Scott Lucas: The manufacture of fear? US politics both before and after 9-11

Roundup: Historians' Take

"The chief costs of terrorism derive not from the damage inflicted by the terrorists, but what those attacked do to themselves and others in response. That is, the harm of terrorism mostly arises from the fear and from the often hasty, ill-considered, and overwrought reaction (or overreaction) it characteristically, and often calculatedly, inspires in its victims."―John Mueller1

I would like to begin with two incidents, one from the perspective of the academic, one (with apologies in advance) from a much more personal standpoint. A few weeks ago my mother, who has been concerned for more than twenty years that I am cut off here in Britain from what is going on in the United States, forwarded a letter to me that has been widely circulated on the Internet:

Are we fighting a war on terror or aren't we? Was it or was it not started by Islamic people who brought it to our shores on September 11, 2001?

Were people from all over the world, mostly Americans, not brutally murdered that day, in downtown Manhattan, across the Potomac from our nation's capitol and in a field in Pennsylvania?

Did nearly three thousand men, women and children die a horrible, burning or crushing death that day, or didn't they?

And I'm supposed to care that a copy of the Koran was"desecrated" when an overworked American soldier kicked it or got it wet?

Well, I don't. I don't care at all. I'll start caring when Osama bin Laden turns himself in and repents for incinerating all those innocent people on 9/11.

I'll care about the Koran when the fanatics in the Middle East start caring about the Holy Bible, the mere possession of which is a crime in Saudi Arabia .

I'll care when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi tells the world he is sorry for hacking off Nick Berg's head while Berg screamed through his gurgling slashed throat.

I'll care when the cowardly so-called"insurgents" in Iraq come out and fight like men instead of disrespecting their own religion by hiding in mosques.

I'll care when the mindless zealots who blow themselves up in search of nirvana care about the innocent children within range of their suicide bombs.

I'll care when the American media stops pretending that their First Amendment liberties are somehow derived from international law instead of the United States Constitution's Bill of Rights. In the meantime, when I hear a story about a brave marine roughing up an Iraqi terrorist to obtain information, know this: I don't care.

When I see a fuzzy photo of a pile of naked Iraqi prisoners who have been humiliated in what amounts to a college-hazing incident, rest assured that I don't care.

When I see a wounded terrorist get shot in the head when he is told not to move because he might be booby-trapped, you can take it to the bank that I don't care.

When I hear that a prisoner, who was issued a Koran and a prayer mat, and fed"special" food that is paid for by my tax dollars, is complaining that his holy book is being"mishandled," you can absolutely believe in your heart of hearts that I don't care.

And oh, by the way, I've noticed that sometimes it's spelled"Koran" and other times"Quran." Well, Jimmy Crack Corn and—you guessed it—I don't care! ! ! ! !

If you agree with this viewpoint, pass this on to all your e-mail friends.

Sooner or later, it'll get to the people responsible for this ridiculous behavior!

If you don't agree, then by all means hit the delete button.

Should you choose the latter, then please don't complain when more atrocities committed by radical Muslims happen here in our great country.2

Almost 60 years ago, when the foe of America was not radical Islamists but Communists, President Harry Truman hosted a meeting with Congressional representatives. The Truman administration, having been told by Britain that it could no longer provide aid to Greece or Turkey, faced a challenge: how could it persuade the American public and Congress to send hundreds of millions of dollars to those two Mediterranean countries? The advice to the Democratic president from Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican leader in the Senate, was blunt: make a speech to “scare the hell” out of the American people.3 Two weeks later, the president went before a joint session of Congress and issued what would become known as the Truman Doctrine: “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”4

Of course, there are differences between the two cases. One is the action of “official” executive political networks, using the method of formal communication to justify policy; the other is that of private individuals taking advantage of the technological shift and acceleration brought by the Internet to disseminate an urgent message. In both cases, however, the purpose of the discussions is the “mobilisation of fear.” Notions of the “culture of fear” are far from new,5 but I think they can be applied effectively to the reconsideration of policymaking, specifically the making of U.S. foreign policy, in both historical and contemporary cases. I would put two general hypotheses:

1. Scholarly study of U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War has been so focused on objective explanations of strategy, geopolitics, and, most important, “national security” that it has ignored the subjective construction and projection of that policy. Provocatively stated, the Soviet Union served not as much as an actual nightmare as a constructed nightmare to justify the projection of American power around the world.

2. Contemporary U.S. foreign policy, like its 1950s predecessor, did not respond to fear with plans for “security”; rather, it has sought to channel and even stoke fear to bolster implementation of a predetermined policy. Specifically and provocatively stated, the Bush administration did not stage the tragedy of 11 September 2001, but within hours of the event it began to consider how to use a War on Terror to implement plans for regime change in Iraq....

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