appropriate term for al-Qaida. But the real problem with the Bush paradigm is the idea that our mission is now ridding the world of evil. That's not a mission that takes decades, it's a mission that takes forever."

"I'm not sure I'd say that the Bush administration is trying to frighten us to death, that it's a deliberate strategy," she adds. "But I do think the fear serves them. If you're in permanent crisis mode, if you're ridding the world of evil, it gives you carte blanche to focus on that and ignore everything else."

In his State of the Union address in January, widely seen as a blueprint for his reelection campaign, President Bush made 40 references to terrorism, war, Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks. Though no Democrat has dismissed the terrorism threat, he implied that they were weak and unreliable, suggesting that they subscribe to a "false" hope "that the danger is behind us." Bush's message was clear: Vote for us -- we're the only ones who will keep you safe. Since that speech, Bush has continued that theme: "If America shows weakness and uncertainty, the world will drift toward tragedy," he told a gathering of Republican governors in February. "America must never outsource America's national security decisions to the leaders of other governments."

For the Bush administration, Armageddon is never far over the horizon. Time and time again, the White House has returned to a calculated language of fear, implying that compromise with foreign leaders is a sign of weakness, that questioning its anti-terrorism policies is unpatriotic, that certain circumstances justify secrecy and deception. It has fanned Americans' fears while promising to inoculate them at every turn. As bombs continue to explode from Bali to Baghdad to Madrid, and with Republicans set to convene near ground zero this fall for their national convention, Bush strategists hope that a fear-based strategy will win Bush reelection -- especially if John Kerry fails to convince the public he has a stronger, more enduring vision for national security.

The president's anti-terrorism message still retains considerable appeal. According to USA Today, a poll taken at the end of March showed a majority of Americans still think President Bush is doing a good job on national security, in spite of the political firestorm that followed Richard Clarke's testimony before the 9/11 commission.

"The advantage President Bush has is that he's given the average American a ringside seat on national security," says Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster and strategist in Washington. "Your average 'security mom' may not feel like she can do much to affect things on the ground in Iraq, but you bet she can report suspicious activity, or refuse to open a packet of white powder, or look over her shoulder a little bit more. Whether it's getting flashlights and duct tape and all that, the war on terror is the place where the average American believes he or she can have a role."

But it's also possible that Bush's focus on fear could backfire this November. As Iraq threatens to slide into chaos, more voters are beginning to question Bush's handling of the war, while the missing WMD continue to undercut its primary rationale. The conventional wisdom is that another terrorist attack in the U.S. would ensure Bush's reelection -- but if enough voters lose faith in Bush's handling of national security and Iraq, even that could go the other way. The example of Madrid could be key: No one expects American voters to react the way the Spanish did, by punishing the incumbent war party. But if enough swing voters conclude that invading Iraq has actually made the U.S. less safe, whether by diverting attention from al-Qaida or turning Iraq into a breeding ground for terrorism, Bush could be hurt by the very thing -- terrorism -- that has been his political ace in the hole.

"It is a serious indictment of our political discourse that almost three-quarters of all Americans were so easily led to believe that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the attacks of 9/11 -- that nearly half of all Americans still believe that most of the hijackers were Iraqis -- and that more than 40 percent were so easily convinced that Iraq did in fact have nuclear weapons," Al Gore argued in his recent speech at New School University. "The administration [did not] have any scruples about using fear of terrorists as a means to punch holes in the basic protections of the Constitution: to create a class of permanent prisoners; to make it possible to imprison Americans without due process; to totally sequester information not just from the people, but from the Congress and the courts -- all justified by recourse to fear."

President Bush's tone and leadership, his critics say, could have turned in a starkly different direction after 9/11. "Every other Western democracy that's faced terrorism has managed to accept a certain amount of low-level violence without completely changing the culture of national life," says author Jeffrey Rosen. "Ideally, the administration would help us achieve that stoicism, rather than pandering to our fears. We don't want to dismiss the serious threat from terrorism, and the administration is right to make it the main priority in the post-9/11 period. But there is something troubling about a war that by definition never ends, whose success can never be clearly measured and whose failure can never be disproved."

Still, so long as another terrorist attack on U.S. soil does not take place, the Bush administration can claim that it's winning the war on terror. And Bush supporters dismiss Democratic criticisms as empty partisan rhetoric.

For the Democrats to prevail, they would need to "attack less and solve more," says GOP strategist Conway. "They've been dismissive, if not vitriolic, toward the president's policies, but less coherent about their own vision."

In fact, John Kerry has laid out a blueprint calling for building up the U.S. military and strengthening international partnerships, among other steps, in the battle against global terrorism and WMD proliferation. But after 9/11, such nuanced policies may speak less to mainstream voters than constantly raising the specter of another major terrorist attack, or waging preventive war on America's enemies.

"For years, conservatives have had the advantage of a very coherent ideology for understanding the world," concedes Corey Robin. "The Democrats, and liberals in general, have kind of lost their bearings, particularly since 9/11. But if the Democrats play on Bush's terms on this issue, I don't think they can win."

"I think many Americans could respond to an argument that Bush's aggressive policies have made us less secure and more vulnerable," says Robert Lifton, the Harvard psychiatrist. "In psychological terms, it's of great significance that a careful, evenhanded analysis coming from the U.S. Army War College, argues this case." But defeating Bush, Lifton says, will require a coherent and fearless rebuke of the White House message: "Bush opponents must continue to address why 9/11 happened, why we aren't safer now, and what they're going to do about it."

The battle could reach its climax where it began.

Early in September, President Bush will accept the Republican nomination in New York City, not far from the gaping hole where the World Trade Center once stood. As the nation prepares to commemorate Sept. 11, 2001, once again, the symbolism of the GOP's chosen location will be inescapable -- both for Bush backers, and for the hundreds of thousands of protesters planning to confront him there.

The president will emotionally depict a nation still endangered by a terrorist menace, but made safer by his wartime policies. He will appeal to American patriotism, and resolve, and sense of destiny.

And as the delegates cast their votes, F-16 fighter jets will streak above the city, patrolling the skies overhead.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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2004 Elections 9/11 Al-qaida George W. Bush Homeland Security Terrorism

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