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, December 22, 2005

Neurosis as the National Character

The prevailing wisdom holds that when it comes to American foreign policy, the strong, tough, powerful, courageous people are pro-Bush conservatives (the protective and paternal John Wayne’s among us), and the weak-willed, fearful, knee-buckling effeminate cowards are anti-Bush liberals.

Anyone who sees the world that way really ought to immediately read this post by Digby in its entirety, which insightfully demonstrates that the principal emotion which accounts for the appeal of George Bush -- and which really lays at the center of most of the issues dominating the Bush-loving world-view – is fear. Fear of the terrorists. And it’s not merely garden-variety fear, but a form of wild and neurotic paranoia which overwhelms rational judgment and comes to outweigh every other competing consideration.

Intense and limitless fear of terrorists has become the North Star of our country. Everything emanates from it, and we always look to it for guidance.

The debate over Bush’s warrantless and lawless surveillance of American citizens has illustrated the central role which this fear plays in virtually everything we publicly discuss, and it also highlights its disturbingly neurotic character. Those who argue that the President must be bestowed with unprecedented executive power to protect us have but one argument in their bag of tricks – fear of terrorists.

All of the conservative tough guys who strut around with their chests puffed out like John Wayne at high noon babble hysterically, like babies, when they tell us how frightened they are by terrorists. This week, we have seen one Bush-defending Republican after the next parade before the cameras shrieking that we MUST give up our freedoms because otherwise WE WILL DIE - THE TERRORISTS WILL KILL US!!!! As Russ Feingold pointed out, they have taken Patrick Henry’s demand of "give me liberty or give me death" -- what was the hallmark of the American character and its preeminent commitment to liberty – and turned it into a begging, needy plea to be saved by the all-powerful Government in exchange for giving up our liberties.

Terrorism is certainly a threat that ought to be aggressively confronted, but there are lots of other dangers to our safety and health, many of which are at least statistically more threatening. Contrary to the paralyzing fear which our nation’s politicians have whipped up in Americans, terrorism is hardly some incomparable and uncontrollable existential danger which ought to make us abandon every other concern and which floods every other priority. But that is how it is viewed and whined about by those with the greatest pretense to courage and strength.

An exchange between two commentators in a thread here a few days ago powerfully illustrated this dynamic. Rick, who writes the blog The Real Ugly American, is a hard-core conservative who is pro-war, pro-Bush and unabashed in holding himself out as a real warrior who wants to stand up to America’s enemies rather than flee. Jake is an anti-Bush, anti-war liberal. Rick defends Bush's warrantless surveillance of American citizens and Jake opposes it. Here is the short but quite representative exchange they had on that topic:

The Ugly American

No I do not think the FBI or any other police agency should conduct warrentless searches or surveilance in criminal matters. Which seems to be where you and Glenn are missing the point entirely. This is not a criminal matter. This is a war for the survival of our nation and modern civilization. The stakes could not be higher.


There are so many things to fear. Why pick terrorism? Why not tackle the issue rationally, with money and appropriate threats, and yes, even appropriate action . . .

When I read you, it is almost as if I am reading someone with a emotional illness, someone who will trade away rights for an ephemeral sense of "security". There is no security in this world, in this life. No president can give it to you, no God can give it to you. You are at risk of your life ALWAYS.

And terrorism is the least of your worries, not if you travel in a car much at all or live in a big city, or live in almost any third world country. . . . Trading away freedom for security is a fool's gamble. Eventually you will have neither.

Who is the one here who sounds rational, calm and fearless - and who is the one who sounds hysterical and scared? As the blogger Maha put it after excerpting some blindly trusting right-wing pleas to George Bush for protection:

Translation: I dont know what Bush is doing, but I want him to keep doing it to protect me from the terrorists.

This is not "resolve," people. This is cowardice. This is being a herd of frightened beasts stampeding off a cliff.

