The ministry of fear

The exploitation of terrorism as a pretext for suspending democratic rights needs to be resisted - not only for the protection of civil liberties and demonised ethnic groups, but also to defend political participation itself.

May 1, 2004
8 min read

Spain gave us a paradox. On the one hand, the international political fallout from the Madrid bombings confirmed an emerging pattern: a burst of rhetoric over heightened security, renewed national debates over readiness for the next ‘inevitable’ terrorist attack, and the manipulation of tragedy to justify military excursions abroad and the erosion of civil liberties at home. On the other hand, Spain’s own answer to the terrorists – 12 million on the streets in protest against all forms of terrorism, a 77 per cent turnout in the country’s general elections and the ousting of Jose Maria Aznar’s pro-Iraq war Popular Party – bucked the trend of fearful and retributive reactions to terror to which we have become accustomed.

The Spanish reaction to the Madrid attacks made a welcome contrast to the expressions of political disempowerment that have otherwise characterised the war on terror. And it has had a disarming effect on a war ‘coalition’ accustomed to the success of a politics of fear. At a time when exploitation of public fear and voter apathy is at an unprecedented high, this may be cause for hope. It should also, however, force us to consider carefully what forms of fear are being exploited on an everyday level, and how they might be resisted.

We are becoming familiar with government and media manipulation of public anxiety for political ends. Simultaneously talking up the inevitability of the next attack and condemning the ‘cowardice’ of backing out of war-on-terror campaigns leaves people without options. Ordinary people are caught in the crossfire of terror against terror, a battle that no one can win. As with Bali and Istanbul, since Madrid the war on terror’s apologists have rushed to assert their ultimate victory. ‘Security’ is to be guaranteed through a conflict that cannot be won, but which can be waged permanently so as to give the appearance that the powerful have the upper hand. The war on terror is rightly defined, even by US vice-president Dick Cheney, as a war with no end.

Unlike previous wars waged upon abstract nouns (those against drugs, crime and poverty, for example) the war on terror is unprecedented in its ability to guarantee the passivity of a frightened public, and so create a political vacuum where dissent might once have thrived. With echoes of the Cold War, the polarisation of political options – ‘support us or support terror’ – helps create social paralysis. Long-term analysis of underlying problems, such as questioning the global conditions that encourage terrorism, is drowned out in the cry for retribution and sidelined in the rush to show ‘resolve’ in the face of terrorists.

Awareness of this approach to creating ‘surface-level’ social hysteria was popularised by Michael Moore’s film on US gun culture Bowling for Columbine. A frightened population is an easier one to control, and its consent easier to manipulate. A wave of anti-terrorist legislation, leaked threats and unlawful detentions of terror suspects has followed what PR analysts have called the ‘hostility-intensification’ approach to fear psychology. In the US, George W Bush’s Patriot Act legislation has facilitated unprecedented suppression of political dissent with sweeping generalisations of what constitutes ‘domestic terrorism’, new provisions that target people simply for expressing unacceptable political views. In Britain anti-terrorist legislation rushed through after 11 September 2001 has already been used to obstruct peaceful demonstrations and detain suspects without trial, and it all but precludes any government intervention over the UK citizens detained in Camp X-Ray. The media, of course, are complicit in all this every time they whip up fear and suspicion of outsiders and dissenters. Even having been cleared as posing ‘no threat’ by home secretary David Blunkett, for example, the British detainees who have returned from Guantanamo Bay so far have been greeted by headlines such as The Sun’s ‘Enemy on our streets’.

This fear-propaganda has a precedent in the Committee on Public Information (CPI) established by US president Woodrow Wilson in 1917. The CPI adopted advertising techniques and research on human psychology to stir up anti-German hysteria in the US in order to justify America’s entry into WWI.

