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On the Fearful Consequences of Human Fear for Human Dignity and Freedom



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Much has been written about how pervasively fear gripped the United States during the 1950s and early 1960s concerning the supposed infiltration of American society by the “Communists” and “their” efforts to “seize control of the world.” The Soviet Union’s successful launch of the earth satellite Sputnik in 1957 crystallized this fear for millions and the nation’s policymakers reacted accordingly. Senator Joseph McCarthy ran roughshod on the civil liberties of countless Americans in the early 1950s by labeling them closet communists and alleging their treasonous characters. The nation embarked on construction of its interstate highway system under President Eisenhower in 1956 quickened by a fear that we needed a transport infrastructure adequate to permit our forces to protect our territory from the perceived menace of Communist attack. America also famously settled on the ill-fated Vietnam War on the theory that intervention had to occur in these nations to combat the spread of the “Red menace.”

I find myself musing on this issue as a result of serving recently on a graduate advisory committee; the student’s project treated this period as a part of a more focused institutional analysis and history. I was reminded reading that effort of just how deeply fear and its accompanying cry for security had gripped the American imagination and how profoundly that anxious pall had influenced US policies during the immediate post-World War II period. Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of fear as a central driver of much American foreign policy and security decision-making during the 1950s and early 1960s.

I also found myself contemplating by analogy how eerily similar Americans’ response to these conditions was to how we routinely have treated differences arising from the fact of the existence of the disabled in our midst. As James Charlton has argued, we deal with perceived differences in a powerful, if simple way:

We have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals (1998, p. 25).

Reflecting on this argument and on US foreign and security policies in the period following World War II, caused me to consider many of our nation’s major policy choices in our more recent past, and to conclude that many of these, too, have been the product in significant measure of widespread fear arising from a felt lack of security following the attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001. In reaction to that tragic event and its costs of 2,995 lives and approximately $75 billion in property damages, and arising from the fear and vengeful ire growing from these, the nation soon embarked on the following:

  • Unilateral launch of an invasion and conflict in Afghanistan
  • Strident militarization of the US-Mexico border and construction of a high security wall along a portion of it
  • Development and continued operation of a military prison for suspected terrorist suspects at the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that Congress has refused to close, out of publicly professed fears of having those captives held on American soil
  • US embrace and practice of torture (and of rendition to avoid formal claims of that reality) in unprecedented contravention of our international treaty obligations and national ideals
  • Significantly increased government capacity to engage in surveillance of American citizens and circumscription of their civil liberties by means of the oddly named USA Patriot Act.

While not simply the direct result of the September 11 attacks, as the Afghan intervention surely was, our nation’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 to depose its leader, who the Bush administration famously feared (and alleged) was developing weapons of mass destruction and who was dubbed a terrorist by President George W. Bush, was also undertaken on the basis of articulated fears and has thus far cost our country approximately $1 trillion. Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan has cost roughly $3 trillion. Neither of these figures includes the long-term costs of caring for the nation’s veterans of these conflicts. Overall, Reuters has reported that the Afghan and Iraq wars have to date resulted in 73 deaths for every life lost in the September 11 attacks and individuals continue to die in conflict in both countries as I write.

Analysts now suggest that militarization of the US border with Mexico and construction of a wall along a share of it will exceed $25 billion, leaving aside the related and long-term expenditures necessary to sustain that stance. Meanwhile, maintaining the military prison at Guantanamo Bay now costs more than $150 million, or a bit more than $800,000 per prisoner, per year. Congress recently barred in statute not only movement of the prison’s inmates to the US mainland, but also essentially ended the Obama administration’s efforts to seek locations to incarcerate a share of these prisoners in other nations.

It is, of course, extremely difficult to estimate the costs of our nation’s embrace of torture, especially in the US’s moral standing in the world and for human rights claims more generally, but they are likely both very high and long-lived. Likewise, American citizens have ceded significant individual freedoms to their government in the name of efforts to protect them from the purported perils of terrorism. These losses, too, are difficult to quantify, but no less real or consequential for that.

I share these facts not so much to evaluate the utility of our nation’s post-September 11, 2001 actions, but instead to illustrate and underscore the results of the powerful current of fear that unleashed them. Whatever else may be said, and however tragic the original 2001 murders in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania, they surely resulted in a significantly disproportionate response and that fact is my interest here. Our Framers rightly feared that the potentially tyrannizing impulse of human emotions could paradoxically undo the freedom of the nation’s self-governing citizens even when, as in the present case, the force of those feelings was more than understandable. As we struggle with the mountains of expenditure and untold costs in blood of our own forces and of the militaries and civilian populations of the nations we have targeted in these fearful and fear-filled responses arising from our collective angst and pain, it is judicious to remind ourselves of their wellsprings. It appears appropriate to reflect on how often in human history prudence and deliberation as well as freedoms have been lost to just such unbridled emotions. That fact should be the topic of a long overdue national dialogue concerning our willingness to cede human and civil rights and freedom in the name of security.

Publication Date

February 24, 2013