Fear Itself

by Wendy Kaminer

The American Prospect magazine, December 2001


Terrorists enjoyed a symbolic victory when Congress shut down on October 18 to check the premises for anthrax-but both the House and Senate have seemed increasingly irrelevant anyway since the September kamikaze attacks. The Bush administration, not Congress, is responsible for new counterterrorism legislation that includes breathtaking expansions of federal-law enforcement power, like the authority to conduct secret searches of your home or office in an ordinary criminal investigation.

The USA Act (formally, the Uniting and Strengthening America Act of 2001) passed the Senate 96 to 1 with little debate after Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold embarrassed and infuriated some of his liberal colleagues by attempting to introduce privacy protections to the bill. The House adopted a very similar measure- dubbed the Patriot (for Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act-after a coup by the administration and House Republican leaders, who managed a middle-of-the-night substitution of their bill for a compromise that had been crafted by the Judiciary Committee. The administration's bill won passage in the House on a vote of 337 to 79 before many members had the opportunity even to read it.

Episodes like this should relieve some Democrats from the burden of worrying about the midterm election-or even bothering to fund it. If Congress is going to act like an auxiliary of the executive branch when freedom and safety are at stake, it doesn't matter much whether Democrats or Republicans are nominally in charge. These days, only bipartisanship, not dissent, is considered patriotic; and bipartisanship has come to mean obeisance to Republican rule.

I'm not denigrating patriotism; I just wish that we'd reconsider its requirements. Legislators who abdicate their legislative power are no more patriotic than are apathetic voters who stay home on election day. Dissent, not self-censorship, is patriotic. If, for example, you believe that the war against Afghanistan is immoral or dangerously counterproductive, you are obliged to say so. Conservatives known for excoriating the Clinton administration or loudly lamenting the tawdriness of American culture should be among the first to agree that we have both a right and an obligation to dissent from prevailing opinion when we think it's dead wrong. (You have to wonder why criticism of government is considered unpatriotic when uttered by the left and a public service when offered from the right.)

If I were to draw up a list of great citizens and patriots, it would include a number of dissenters-like Martin Luther King, Jr., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Eugene V. Debs, who was imprisoned in the early years of the century for criticizing U.S. entry into World War I. Right or wrong about the war, Debs was much more of a patriot than the bureaucrats who imprisoned him for airing his opinions.

While today's beleaguered antiwar protesters may be mistaken in their analysis of terrorism, they're better Americans than are people who hoard antibiotics that may be needed by their fellow citizens: Dissenters pose no threat to the nation; but people who stockpile Cipro or stupidly medicate themselves in the belief that an antibiotic is like a vaccine are endangering everyone's health by potentially helping new, resistant strains of bacteria to develop.

If patriotism requires a sense of community and a willingness to make sacrifices for the public good, it is undermined by the survivalism that takes hold when people feel besieged. In the 1960S, Americans fantasized about fallout shelters stocked with canned goods and ammunition. But the image of an armed man defending his fortified basement from the neighbors never seemed appealing or even slightly patriotic to me.

Although panic isn't exactly unpatriotic, it is likely to engender selfishness, not the extraordinary altruism of the rescue workers who ran up the stairs of the World Trade Center while everyone else ran down. So it's fair to say that we have a patriotic duty to one another to stave off panic and the survivalist behaviors it encourages. (Stoicism has rarely seemed more virtuous.) Personally, though I have a good deal of sympathy for postal workers, I've become impatient with people who fear opening their mail. And I'm not persuaded by those who rationalize their panic by pointing to the unprecedented nature of bioterrorism. What do they imagine the plague felt like to people in the Middle Ages? What must AIDS feel like to people in Africa today?

Some say that we can't live with fear- but few people have ever lived without it. You don't have to imagine a holocaust; just think of life in a high-crime housing project. There's probably no period in history that hasn't been shaped by fear of war, disease, or some other arbitrary disaster. From that perspective, there's nothing particularly new about what Americans are enduring today except for the fact that it's Americans enduring it. And at least we don't have to believe that the threat of anthrax or a smallpox epidemic issues from nature or from a wrathful God: We know that it's posed by other human beings, and we can at least imagine stopping them.

So it was discouraging to hear the president describe Osama bin Laden as "the evil one," as if he were Satan himself or a demon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We need to acknowledge that bin Laden is a murderous human being, however much we want to exclude him from the species. There's nothing supernatural about terrorism; human barbarism requires no help from the devil. People who believe that confronting terrorism requires God's help will disagree, but I suspect that what we mostly need now is self-control.

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