The mechanics of this approach were summed up succinctly by Hermann Göring during the Nuremberg trials, when he declared: ‘Nobody wants war& but it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship… That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.’ The use of Madrid’s tragedy to blame anti-war citizens and governments for encouraging the war on terror seems only to reaffirm the enduring popularity of these tactics.

So terrorising populations into submission is hardly a new thing. What is less appreciated, however, is the way in which fear transforms political participation itself – turning protest and dissent into, as Chomsky would say, a ‘crisis of democracy’ for the powerful. Superficially, it is true that fear of terror has not, as some predicted, signalled the death knell for urban living or stunted economic growth in potential target areas. And some commentators have linked the mass demonstrations in Madrid and the urban renewal of New York since 11 September to a refusal to ‘give up the city’. But does the refusal to stop living ‘normally’ or voicing protest really represent resolution in the face of terror, or is it a distraction from it? Perhaps the effects of fear run deeper than we imagine. What if living ‘normally’ incorporates a sense of permanent fearfulness? Emphasising the economic prosperity of terror-affected areas is an example of a trend that, ever since Bush, in a post-11 September speech announced that terrorists would not stop Americans from shopping, gauges public confidence by the health of the stock market rather than by popular political engagement.

An internalised sense of crisis, of imminent disaster, is thus allowed no expression but through the acts of consumption and spectating. When the consumption of images of terror absorbs our moral outrage and political response, we have gone beyond fear as producer of hysteria to fear as pacifier. The ambiguous and unspecified nature of ‘terrorism’, its ability to strike at any time and in any place, exploits this shift. It has allowed Bush and Blair to create what US writer Brian Massumi described in his book The Politics of Everyday Fear as ‘a permanent state of emergency against a multifarious threat as much in us as outside’. To say that a politics of fear is used to survey and control social space only scratches the surface. The popular appetite for political participation and dissent is being smothered by a sense that people are guilty if they don’t support the war on terror. The war is being used as a pretext for creating, in Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s words, a permanent ‘state of exception’ to democratic rights and civil liberties. People learn, in other words, to bless state repression (as Agamben puts it, ‘the indistinction between violence and the law’) as the only means for guaranteeing some semblance of order and peace. The real danger is that this kind of peace is really pacification and the silencing of dissent. The hysteria created by unseen terrorist threats obscures an almost subconscious acceptance of fear as a knowable and ‘safe’ guarantee of social normality.

Therefore, the war on terror, as a pacifier and not a peace-maker, needs to be resisted – not only for the protection of civil liberties and ethnic groups demonised as potential terror suspects, but also to defend political participation itself. This means more than denying terrorism the ability to disrupt everyday life. Indeed, it might frequently mean using acts of protest to disrupt everyday life wherever it becomes complacent about the culture of fear. It means seeking the causes of terrorism and questioning the very lifestyles and global disparities that motivate such violence in the first place. And we are already seeing examples of this every time people mobilise themselves in opposition to the military tactics of the war on terror and the polarisation of political options into ‘them’ against ‘us’, ‘good’ against ‘evil’ and ‘freedom’ versus ‘terror’.

Acts of resistance, such as the days of civil disobedience, the sabotage of military bases and the mass anti-war marches that shook cities in Britain and all over the world in reaction to the invasion of Iraq last year, have, therefore, an added importance in that they openly defy the politics of fear. We should feel encouraged by acts of protest all around the world in the face of governments’ increased warnings of terror attacks on cities, but these actions should not stand as isolated events. We should see them also as part of a growing transformation of ordinary people’s understanding of political participation in so-called liberal democracies. We should resist not just military invasions and state repression, but the normalisation of this permanent state of emergency, this culture of fatalist acceptance and fear of stepping out of line that we are experiencing with the tactics of the war on terror. Refusing a politics of fear is, after all, refusing to accept that politics is a spectator sport. It is to affirm dissent and protest as a condition, not a crisis, of democracy.Stefan Skrimshire is studying for a PhD on the politics of fear at Manchester University


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