“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”

Now that we have plunged back the swamp of fear, propelled by the fizzling underpants bomber, let’s take a quick rewind to Franklin. D. Roosevelt’s inaugural presidential address.

Published on the day of his speech, this cartoon shows the nature of Roosevelt's task.

Roosevelt’s address came on March 4th 1933, at a time when the Great Depression was at its nadir. 32 of the 48 states had closed their banks, lawlessness was on the rise, two million were homeless and huge sums were being withdrawn from the New York Federal Reserve Bank  by panicking investors.

Here are some excerpts…

…This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.

Now, Roosevelt was talking about preventing the sort of panic that would cause a collapse of the financial institutions that America relied upon to make systems work and provide employment. His urgent need was to create the kind of conditions that would allow the nation to heal itself post-depression. But it’s interesting to look at his words in light of the fear and panic induced by a single zealot smuggling explosives onto a plane in his underwear and failing to detonate them.

Indeed, given the press hysteria and urgent calls for more money to be spent on airport security, calls for torture to be used on the suspect, young muslim men to be profiled and strip searched, and innocent people to be imprisoned indefinitely, it appears as though, apart from the failure to kill the passengers on board Flight 253, this was an entirely successful mission. If you were the “mastermind” behind the plan surely the overreaction of western media and government agencies was exactly the sort of thing you were hoping for?


Do NOT return to firework once lit

I spent today reading an interesting article by Glenn Greenwald on Salon.com. He addresses the subject of fear and how the fear of terrorism is rather more terrorising than the act itself…

The citizenry has been trained to expect that our Powerful Daddies and Mommies in government will — in that most cringe-inducing, child-like formulation — Keep Us Safe.  Whenever the Government fails to do so, the reaction — just as we saw this week — is an ugly combination of petulant, adolescent rage and increasingly unhinged cries that More Be Done to ensure that nothing bad in the world ever happens.  Demands that genuinely inept government officials be held accountable are necessary and wise, but demands that political leaders ensure that we can live in womb-like Absolute Safety are delusional and destructive.  Yet this is what the citizenry screams out every time something threatening happens: please, take more of our privacy away; monitor more of our communications; ban more of us from flying; engage in rituals to create the illusion of Strength; imprison more people without charges; take more and more control and power so you can Keep Us Safe.

This is what inevitably happens to a citizenry that is fed a steady diet of fear and terror for years.  It regresses into pure childhood.  The 5-year-old laying awake in bed, frightened by monsters in the closet, who then crawls into his parents’ bed to feel Protected and Safe, is the same as a citizenry planted in front of the television, petrified by endless imagery of scary Muslim monsters, who then collectively crawl to Government and demand that they take more power and control in order to keep them Protected and Safe.  A citizenry drowning in fear and fixated on Safety to the exclusion of other competing values can only be degraded and depraved.

He goes on to quote another U.S. President. This one the 2nd President, John Adams, who, in his 1776 Thoughts on Government wrote…

Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.

Greenwald then goes on to explain…

As Adams noted, political leaders possess an inherent interest in maximizing fear levels, as that is what maximizes their power.  For a variety of reasons, nobody aids this process more than our establishment media, motivated by their own interests in ratcheting up fear and Terrorism melodrama as high as possible.  The result is a citizenry far more terrorized by our own institutions than foreign Terrorists could ever dream of achieving on their own.  For that reason, a risk that is completely dwarfed by numerous others — the risk of death from Islamic Terrorism — dominates our discourse, paralyzes us with fear, leads us to destroy our economic security and eradicate countless lives in more and more foreign wars, and causes us to beg and plead and demand that our political leaders invade more of our privacy, seize more of our freedom, and radically alter the system of government we were supposed to have.  The one thing we don’t do is ask whether we ourselves are doing anything to fuel this problem and whether we should stop doing it.  As Adams said:  fear “renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable.


Seeking re-election? Ratings dropping? Want to boost newspaper sales? - Press Firmly

My main concern over the “epidemic of fear” (and if the media can use the epidemic word to describe obesity then I don’t see why I can’t) is that an over-reliance on security systems will never lead to the increased safety of individuals, only to eventual “failure”. No system, no matter how expensive and labyrinthine is infallible. exactly the opposite in fact. The more complicated and tech-reliant a system becomes, the more ways in which it can eventually fail. And, as we have seen with Bomber-Boy and his unfeasibly undestructive underpants, it doesn’t even take a “success” to have someone reaching for the panic klaxon.

Perhaps the two most effective differences in post 9/11 airline security are the reinforcing of cockpit doors and the willingness of passengers to take their own security into their hands instead of waiting for help to arrive. Could 9/11 repeat itself should the exact same plan be put into operation today? Almost certainly not. The passengers would almost certainly tackle the hijackers and stab them with their little razor blades.

Greenwald quotes David Brooks of the New York Times for his piece and it is Brooks’ editorial, found here, in which I found this quote…

At some point, it’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t the centralized system that stopped terrorism in this instance. As with the shoe bomber, as with the plane that went down in Shanksville, Pa., it was decentralized citizen action. The plot was foiled by nonexpert civilians who had the advantage of the concrete information right in front of them — and the spirit to take the initiative.

It will be interesting over the next few months to see how issues of security and terrorism play out. I have to say, at this point I’m not holding my breath. There are politicians starting to run for election in 2010 and playing up their security credentials are always a reason to use the cudgel of fear rather than trusting to Roosevelt’s maxim of speaking “…the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.”

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4 Responses

  1. best post you’ve done dear Dr

  2. As someone whose job description effectively reduces to “airplane seat tester” (note to United Airlines: You fail) I’ve been through more airports than I care to recall without one drink in hand and another nearby.

    Your point that “Perhaps the two most effective differences in post 9/11 airline security are the reinforcing of cockpit doors and the willingness of passengers to take their own security into their hands instead of waiting for help to arrive” is right on the money, and worth a ton of further contemplation. Clearly, the largely empty rituals of the TSA , indeed the wholesale bloating of this minimum-wage faux-security force, while having effectively reduced the nation’s confidence, comfort, and freedom of travel, have achieved little more than to draw the public’s attention away from the best and most logical focal point of post-9/11 security: The cockpit door.

    If security demands the vigilance of passengers, it’s sadly ironic (the best kind) that the efforts of the TSA to make the public “feel safe” does so at the expense of actual safety.

    Taxes well spent, yet again.

  3. […] posts on the subject of airline security – C’mon Yemen, man up!, Security Fail, The only thing we have to fear is fear itself and Security Update – The Parrot […]

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