Six years past the attacks of 9/11, politics still hinges on the question of national security. Should another major terrorist incident occur, the candidate who plays upon fear and insecurity would almost certainly win. Thoughtful commentators have pointed out a major disconnect between rhetoric and action in the current administration, however. Having salvaged his faltering Presidency in 2001 by promising a total focus on national security, Pres. Bush's unilateral invasion of Iraq did more to increase the ranks and prestige of Al-Qaeda than anyone could have imagined in advance. At the same time, vulnerable parts of this country, such as its seaports and nuclear power plants, remain almost as open to attack today as before 9/11.
The upshot is that a small but dedicated group like Al-Qaeda (small, that is, compared to America's enormous economy and military expenditure) can create insecurity at will. The classic role of terror is psychological. A few random acts of violence can be enough to panic an entire population. All this is well known, but it doesn't solve the key problem of how to feel safe in an atmosphere of fear. There are only two solutions when all is said and done:
--Ask the government to make you safe.
--Make yourself safe.
The first solution is external and depends upon authoritarian measures. Armies, police, and security agencies are called upon to provide a shield for the general public. The second solution involves personal psychology. So far, an inordinate amount of attention has been placed on government action and almost none on personal action. The reason isn't hard to find. Given how massive the threat of Islamic terrorism is, one would logically assume that security has to be a governmental matter, but this is an illusion. Threat is innately psychological; it feeds on irrational fear, a sense of personal powerlessness, and nagging insecurity that can never be completely dismissed. A city that posts armed police on every corner isn't safe; a city that needs no police at all is. Of course, American cities exist in the shadow zone between these two extremes. Having said that, the road to security lies in personally feeling safe, not in paying for thicker shields and walls.
The reason that Franklin D. Roosevelt has been remembered for saying, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," is that he pointed to the heart of the problem in 1933: The Great Depression was being fueled by anxiety. There were powerful external agents at work in the form of massive economic downturns, but every economy, boom or bust, depends equally on public mood. We face external threats today, yet few leaders have had the courage and insight to heal our fears first. One dark reason is that authority craves power, and the easiest road to power is by increasing public anxiety rather than quelling it. Thus we find ourselves in an ironic, even Orwellian position: the so-called Dept. of Homeland Security constantly warns the public that another attack on the scale of 9/11 is inevitable. Let's say that this is true. The inevitable hasn't occurred for six years already. Couldn't that time have been better spent alleviating fear rather than encouraging it?
In the next post the methods of providing oneself with personal security will be discussed.
(to be continued)