Fear Itself

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By Jeff Fecke | May 22, 2009

Over at LG&M, Paul Campos notes how much fear is animating our discussion about shutting down the prison at Guantánamo, and our larger approach to terrorism:

Jeff Fecke is a freelance writer who lives in Eagan, Minnesota.In addition to his own blog, Blog of the Moderate Left, he also contributes to Alas, a Blog, Minnesota Campaign Report, and AlterNet. Fecke has appeared as a guest on the “Today” show, the Alan Colmes radio show, and the Mark Heaney Show. Fecke is divorced, and the father of one really terrific daughter. His debut novel, The Valkyrie’s Tale, is now available.

For any American (at least any American who isn’t patroling the streets of Mosul or trying to run down a story in the hills of Afghanistan) to be afraid or anxious about terrorism seems to me as peculiar as being afraid or anxious about being eaten by a shark, or murdered by a serial killer. After all, sharks and serial killers exist, but if I went around obsessing about the possibility of being victimized by either I would be considered cowardly, or paranoid, or both. Now if I were diving for abalone or surfing Mavericks it would be understandable to be a little anxious about sharks. But, when it comes to terrorism, 99.99% of Americans aren’t surfing Mavericks — they’re in a shopping mall in Topeka, inside of which (apparently) a good number of them are worried about land sharks.

And that’s what I think fear of terrorism is: cowardly paranoia. It’s treating a real but extraordinarily small risk as if it were vastly more significant than it actually is. Which is to say that, over the last eight years, we’ve made indulging in cowardly paranoia the centerpiece of much of our national policy. And making cowardly paranoia the centerpiece of our national policy has become a very bipartisan thing.

Campos is dead right, and that’s dispiriting, because of course, that’s what the terrorists want. Terrorists don’t do what they do to blow stuff up. They do what they do to sow terror. It’s right there in the name: they want to create a climate of fear.

Thanks to the bed-wetting set, that mission has been accomplished. We as a nation have become absolutely terrified of the consequences of terrorism from one — admittedly horrific — attack. You are approximately 300 times more likely to die from an accident than from a terror attack. About 75 times more likely to kill yourself. You’re almost as likely to die from a hurricane. Yes, terrorism is bad, and we should take steps to stop it, just as we add seat belts to cars, just as we counsel those with depression, just as we improve responses to natural disasters. But you’re 40 times more likely to be murdered by your run-of-the-mill murderer than by an acolyte of Osama, and yet we don’t waterboard gang members.

Ultimately, we have given Osama bin Laden his victory on a silver platter. We have taken Roosevelt’s admonition that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, and replaced it simply with fear. And so we worry that terrorists might escape from supermax jails, when nobody has escaped from a supermax jail, we torture prisoners to make ourselves feel safer, and at the end of the day, we can still be hit by a bus tomorrow. Life has a 100 percent mortality rate, folks; we can take steps to stop terrorism, yes, but we can’t make the world perfectly safe. The sooner we accept that, the saner we will be.

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