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Nathaniel Frank Headshot

Fear You Can Believe In?

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For folks who pride themselves on traditional virtues like courage, honor, and martial valor, Republicans have become the party of fear. Yesterday on "Meet the Press," Newt Gingrich echoed Dick Cheney's resurrection of eight unnecessary years of national fear under George W. Bush. Said Newt:

"I think people should be afraid. I think the lesson of 1993, the first time they bombed the World Trade Center was fear is probably appropriate. I think the lesson of Khobar Towers where American servicemen were killed in Saudi Arabia was fear is probably appropriate. And the lesson of the two embassy bombings in East Africa was fear is probably appropriate. I think the lesson of The Cole being bombed in Yemen was fear is probably appropriate, and I'll tell you, if you aren't a little bit afraid after 9/11 and 3,100 Americans killed inside the United States by an effort, if you aren't worried about the second wave attack that was designed to take out the biggest building in Los Angeles, I think that you're out of touch with reality."

The point of fear as public policy, of course, is to prime the public to endorse government measures--torture, detention, warrantless wiretapping, internment, and other denials of basic rights--that would never otherwise be acceptable. While it's easy to give such scare tactics a bad name, could they ever be justified? After all, it's one thing for a tight-knit circle of policymakers to convince one another of the need to make hard policy choices; but it's quite another to ensure that millions of ordinary people are willing to support practices that violate their sense of right and wrong. Could it sometimes be necessary to cultivate fear in the masses to sustain widespread support for hard policy choices?

The trouble is, history nearly always proves such fear to be unwarranted and badly destructive. The Red scare that followed World War I was justified by lumping together immigrants, anarchists, Communists, and liberals as threats to the safety of the United States. A peaceful strike following the war was dubbed "an attempted revolution" whose intent was "the overthrow of the industrial system." Such fears allowed the Palmer Raids to wantonly target immigrants and dissidents, detaining and deporting thousands of peaceful dissenters. The wrongful execution of two immigrant laborers, Sacco and Vanzetti, was one result of such conservative terror.

The same fear-mongering resulted in the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. And while Gingrich justified fear as a sound basis for national policy by pointing to the need to sustain the Cold War for four decades, that Cold War thinking was also the source of McCarthyism's crusade against dissent.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Communists have made for lousy scapegoats, but gays, who were swept up in the same ignoble purge campaigns emanating from Red scares of old, remain prime fodder. Throughout the Cold War, gays were cast by McCarthy and others as security risks, particularly if they took positions in the government or military, where they were seen--with never an ounce of proof--as threats to order, discipline and cohesion. In 1961, the FBI investigated the first meeting of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights groups, and in 1965 the government photographed the first demonstrations by gays and lesbians protesting the military's ban on gay troops.

Forty years later, in 2005, the Pentagon created lists of activist it deemed "suspicious." On one list were student groups who peacefully protested the military's gay ban. They were somehow classified as "possibly violent."

Such outdated government antics are egged on by conservative groups like the Eagle Forum, which was caught last year perpetrating a form of cultural war terrorism: an email from the group's president recommended the use of "gay horror stories" in the battle against gays in uniform. The idea was to convince other Americans that gay troops always and forever "threaten our national security." Likewise, the Center for Military Readiness, a right-wing group dedicated to opposing women and gays in combat, enlisted over 1000 retired officers to sign a letter saying openly gay service would "break" the U.S. military.

It's been the same story when gays seek the right to marry, which many conservatives compare to Middle Eastern terrorism. Radio talk-show host Dennis Prager likened same-sex marriage to Islamic suicide bombings, writing that the fight against both represents "two fronts in the same war - a war for the preservation of the unique American creation known as Judeo-Christian civilization." Concerned Women for America concurred, warning that same-sex marriages "pose a new threat to US border security," and calling legally married Canadian same-sex couples trying to enter the U.S. "the latest pair of 'domestic terrorists.'" Senator Rick Santorum agreed, saying that "standing up and defending marriage" from gays is the "ultimate homeland security." And for James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, same-sex marriage is a greater threat than terrorism because it will "destroy us from within."

Mike Huckabee echoed Dobson's suggestion that gay rights would destroy civilization, saying during the primaries that "there's never been a civilization that has rewritten what marriage and family means and survived." And when President Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage, he said we must "protect marriage in America" or face "serious consequences throughout the country."

Yes, for many conservatives, equality for gays is a cancer whose spread must be feared and blocked at all costs. Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader until 2007, called same-sex marriage a "wildfire" that "is likely to spread to all fifty states." Even the otherwise moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger asserted that same-sex marriages were an "imminent risk to civil order," and worried that San Francisco might erupt in violence as a result of marriage licenses being given out to gay couples. "All of sudden we see riots and we see protests and we see people clashing," he said. "The next thing we know is there's injured or there's dead people." Really? From gays getting married?

There's no doubt that there are times when fear is warranted. The uncertainty of modern life can be scary. And so can Islamic terrorism. After 9/11, fear--at a personal level--was every much in order, a natural reaction to the belated recognition of our national vulnerability. But when, if ever, should fear serve as the basis for sound public policy? And does anyone sense a pattern here with conservative fear-mongering? As Senator Dick Durbin said in response to Gingrich's fear-mongering, "America cowering in fear is not going to be a strong nation." So life is scary. What ever happened to courage, the prime martial virtue that conservatives were supposed to praise and practice?

"There are some things that it is right and honorable to fear," wrote Aristotle. "The man who faces and fears the right things for the right reason and in the right way and at the right time is courageous." But he who "exceeds in fearing is a coward. He fears the wrong thing and in the wrong way and at the wrong time." Has the Republican Party become the party of cowards?

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