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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Attacking Bush's only weapon -- Fear

(cross-posted at Digby)

Among those who now recognize that the Bush Administration has not just deliberately and repeatedly broken the law, but is literally claiming that George Bush has the “wartime” power to continue to break the law, there is a growing impatience to move to the next step – to take action to ensure that there are serious consequences from Bush’s brazen law-breaking. But in order for that to happen, Bush opponents must finally overcome the one weapon which has protected George Bush again and again: fear. Fear of terrorism is what the Administration has successfully inflamed and exploited for four years in order to justify its most extreme and even illegal actions undertaken in the name of fighting terrorism.

Without pause, the Administration has sought to make Americans as frightened as possible about terrorism and has used that fear to justify its actions with regard to almost every issue. Here is Dick Cheney, just yesterday, proudly defending the Administration’s illegal eavesdropping program by arguing that Bush’s warrantless eavesdropping on of Americans, like everything else the Administration does, is justified by fear of terrorists:


As we get farther away from September 11th, some in Washington are yielding to the temptation to downplay the ongoing threat to our country, and to back away from the business at hand. . .

The enemy that struck on 9/11 is weakened and fractured yet it is still lethal and trying to hit us again. Either we are serious about fighting this war or we are not. And as long as George W. Bush is President of the United States, we are serious -- and we will not let down our guard.

As always, Cheney urgently warns Americans not to let our fear of terrorism diminish. George Bush has also been fueling these flames of fear in almost every speech he’s given since September 11, 2001. Here he is in a quite typical speech delivered on October 6, 2005, transparently attempting to whip up as much fear as possible in order to bolster support for our ongoing occupation of Iraq:

We know the vision of the radicals because they've openly stated it -- in videos, and audiotapes, and letters, and declarations, and websites. . . . Their tactic to meet this goal has been consistent for a quarter-century: They hit us, and expect us to run. They want us to repeat the sad history of Beirut in 1983, and Mogadishu in 1993 -- only this time on a larger scale, with greater consequences.

"The militants believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region, and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia. With greater economic and military and political power, the terrorists would be able to advance their stated agenda: to develop weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, to intimidate Europe, to assault the American people, and to blackmail our government into isolation."

"Our enemy is utterly committed. As Zarqawi has vowed, 'We will either achieve victory over the human race or we will pass to the eternal life.' And the civilized world knows very well that other fanatics in history, from Hitler to Stalin to Pol Pot, consumed whole nations in war and genocide before leaving the stage of history.

"The murderous ideology of the Islamic radicals is the great challenge of our new century. Yet, in many ways, this fight resembles the struggle against communism in the last century. . . .

With the rise of a deadly enemy and the unfolding of a global ideological struggle, our time in history will be remembered for new challenges and unprecedented dangers.


Islamic terrorists here, as always, are depicted as omnipotent villains with quite attainable dreams of world domination, genocide, and the obliteration of the United States. They are trying to take over the world and murder us all. And this is not merely a threat we face. It is much more than that. It is the predominant issue facing the United States -- more important than all others. Everything pales in comparison to fighting off this danger. We face not merely a danger, but, in Bush’s words, an "unprecedented danger" -- the worst, scariest, most threatening danger ever.

And literally for four years, this is what Americans have heard over and over and over from their Government – that we face a mortal and incomparably powerful enemy on the precipice of destroying us, and only the most extreme measures taken by our Government can save us. We are a nation engaged in a War of Civilizations whose very existence is in imminent jeopardy. All of those plans for the future, dreams for your children, career aspirations, life goals – it’s all subordinate, it’s all for naught, unless, first and foremost, we stand loyally behind George Bush as he invokes extreme and unprecedented measures necessary to protect us from this extreme and unprecedented threat.

It is that deeply irrational, fear-driven view of the world which has to be undermined in order to make headway in convincing Americans that this Administration is engaged in intolerable excesses and abuses of its power. The argument which needs to be made is the one that we have seen starting to arise in the blogosphere and elsewhere: that living in irrational fear of terrorists and sacrificing our liberties and all of our other national goals in their name is the approach of hysterics and cowards, not of a strong, courageous and resolute nation.

Several weeks ago, Digby wrote a widely-discussed post describing how Bush supporters are driven by their all-consuming and pitifully child-like fears of terrorists, leading them to consent to any measures taken by George Bush as long as he promises to save them. And this weekend, Kos wrote a similar post, in which he contrasted the classic and previously defining American bravery of Patrick Henry with the frightened Bush followers who beg the Government to restrict their liberties in exchange for saving them from the terrorists.

If the blogospheric reaction of Bush supporters is any indication, this argument is as politically potent as it is self-evidently true. Kos’s post provoked shrieking seizures among the tough-guy, blindly loyal Bush followers -- the ones who revealingly give themselves play name like Rocket and Captain and who never tire of touting their own toughness. In response to Kos’s post, they squealed and they yelled and they called him all kinds of names – they did everything but refute the argument.

