Homeland insecurity

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The culture of fear

Americans have always been a confident, optimistic people. But the Bush administration and television—particularly cable and local news—seem hell-bent on making us fearful and suspicious.

Homeland Security advisory system

The cultivation of fear has reached a new high in the post-9/11 world. The US government adopted a five-color scheme to advise the risk of terrorist attacks, ranging from green (low) to red (severe). Since the scheme was adopted, the level has never been set lower than yellow (elevated) and is now set at orange (high).

The meaning is clear: our government wants us to understand that "normal" is a constant and "significant risk of terrorist attacks."

Christian Science Monitor cartoon

As the Christian Science Monitor pointed out, there is a lot of chicken-little in this scheme. Whenever the level is raised, the question is always asked, "What should people do?" The answer invariably is that we should just "be alert, go shopping, have fun." Thus, we are left with only a vague foreboding and dread about which one can or should do nothing.

Fox news

The cable news networks have gotten into the game. Fox News, in particular, shows the threat level on the screen at all times. (Except during commercials, of course.)

In the name of security, six international flights to and from the US in recent days were cancelled altogether, one flight was forced to turn back in mid-air, and another flight was subjected to several hours of additional security checks after landing. Jet fighter planes shadow certain international flights to their destinations after entering US airspace. (See Washington Post)

Meanwhile, a passenger recently sat next to me with a large knife he had blithely carried through the metal detector amidst all this heightened security.

Frankly, I just don't get it. If there is someone suspicious on a flight, investigate that person, pull the person off the flight if necessary; don't cancel the whole flight. If the aircraft may have been compromised, search the aircraft, substitute a different one; don't cancel the whole flight. If a plane veers from its flight path, then scramble the fighter jets; don't send escorts. All of this suggests that the "chatter" being cited as the reason for elevating the threat level is just that, chatter, and that there is precious little genuine, reliable intelligence informing these decisions.

If the terrorists are smart, they'll soon figure out that they don't have to actually pull off an attack to terrorize the US; they only have to chatter about an attack to have the same effect.

Perhaps I'd be less sceptical if George and his buddies hadn't cried wolf about the uranium from Niger and about the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and about ... so many things.

Beginning this week, US customs and immigration is fingerprinting and photographing every person entering the US through an international airport with a visa. (For the moment, people are exempt if they are from a country not required to obtain a US visa for entry.) A passport issued by a soveign nation and a visa issued by the US aren't enough? I predict that it is only a matter of time before abuses arise and some are hauled away as a result of a false-positive identification or mistaken identity. Software can do some marvelous things, but it can also screw up.

The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution supposedly protects us from unreasonable search and seizures, but under provisions of the Patriot Act, the government can obtain our personal financial records, see what books we're reading and buying, intercept our email and phone conversations and prevent banks, credit card companies, libraries, department stores, car manufacturers, and so forth from ever revealing that our records have been taken.

The news is a steady drumbeat of murders, fires, child kidnappings, rapes, plane crashes, etcetera.

Americans have developed a distorted perception of the risks of daily life. For example, in 2000, 47% of people thought there was more crime in the US than the year before and 34% thought there was more crime in their local area. In fact, the rate for crimes indexed by the FBI from 1999 to 2000 was down 6.6% (Prison Policy Initiative). Prisons have become big business in the US.

About 3000 people lost their lives on September 11, 2001, in a tragic and violent act of terrorism. By comparison, in the year 2000 "4.83 million people died from smoking worldwide" (The Lancet medical journal, as reported by CBS News). About 300,000 people die each year in the US from illnesses caused or worsened by obesity (US Surgeon General). Where are the memorials to them? Where are the color-coded food containers: green for healthful salads, yellow for small-size fries, red for super-size fries and regular soda? Meanwhile, the US continues to subsidize the growing of tobacco, and the fast-food industry still encourages us to super-size our fries and sugar-filled sodas.

After the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing depression, President Franklin Roosevelt told the American people in his inaugural address, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

By contrast, this Bush administration tells us in so many ways, "Be afraid; be very afraid." This Bush skillfully used fear to get Congress and the people to go along with the invasion of Iraq. We were assured that Saddam Hussein posed a terrible threat to the world and the US because of his weapons of mass destruction (yet to be located), and Condoleeza Rice et al said we couldn't wait for proof because the smoking gun might be "a mushroom cloud."

Norwegian Dawn abandoned venue for Republican big wigs during NY convention

It's clear that Karl Rove's theory for the 2004 election is, "It's the terror, stupid." It's no accident that the Republican nominating convention will be held not far from ground zero in New York City shortly before the three-year anniversary of the attack. (The Republicans have given up on Tom Delay's idea to have the party bigwigs stay on a luxury cruise ship in the harbor, instead of surrounded by ~shudder~ the hoi polloi in ~shudder~ Manhattan.) Count on Bush to campaign on how much safer he's made us while at the same time keeping us scared spitless.

Israeli separation barrier

Already the effect on the American psyche is evident. We've come to accept things in the "land of the free and the home of the brave" that have the smell of police state about them, such as secret arrests and indefinite detention. We've developed a siege mentality. It's a wonder we haven't started building a "separation barrier" along our borders like that of Mr Sharon whom the Shrub so admires. What a far cry from Ronald Reagan's challenge to Gorbachev to "tear down this [Berlin] wall." We've suspended disbelief about all the measures "for your security" and fail to seriously ask if they are really making us safer. Instead of speaking softly but carrying a big stick, as Teddy Roosevelt advised, this president uses bellicose rhetoric and has a stated foreign policy of preemptive attacks.

I'm not saying that George W Bush is an evil person. I believe that he believes he is doing right with might. But I also believe that he is dangerous because he is so extraordinarily un-curious, so utterly un-reflective, and so absolutely sure he is right about everything. In short, his good intentions are paving the way to a very troublesome future.