The Politics of Fear Run Amok

First off, let me state emphatically that it’s my personal belief that law-abiding Americans have every right to own personal defense weapons and fear of demented crooks, rapists and other nutjobs is certainly real. And as long as hunting is regulated, requires hunting licenses, etc., is limited to the seasons as they are, hunting equipment is perfectly appropriate. But political opposition to substantive background checks for gun purchases is just clearly insane and is politically and greed-oriented, and politicians rake in millions of dollars from the NRA and gun manufacturers who are all exploiting and profiting immensely from this irrational fear.download

But moreover, Americans, via, again, political manipulation, seem absorbed and even obsessed by the fear of Islamist terrorism. The murders in San Bernardino, California, among countless others, have been exploited and exaggerated by politicians, especially those running for president, playing on public dread of terrorist attacks. Why doesn’t President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wisdom of fear itself being our biggest danger apply anymore? Pain and simple? Fear is a political strategy.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In this historical piece of statesmanship, FDR was admonishing his fellow citizens not to succumb to irrational fears brought on by the Great Depression of 1929 and the hardships Americans were facing regarding their economic well-being. Of course, words of encouragement were, and still are, no substitute for a paycheck and for food on the table.

But because it’s not politically expedient, national anxiety over the threat of homegrown terrorist attacks gets short shrift. Since September 11th, Islamist attacks here have claimed fewer than fifty American lives. By comparison, over the past fourteen years in America, car accidents have killed nearly half a million people and even more have died from gun violence. The chances of being shot by a police officer or hit by lightning are orders of magnitude greater than being killed by a Jihadi.

If opinion polls correctly reflect American attitudes, why are so many of us genuinely worried about being killed or wounded in a terrorist incident when the likelihood is so remote, yet any moron can carry a long rifle into their local Target or shoe store with impunity…and 90 Americans a day die from preventable gun violence. Moreover, despite the ridiculous claims by the NRA, this situation makes it virtually impossible to tell the “good guys” from “the bad guys”.

In September and October 2002, the so-called Beltway snipers, John Malvo and John Mohammed, terrorized the Washington, D.C. region killing ten innocent citizens. These shootings followed a cross-country murder spree that began in Tacoma, Washington. People were in a state of panic until Malvo and Mohammed were arrested.

The specter of a massive Islamist biological or chemical weapons attack or taking down a portion of the electrical power grid is even more nightmarish. In the run up to the 2003 Iraq War, the George W. Bush administration (Condoleezza Rice did it before the UN General Assembly) made reference to “mushroom shaped clouds” to help sell the case to the public. Unfortunately, this hype began to condition Americans to the possibility of a major or catastrophic terrorist attack, and the Twin Towers would have come down on George W. Bush’s watch even if every man, woman and child were carrying semi-automatic weapons that day.

In a rational world, Americans would have a lot less to fear. Many innocent little girls and boys were killed, for example, in the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut shootings but Adam Lanza was not an Islamist terrorist. He was just your run-of-the-mill white male psycopath. So is death by terrorist a distinction without a difference? Does it make Americans feel safer that most mass killers may be deranged or dangerously misguided white males like Timothy McVeigh who blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City twenty years ago, killing 168 and injuring about 600 others…also including innocent women and children?

The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars improving its law enforcement and intelligence capabilities against terrorists of all stripes. No system is perfect and it is unreasonable to think that occasional Jihadi terrorist will not self-radicalize or enter the country legally as did the September 11th bombers. The truth is that these dangers are not new. At prior times in the nation’s history, terrorists threatened the nation and Americans overreacted.

Four presidents have been assassinated. Just after World War I, a handful of letter bombs threw the country in panic even though only two people died. “Red scares” persisted through the Cold War.

In each case, these fears were greatly exaggerated. Indeed, revoking legitimate visas to put Muslims on “no-fly” lists banning entry to America is symptom of this fear, and it is being stoked for purely political grandstanding by candidates for President…clearly a position that one would think requires level-headed, calm, intelligent assessments. Otherwise we get led down disastrous paths like the one George W. Bush has us still paying for with lives and billions of unfunded dollars stolen from Social Security and increased debt.  So where do we turn for cogent answers?

First, as crime and violent crime will never be fully eliminated, Jihadist attacks remain possible. Second, while a catastrophic terror attack can never be discounted, the likelihood of Americans being killed by Jihadis, homegrown or otherwise, is exceedingly small, and far less than being harmed by some nut with a gun. Third, politicians will play the fear card in most cases not understanding that the damage being done by fear mongering far outweighs the actual danger and it is usually being driven by personal reasons to capitalize on Americans prone to panic.

By demonstrating this un-Presidential fear, Islamist terrorists are empowered. While that may have no actual effect on the likelihood of attacks, in the propaganda and psychological campaigns, al-Qaida and the Islamic State are both winning and will continue to exploit these fears for recruitment, fervor and anger towards America.

FDR was correct. Americans must understand that while danger exists, exaggerating that danger makes our enemies stronger and amplifies their perverted, siren-like call for attracting more recruits. …and weapons manufacturers, along with the politicians they bribe…expose the average American to more personal tragedies due to irrational and dangerous reactions by everyone carrying lethal weapons while shopping for beer…or Skittles….and they laugh at the Americans they consider rubes and in whom they stoke terror for profit—all the way to the bank.

Harvey A. Gold