And notably, in their anger, there was none of that smug bravado or all-too-familiar attacks on the courage of Bush opponents, because with this plainly accurate depiction, they stand revealed as being driven by nothing other than limitless, irrational fear. They are scared and they want to continue to implant their extreme fear into our national policies and onto our national character.

There is no more important goal than exposing and undermining the cowardly and exaggerated fear which lies at the core of the Bush agenda. If, as has been the case, we are bullied into starting from the tacit premise that Islamic terrorism is a unique and unprecedented evil which threatens our very existence -- rather than one of many challenges which we must calmly face and overcome -- then it is a foregone conclusion that whoever advocates the most extreme “anti-terrorist” measures, no matter how excessive and regardless of whether they comport with legal niceties, will prevail.

If that fear-mongering premise is left unchallenged – if we are too afraid to dispute the premise that Islamic terrorism is the “unprecedented” existential threat to the United States which, at any moment, is likely to cause our cities to be in flames and our children to be glowing with radiation and therefore must outweigh every other issue and concern – then we will lose that debate every time, which is what has been happening.

After all, if it really were the case that Islamic terrorism constituted the sort of imminent, civilization-ending threat which the Administration has spent the last four years drumming into everyone’s head, then it would be extremely difficult to gin up much outrage over an eavesdropping program, warrants or not. When one’s very survival is at stake and is in imminent danger, what will matter is being protected from that danger. Everything else will pale in importance, and there will be extreme gratitude towards those who seek to save you, even if they break a few abstract rules to do it.

What must be emphasized is that one can protect against the threat of terrorism with courage, calm and resolve – the attributes which have always defined our nation as it has confronted other threats. Hysteria and fear-mongering are the opposite of strength. The strong remain rational and unafraid.

In a rational world, the basic principle of risk is that it equals impact times probability: "In professional risk assessments, risk combines the probability of a negative event occurring with how harmful that event would be." But the Administration has spent four years urging Americans to ignore that way of thinking and instead assent to any Government measure, no matter the costs or comparative harms, as long as they are pursued in the name of fighting this Ultimate Evil.

In fact, it is now essentially prohibited in good company to even raise the prospect that the threat of terrorism is exaggerated. It is an inviolable piety that there is no such thing as overstating the terrorism risk. One is compelled to genuflect to, and tremble before, the paramounce of this Ultimate Threat upon pain of being cast aside as some sort of anti-American, terrorist-loving loon.

During the 2004 election, John Kerry accidentally stumbled in his clumsy and half-hearted way towards challenging this fear-mongering when he told The New York Times Sunday Magazine: ‘’We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance.’ That provoked the predictable outraged and pious braying that Democrats are unserious about the Terrorist Threat and too weak to protect our children from this unparalleled menace. And as happens almost always when Bush opponents express a view that meets some initial disapproval, all sorts of apologetic backtracking ensued, and that topic has been basically off-limits since.

But this is a message which Americans are clearly ready to hear, if there are people willing to deliver it. We are four years away from September 11 and, despite the dire warnings of the Bush Administration, people in rural Kansas and suburban Georgia and everywhere else are beginning to realize that on the list of problems and threats which endanger their children and impede their dreams, the potential of an attack by Islamic terrorists is not anywhere near the top of that list. We are not engulfed by the Civil War or fighting World War II. And it is past time to bolster that growing recognition by pointing out over and over that the Bush Administration’s insistence that we live in never-ending fear and panic of terrorists is the opposite of the American virtues of strength and courage in the face of threats.

And it's a message which Americans can understand. Most people know individuals in their lives who live in this type of irrational, all-consuming fear on the micro-level – people who are scared before they are anything else, pathologically risk-averse, always hiding and exerting excess caution lest something go wrong. In its more extreme version, that sort of fear manifests as a life-destroying mental disorder. It is a pitiful image, and such people typically achieve very little. They cannot, because their fear is paralyzing.

The Bush Administration has been trying for four years to reduce this country to a collective version of that affliction. And it is hard to imagine what a nation which is fueled by such fear can accomplish. Hysteria and paranoia have never been the American national character, but along with the founding principles of our Republic, the Bush Administration has been attempting to change that, too.

The Administration has managed to get away with the Orwellian depiction of fear as being the hallmark of courage, and conversely, depicting a rational and calm approach as being a mark of cowardice. They were aided in this effort by a frightened national media and a national political elite who live in Washington, DC and New York and were so petrified of further attacks that they were easily whipped into a state of passive, uncritical compliance in exchange for promises of protection. But we are far away from the emotional shock of September 11, and the power of that Fear weapon is breaking down.

In order to persuade the population that George Bush must not be allowed to claim the powers of a King, literally including the power to break the law, Bush opponents must attack that fear as the by-product of weakness and cowardice which it is. A strong nation does not give up its freedoms or sacrifice its national character in the name of fear and panic. But that is what George Bush has spent the last four years urging the country to do, and it is what he is counting on -- it is the only chance he has -- for having this NSA law-breaking scandal join the litany of other scandals which have meekly and inconsequentially faded away in a cloud of manufactured fear.

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