America seems much in need of Roosevelt's maxim to stop fearing fear
itself. Virtually all comment on the Mumbai massacre has mentioned 9/11 and
al-Qaeda, and thus invited citizens to continue feeling afraid. No matter
that Mumbai appears to have been primarily about Kashmir and the status of
India's Muslims. No matter that Osama bin Laden has no dog in that fight.
Any stick will do to elevate al-Qaeda as America's enemy number one.
Last week, the CIA warned of a terrorist threat that "might be unleashed"
during the presidential transition, a threat which George Bush described as
"dangerously real". On Wednesday Barack Obama was formally told by a
congressional inquiry that "it is more likely than not that a weapon of
mass destruction, either nuclear or biological, will be used in a terrorist
attack" in his first year of office. The inquiry demanded an official be
appointed "to oversee efforts to prevent such an attack," as if millions of
Americans in and out of uniform were not doing that already.
Then London added its pennyworth, with a Home Office minister, Lord West,
telling of "another great plot building up again" and a "huge threat" from
al-Qaeda. The purpose of this scaremongering is a mystery.
Reactions to Mumbai have seemed to suggest Americans still seeking a
fellowship of pain, as after the London and Madrid bombings. Gone are the
days when Americans would tell Britons to shrug off IRA terrorist attacks
(many instigated from America) and grow up. Any explosion anywhere now
abets the extraordinary 9/11 iconography, underpinning the politics of fear
that has been the leitmotif of the Bush presidency.
Debating this presidency in New York on Tuesday night, I found myself
pitted against Bush's the impresario of fear, Karl Rove. Nothing in his
master's glorious reign quite matched his "victory" over terror. The sense
of unreality was equaled by Rove's supporters, to whom all who did not
fear the "Islamo-fascists" were "liberal upper-east side elitists", an
apparently crushing epithet. One assured me that Afghanistan would soon be
won by merely "moving the surge" to Kabul. The whole evening was like the
scene in Gone with the Wind where Southern gallants out-boast each other
in predicting victory over the Yankees.
Rove was undeniably a master manipulator of fear politics, like
Tony Blair's Alastair Campbell, who called him a "kindred spirit". Both
Bush and Blair were led to portray al-Qaeda in its Tora Bora cave as they
had Saddam Hussein, as a threat to their respective realms. It was what the
sociologist, Ulrich Beck, described as an exaggerated risk "exploited as an
elixir to an ailing leader." On this the two leaders built a culture of
self-validating counter-terrorism, with both the absence of any threat and
the presence of one can be made equally supportive.
Every explosion anywhere is nowadays described to the media as
"al-Qaeda-linked." What seven years ago was a tiny if efficient cabal of
fanatics has been turned by western propaganda into a global menace,
ridiculously on a par with Hitler and post-war communism. Whoever said the
political brain has advanced over time was mad.
On every visit to America I am stunned by the pervasiveness of
fear. Terrified officials pounce on the slightest deviation from security
rules. Americans must strip almost to their underwear to board even the
shortest domestic flights. IDs are scanned in the meanest office blocks.
Computers must be dismantled. National Guardsmen troop out at dawn to
protect New York installations "against the terrorist threat."
The repressive patriot acts -- mocking a patriotism that was once built on
courage and the rule of law -- remain in operation. Getting through American
immigration with a brown face is an indignity that many Indians and Arabs
of my acquaintance now simply refuse to endure. I had trouble even with a
Baghdad visa in my passport.
Barack Obama, who is pledged to close Guantanamo Bay, is being challenged
to say what he will do with what the conservative Weekly Standard asserts
are "250 participants in the most devastating terrorist attacks in history"
from "an enemy unlike any other this nation has ever faced." Britons should
not be smile at this hyperbole. The same madness afflicts Jacqui Smith's
In the 1960s the American political scientist, Richard Hofstadter,
puzzled over the anti-intellectualism of much of American public life,
echoing the remark of the Puritan, John Cotton, in 1642 that "the more
learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan." Listening to the
debate on Tuesday I realised how deep is that strand, how strong the line
of descent to the war on terror from previous generations who likewise
puffed up the mafia and home-grown communism.
The 1950s Kefauver commission on organised crime sought a foe to demonise
as foreign, sinister and ubiquitous. The inquiry found that there was no
national "mafia" worthy of the name, or of their attention, just disparate
bunches of local hoodlums. Kefauver and the FBI whose burgeoning empire
depended on him, were furious. They had come to need the mafia and its
menace to justify their budget, effort and status.
The same synthetic sense of fear enveloped the McCarthy hearings on
communism. A grain of truth was exaggerated to boost McCarthy's standing as
a defender of the people against a real and present danger, that of reds
under every bed. Communism had to be erected as an internal weapon of mass
destruction, and much cruelty resulted.
At least organised crime and communism posed genuine threats to American
liberties. Al-Qaeda does not, yet it has become the ruling obsession of
Bush's courtiers. They see al-Qaeda fiends on every side, bearded mullahs,
caches of bombs, ricin and anthrax. The precautionary principle has become
fanaticised. By treating the unknown as an enemy, we ensure that the
unknown becomes one.
Most the outrages committed by graduates of the Pakistan terrorism camps
are locally motivated, and will continue as long as such motivation
survives. A network of criminal suicide squads with no coherent programme
has no conceivable hope of undermining western democracy. It can just set
off bombs, and will always do so if front-line policing is weak and
constantly overruled by a grand "counter-terrorism" bureaucracy.
Just when America had won a real victory in the century-old combat
with communism, it allowed itself to be terrified by a band of fanatics
who, in part through America's negligence, "got lucky once" and pulled off
a coup on 9/11. For seven years its behaviour at home and image abroad have
been dogged by the reaction to it. The challenge to Obama, here as
elsewhere is immense.
The attractive feature of the America in which I once lived was its bold
self-confidence. To find the survivors of the Bush presidency still
cowering in a mental bunker afraid of a bunch of Arabs -- and with British
ministers for company -- strips western democracy of a leadership that
should be both heroic and sensible. It is surely an un-American activity.