When Governments Abuse Fear

In the United States, today is the 11th anniversary of “9/11,” an event that drastically changed life in the US but had far-reaching consequences around the globe.

Most of us vividly remember the day when 19 hijackers took control of 4 planes and crashed 3 of them into the Twin Towers in New York City and the US Pentagon.  The 4th plane was destined for the US Capitol Building, but passengers attempted to take control of the plane away from the hijackers, and it crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

The attacks were immediately blamed on the anti-American Muslim terrorist group al-Qaeda.  Its leader, Osama bin Laden, uncharacteristically took over 3 years to officially accept credit for the attack, and, perhaps conveniently, did so just days before the election day that would hand incumbent George W. Bush his 2nd term as the US president.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the US government quickly began enacting and amending laws, creating a new cabinet-level department (Department of Homeland Security), and establishing a new federal organization (Transportation Security Administration(TSA)) to take over the security of the nation’s transportation systems.

And this is when the ghosts of the Founding Fathers wept.

This isn’t the first time a government has used terrorism to greatly interfere with civil liberties.  While Hitler famously used the fear of terrorism as a stepping stone to rapidly gain control over Germany, past US presidents haven’t been strangers to this practice either.

Lincoln suspended the writ of habeus corpus.  The Wilson administration prosecuted and convicted critics of World War I, including a presidential candidate.  The Attorney General during that time used up to 250,000 unpaid volunteers in a Naziesque “neighbor turn against neighbor” manuever.

World War II saw the internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans, and soon after the war ended the government went on a witch hunt against Communists and sympathizers.

So where was the Supreme Court, the final stop-gap defenders of the Constitution during all this?  The same place they were when the post-9/11 US PATRIOT Act was challenged in its august halls:

“The Constitution has not greatly bothered any wartime President.”

According to Chief Justice Rehnquist, the law often speaks with a different voice during a time of war.

Hitler used this to his advantage as well in 1933 when a mentally ill Dutch man was caught setting the parliament building on fire.  He quickly denounced the act as a prelude to an armed Communist uprising.  A state of emergency was declared in response, civil liberties were greatly curtailed, including freedom of speech, and the Nazi party began its rapid ascent into absolute power.

“This is important to keep America safe” is the standard rallying cry issued after every contemptible new violation of civil rights.  The TSA operates in near draconian fashion in the nation’s airports.  One of the more upsetting moves in recent memory was authorizing new security procedures that include a pat-down of a traveler which also utilizes sweeping an agent’s hand over the traveler’s breasts and groin area.  Alternatively, if available, you can opt for a back-scatter scan which presents a radiographic nude image of you to an agent in a separate room.

In a country that has had recent uproars about public breast-feeding, it has been surprising to see how quickly citizens have just “rolled over” and accepted being groped and fondled by TSA agents.  After all, it keeps America safe.

Arguably, the TSA apparently hasn’t prevented anything more than private screeners did prior to 9/11.  The news consistently reports how airports have failed to detect explosives and firearms during random screens.  Several polls have asked the question “Do you feel safer flying now than you did before 9/11?”  The results are overwhelmingly not in the TSA’s favor.

Furthermore, they received a stinging rebuke from a leading security expert who described  the TSA’s procedures amounting to nothing more than “security theater” and said they accomplish nothing, at enormous cost.

Yet no reforms occur.

President Obama recently signed into law the controversial National Defense Authorization Act which allows the US military to indefinitely detain US citizens as potential terrorists.  It also allows the military to conduct anti-terrorism operations on US soil.

Hitler similarly saw the advantage in having control over the military as well as having a force, aside from typical law enforcement, that could deal with naysayers, agitators, etc.

Just how pervasive is terrorism?  Since 1920 there have been a total of 10 incidents of terrorism (not all of them successful) on US soil.  All of them combined resulted in 2,966 deaths, with the vast majority of those having occurred during the 9/11 attacks.

How likely is it that you will be the victim of a terrorist attack?  1 in 20 million (you are 4 times more likely to be struck by lightning).  The above figures yield an average of 32 terrorism-related deaths per year, compared to the loss of 40,000 citizens in automobile-related fatalities that occur annually.

Risk of dying in a car accident 1 in 19,000

Drowning in a bathtub: 1 in 800,000

Odds of winning $1 million in the Powerball lottery:  just over 1 in 5.1 million.

Fewer than 500 people died in the US from terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2010.

All this safety ain’t cheap either.  Over $1 trillion has been spent on wars and military operations in the Middle East.  That does not include the TSA’s $8.1 billion budget for 2012 alone.  Nor does it include the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, and the National Security Agency, and all other foreign and domestic antiterrorism efforts.

Adversely, cancer is expected to claim the lives of nearly 600,000 US citizens in 2012. Yet the government spends only $5 billion a year combatting that killer.