The apex - really, the zenith - of this shivering fear-wallowing was the exceptionally well-staged Republican National Convention, where one Republican speaker after the next shrieked that we must re-elect George Bush because only he can make us safe, only he can protect us from the terrorists. Without George Bush, we weak and vulnerable Americans are all doomed. Here is Zell Miller explaining how his fears drove him to support George Bush:

And like you, I ask which leader is it today that has the vision, the willpower, and, yes, the backbone to best protect my family?

The clear answer to that question has placed me in this hall with you tonight. For my family is more important than my Party.

There is but one man to whom I am willing to entrust their future and that man's name is George W. Bush. . . .

I have knocked on the door of this man's soul and found someone home, a God-fearing man with a good heart and a spine of tempered steel -- the man I trust to protect my most precious possession: my family.

Do people who live in suburban and rural Georgia - or Ohio - or Nebraska, really live in terrorizing fear of Al Qaeda? When they think about the threats they face to their lives and to their children, is an Islamic terrorist attack really at the top of the list - before violent crime and health risks and car accidents and obesity and abductions? If so, isn’t that just plainly warped?

In this view, George Bush is not just an elected official, but the Prime Protector of our families. Is our political process really driven by the view that our nation’s children are at risk from the immeasurable and incomparable threat of terrorist attacks from which only George Bush can save us? Is that really a healthy or rational way to go about constructing one’s life, let alone a nation?

The basic principle of risk is that risk 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 we don’t use that rational process - or any rational process - when engaging in a risk-assessment of terrorism. We hear politicians talk incessantly of radiological bombs smuggled inside of suitcases and detonated in Times Square and the impact of that scenario overwhelms us, without giving any thought to its probability, without comparing it to other risks, and without weighing it against or even thinking about the magnitude of the price we are willing to pay to minimize this risk.

In fact, it is 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.

A terrorist detonating a nuclear weapon in our cities? Why, what could possibly be worse than that? Nothing else matters! We must stop this at all costs.

There are all sorts of cataclysmic risks which could end not just our lives, but the lives of millions of people. The polar ice caps could melt and flood all of our cities, a risk which many scientists believe is a real and present and danger. The earth could collide with a meteor. A rapidly fatal and easily transmittable virus could seep into the population.

The mere existence of a fatal danger does not justify its singular domination over our lives. We don’t built walls around our cities to prevent polar ice cap flooding or stay in our homes to avoid contracting a fatal virus. That’s because we don’t live with the all-consuming goal of avoiding risks or simply preserving our physical existence. Quality of life matters, not just its continuation. Those are the only truths which can explain Patrick Henry’s preference for death over a life without liberty, or the willingness of people to fight and die in wars.

The simple and undeniable fact is that the number of people who have died in attacks by Islamic terrorists is minute by any measure – not just in America but around the world. Deaths from terrorists attacks have usually been measured by tens, rarely by hundreds, and when they work in their most spectacular and once-a-decade form, in the thousands. That pales in comparison to the death toll from literally countless other dangers, which kill substantially more people and will continue to do so.

How and why has this singular, thus far quite-manageable risk overtaken our entire national consciousness and caused us to bestow upon it an almost religious significance? We are we so eager to give up our freedoms in its name and to let it force us to radically restructure the governmental balances which the Founders of this country created and which for two centuries have served us so well?

Virtually every political issue and polarizing public controversy of any importance over the last four years has been generated by this fear. Whether it is the war in Iraq or debates over executive power and civil liberties or the use of torture or of secret prisons, terrorism fears lie at its core, and almost always determine its resolution. And, the 2004 Presidential election was about little else. Fear of terrorism has overtaken both our present and our future, and has drowned out virtually every other competing national aspiration and concern.

It is hard to imagine what a nation which is fueled by fear can actually accomplish. Most people know individuals in their lives who live this way on the micro-level – scared before they are anything else, pathologically risk-averse, always hiding and exerting excess caution lest something go wrong. In its more extreme form, it 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.

A nation can suffer collectively from this same syndrome. A nation which is driven and shaped by fear is not a nation that will be bold or courageous, nor is it one that will make rational choices. Hysteria and paranoia have never been the American national character, but along with the founding principles of our Republic, the Bush era seems to be changing that, too.

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