John McCain's chief strategist and former lobbyist Charlie Black said out loud what many Republican strategists have always believed: that another terrorist attack on the United States would greatly improve the odds of Republican victory this fall.
Many in the press and the public have been repulsed by the notion that McCain's inner circle would even speculate on how they could politically benefit by another 9/11. But we shouldn't let our revulsion obscure the underlying truth that throughout history the Right has always used fear as its weapon of choice. And we must remember that it's a weapon we know how to defeat.
Fundamentally, the centuries-long battle between Progressives and the right wing has been a struggle between empowerment and domination.
At its core, right wing ideology has historically functioned to legitimate the domination of the many by the few -- whether a king, a chief, an aristocracy, or the wealthy. Its job is to protect the prerogatives and power of the elite: to protect the status quo.
In modern America its role has been to defend those at the top of the socio-economic order. Its job is to convince us that the "survival of the fittest" is the "natural" organizing principle for society, and that those who achieve ascendancy deserve their positions of dominance and power.
Progressives, on the other hand, are fundamentally about empowerment -- the democratization of the control of wealth and power. Throughout history, the underlying foundation of progressive thinking has been a commitment to the view that every person is created equal, and the success and survival of every human being is just as important as the success and survival of the most privileged among us.
The Right has always used fear as a centerpiece in its strategy to assure compliance and domination. Fear is a tool of distraction and social control. At different times, it has used the fear of social chaos, the fear of foreign enemies, or the fear of racial and religious minorities. Historically fear has been an incredibly powerful tool. Fear of minorities was used for decades to divide everyday white people from everyday black people and thereby assure the continued preeminence of an elite.
Of course, fear has always been used to distract everyday people from domestic injustice by creating an overwhelming focus on the "outside enemy." For decades the Right used fear of the Soviet Union and "global communism." After the collapse of the Soviet Union it used the fear of crime, the fear of minorities and "War on Drugs." The 9/11 attacks gave the Right a whole new way to capitalize on fear - the War on Terror and Jihadist Islam.
But most importantly, the emotion of fear immobilizes. Fear does not make men and women rise to challenge. It makes them cower. Fear is the mortal enemy of empowerment, and the Right knows it. That's why its leaders secretly hope that a new terrorist attack will terrify Americans, and deflate the massive energy for change that has infected the electorate and threatens to sweep the Right from power.
But there is a two-part antidote to fear.
On the battlefield fear does not bring resolution or victory -- it brings division and retreat. A general preparing his troops for battle acknowledges the danger facing them, but instead of instilling fear, he will do two things:
First, he communicates a message about himself -- a message of strength, confidence and competence. A message that he believes that his troops will be victorious. That message is not communicated simply by the words he speaks, but also by his bearing of command, a sense of quiet strength, and his focus and clarity of purpose. He shows that he is cool under fire, and that he identifies with his followers and shares their deepest hopes and values.
Second, he communicates a message about his troops -- a message that inspires and empowers them -- a message of bravery, not fear. He conveys a belief that they can be more and do more than they ever have before, that they can rise to the occasion, and that victory is more about them than about him.
Great generals, and great political leaders, do not instill fear; they overcome it.
Democrats can succeed in 2008, even in the awful event of another terrorist attack. We will not do it by trying to outdo the Republicans in their attempts to inflame the embers of fear in America. Rather, like the general, we must demonstrate clarity and self-confidence that our strategy in the world will make America safer -- and that it is the reckless Neo-Con Republican approach to the world that has in fact endangered us.
Barack Obama's own centeredness -- his quiet strength and cool confidence under fire -- will serve him well if such a day arrives. But it is his ability to inspire that will win that day.
Fundamentally, people don't want to fear, they want to hope. In times of crisis people can respond with hatred, resignation and trepidation or they can respond with bravery, self-sacrifice and determination.
After 9/11 Americans responded with precisely that bravery, self-sacrifice and determination. The world responded with empathy and support. George Bush had the opportunity to use that tragedy to build a positive legacy. Instead he chose the permanent fear mongering of the so called "War on Terror" and -- arguing that if we did not act Saddam Hussein's "smoking gun" could be a "mushroom cloud" -- he lead us into the disastrous War in Iraq.
In moments of crisis, inspirational leaders like Barack Obama have the ability to mobilize people towards hope and possibility. Strength and inspiration are the great antidotes to fear. Like Franklin Roosevelt, Barack Obama is blessed with the ability to recall for Americans that in fact, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Robert Creamer is a long time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.
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