The Politics of Fear

09/08/2011 05:07 pm ET | Updated Jan 14, 2012

In my 2004 book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, I argued that "one day, the war on terrorism will come to an end. All wars do. And when it does, we will find ourselves still living in fear: not of terrorism or radical Islam, but of the domestic rulers that fear has left behind."

When I wrote "one day," I was thinking decades, not years. I figured that the war on terror -- less the invasions, wars, torture, drone attacks, and assassinations than the broader atmosphere of pervasive and militarized dread, what Hobbes called "a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known" and an enemy is perceived as permanent and irrepressible -- would continue at least into the 2010s, if not the '20s.

Yet even before Osama bin Laden was killed and negotiations with the Taliban had begun, it was clear that the war on terror, understood in those terms, had come to an end. As early as the 2004 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate John Kerry had hinted at such a possibility in an interview with Matt Bai in The New York Times Magazine:

When I asked Kerry what it would take for Americans to feel safe again, he displayed a much less apocalyptic worldview. "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance," Kerry said. "As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."

A Kinsley gaffe if ever there was one, Kerry's comment may have helped seal his fate in that election. Even so, it laid down a marker of what has essentially come to pass: Though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan go on, though the United States continues to assassinate actual and suspected terrorists throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, though security lines continue to snake around airport corners, the high-octane politics of fear we saw in the aftermath of 9/11 has, for all intents and purposes, dissipated. The threat of terrorism is no longer the focus of our days -- indeed, probably hasn't been since 2006; it is instead a nuisance, something the government continues to fight but not something threatening the fabric of our lives.

Yet, as others in this symposium have noted, the political infrastructure of fear -- the bureaucracies and institutions created in the wake of 9/11, the profiling and practices of surveillance, the laws and enforcement agencies -- survives. We still have a Department of Homeland Security and a Patriot Act, Guantanamo is open for service, and what my colleague Jeanne Theoharis calls "Guantanamo at home" -- the draconian policies and procedures, directed primarily at Muslims and Arabs, in the federal prison system -- has not been scrutinized or even discussed. And all this, it hardly needs be said, nearly three years into the Obama Administration.

From these polar realities -- a thinning atmosphere of political fear, an expanding infrastructure of political fear -- I draw two conclusions. First, the politics of fear is far less dependent upon the actual psychic experience of the public than analysts would have us think. While many believe that the individual emotions of the citizenry propel the policies the government pursues, I see little evidence of that. Even if we assume that each and every member of the public is experiencing fear, that experience still doesn't explain the policies. A frightened population could just as easily inspire the government to pursue policies that would dampen rather than arouse fear. It is politics that produces policies, not fear.

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