In 2002, a German justice minister caused significant controversy when he compared Bush’s tactics with Iraq to Hitler.  “Bush wants to divert attention from his domestic problems. It’s a classic tactic. It’s one that Hitler also used.”

Diversion is a great tactic, especially when you can hit people in the gut by insinuating that without these measures their life is in imminent danger.  Terrorism has been used as a tool of the government before, aside from Hitler’s Third Reich.  In France during the 18th century, terrorism was used to suppress opposition to the government.  Likewise, in Russia when Lenin and Stalin used it as a motivational factor for government operations and compliance by the citizenry.

It can be subtle, and it reminds me of the Wizard of Oz: Don’t look behind the curtain!

Is all this really about keeping America safe?  What do you think?


  1. Marla says:

    You absolutely nailed it, Talon. I have a few thoughts to add, but I will do it later on when I am officially off of the clock. ;)

  2. Elizabeth Cooper says:

    “Conveniently.” I like that choice of word. We are only as safe or unsafe as we allow ourselves to be. But most folks are just too busy to pay attention, or just can’t be bothered. The date of 9/11 will forever be sealed in our history, but I do not believe it should be what defines us.

    • Admin says:

      Definitely true! And what is also not mentioned is that these measures fall right into the terrorists’ hands. They want us to be afraid, to have less freedom, and we’re giving it to them.

  3. Yvonne says:

    Has anyone thought about the actual motivation for all this “security?” While I don’t support the current security paranoia, I think of a mother protecting her child. I would sacrifice anything to protect my child. I realize that is my own personal choice and doesn’t affect millions of citizens, but I have to wonder why we assume the reason for the government’s reaction to a threat is different than mine would be to protect my child. Part of their job is to protect the country.

    We also have to realize that these laws are made by people we elect. If we don’t like what’s happening, how hard are we willing to work for change? Do you think a vocal *educated* faction would have as much effect as the current vocal myopic faction has had recently? Can we BE that vocal educated faction?

    I don’t see a sinister purpose behind all this security. I see a knee-jerk reaction by a country completely unused to being attacked by anyone since it attacked itself during the Civil War. Of course the government is going to go overboard, they don’t have any experience at this, and heaven forbid they do something wrong and get blamed for something else terrible happening. I see this as government CYA. If we think it’s too much, we have the constitutional right to make ourselves heard. Loudly.

    Can’t wait to hear more opinions! :-)

    • Admin says:

      It’s a toss-up. The money going to deal with this is taking money away from infrastructure, education, health care, etc. We are sending young people to foreign countries to die. I haven’t looked at the numbers, but I’m quite sure more Americans have died in the ensuing conflicts than were killed on that day. There are just too many things wrong here.

      Your question about people willing to make a change is a good one. Unfortunately, I don’t see too much of it happening. Part of it may be based on not wanting to be labeled as being unpatriotic, such as I was when I protested against sending troops to Iraq and in my consistent call to bring all the troops home. I wasn’t patriotic and wasn’t “supporting the troops” by not wanting them to be killed on foreign soil for a useless cause.

      But if that’s the case, that’s just more example of how Americans these days just roll over. It’s “safer” to get in a huff about abortion rights or same-sex marriage than to decry the systematic erosion of civil liberties, freedoms that much blood has been shed to create and preserve. I would love to see Americans truly fight for what they supposedly cherish so mightily.

      • Yvonne says:

        Good point about the money.

        I really believe this all boils down to those who believe violence is the answer, and those who don’t believe violence is the answer. “Justified war” is one of the most horrible and ignorant phrases humans ever came up with, in my opinion. As long as the majority of civilizations (and I use that term loosely!) believe war is an effective means to an end, we’re stuck with “security” measures.

        A question: Do you think a particular generation has to pass before real change can be made? Can it be done globally?

        • Admin says:

          I totally agree. Justified war is a ridiculous term.

          You know, I just don’t know that we’ll ever see a generation that doesn’t see war as a good alternative. It seems to be very much a part of the human condition. I have hope, but not a lot of faith in that hope bearing fruit.

          As far as globally, I think that’s even less likely. For much of the Middle East and Central Asia, war is such a huge part of their culture. They’ve been warring with each other for thousands and thousands of years. And, to be honest, as long as those regions are governed by religion, and its zealots, it’s even less likely.

  4. Excellent post, great thoughts. We have security theater at our airports — nothing actually that makes us safer, just a show.
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    • Admin says:

      So very true. It is pure theater really. The vast majority of items confiscated by the TSA have been “contraband” and presented to real danger to passengers, flights, or safety. And after going through security with a pair of scissors and hearing about my grandmother and other friends carrying a butcher knife or other large knife in their bag through 3 different security areas, which included X-ray checks, I don’t feel any safer now than I did then. But then again I don’t readily buy into fear mongering.

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