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Fear, With Good Reason

Last week

Last week, Dahlia Lithwick had a terrific piece in Slate in which she ponders America’s “Terrorism Derangement Syndrome [TDS].”

America does seem to be in the grip of morbid fear, doesn’t it? Khalid Shaikh Mohammed could irradiate Manhattan if he’s given a trial there … terrorists can melt the walls of supermax prisons … the Underwear Bomber is so diabolically clever he would laugh off traditional interrogation methods. With all this terror, you might even think … I don’t know, that terrorism is working pretty well.

Lithwick attributed some of the cause of TDS to Republican fear-mongering and to Democratic acquiescence in GOP scare tactics. I agree – but I think there’s something more fundamental going on, something that explains both the fear and the fear-mongering.

Something like … our own policies.

I believe some deep-seated part of our national consciousness is aware there will be consequences for what we’ve done, and continue to do. The wars, and kidnappings, and illegal imprisonment, and off-the-mark Predator strikes, and, most of all, torture – we sense a reckoning for all this, a conflagration waiting to engulf the combustible materials we insist on piling recklessly, relentlessly higher. Our tactics worsen the danger.

The worse the danger, the more scared we get. The more scared we get, the less capable we are of rational policies. As our rationality deserts us, we embrace more tightly primitive tactics. And the more primitive we become, the worse we make the danger. And so on.

So, yes, we’re afraid. After all, we understand revenge, don’t we? Revenge is a human need so powerful that, if necessary, we’ll attempt to satisfy it by proxy, the way we satisfied our need for 9/11 vengeance against al-Qaeda by attacking Iraq, instead.

We know payback is coming because, by God, if there were a country kidnapping Americans and imprisoning them and torturing them in secret prisons, and if that country constantly threatened to bomb us and sometimes actually did so, and if the bombs often missed and massacred women and children and funerals and wedding parties, we would not – we could not – rest until that country came to rue the day it even considered fucking with the United States of America.

That’s how it would be if the shoe were on the other foot – in fact, that’s how it was. And you don’t have to be psychic or even exceptionally empathetic to know that’s how it is with other cultures, too. A little imagination and intuition are more than enough.

Imagination and intuition, as it happens, is the same combination that makes us sure Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Our own National Intelligence Estimate claims otherwise, but we don’t believe the NIE because what would we do if we were subject to the kind of bellicose rhetoric our politicians and press level at Iran?

What would we do if we were Iran, and America had invaded our neighbors east and west? We wouldn’t rest until we had nukes, so we know Iran is after them, just as we would be. Anyone who suggests otherwise must be wrong.

As I wrote over a year ago:

It’s common for rightists to justify America’s embrace of the “dark side” by claiming President Bush has kept the country safe. The claim strikes me as remarkably simplistic. If the temporal frame of reference begins on 9/11, and we ignore the unsolved anthrax attacks that came shortly after, and the geographical frame of reference is the territorial United States alone, then one might accurately claim America has been safe up until now. Whether the correlation between “the dark side” and our safety up until this point has a causal connection is far more debatable.

Regardless, to me, “has kept us safe up until this point” has far too much the ring of Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time.” It also makes me think of a parent who seems to be an excellent provider because he’s financing all those provisions on a dozen maxed-out credit cards. The temporary comfort he’s afforded his family will inevitably be wiped out by the unpayable bill they’re all soon to receive.

Watching these documentaries, you can’t help but feel that bill is out there, and that soon enough, it will be horrifically presented to us. Even if you believe “the dark side” offers benefits, and you’re willing to ignore what the dark side has cost us in terms of our own ideals and our image in the world, that bill, when it comes, will represent the dark side’s true price.

What every American needs to understand about torture and the rest of the dark side is this: Not only has our embrace of the dark side violated our laws and profaned our values, and not only have we received no safety in exchange for our willingness to cash in our national ideals – no, the real irony, the real tragedy is that war and secret prisons and torture and the rest have created and continue to create a new generation of Muslim extremists intent on revenge. We know this.

We try to stopper our minds, but our intuition won’t be silenced. It’s why we’re so afraid.

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