[Hpn] The politics of fear
Mon, 27 Jan 2003 10:10:58 -0800
Every now and again something comes along and I have to break STREET SHEET's
rule about narrowing coverage to issues of poverty and homelessness. For
obvious reasons, war is one of those circumstances.
There's also the time factor, and the fact that this won't actually be out
in print until 2/1/03. This is pretty important stuff, and goes far in
explaining exactly why the public should resist this war. I thought I'd pass
it along to all of you now.
The politics of fear
"No American would dare to suggest that, in the name of society,
everything was permitted."
Alexis de Toqueville
Co-opting Todd Beamer from the doomed United Airlines Flight 93, President
Bush after September 11 announced what he called a new national ethics:
"Let's Roll!" And true to his words, Roll the US did: we have detained
suspects, identified targets, and waged war on the Taliban; now, with our
army still engaged in Afghanistan, we are preparing for war in Iraq, while a
future threat arises in North Korea.
We are rolling so hard, I'm getting dizzy.
For a breathless year and a half, politics have moved at a clip where we've
hardly had time to react. As the world gets scarier every day, we take on
threats no one knew existed, in a war that "might not end in our lifetime,"
according to Vice-President Dick Cheney.
So perhaps we should stop rolling for a bit, to reflect and consider. We
might find things roll out of sheer momentum.
Despite occasional talk about liberating Iraq, support for war seems to be
mainly based on fear - fear of Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass
destruction. Of course, given the trauma of September 11, Americans have
every right to feel alarmed; no one can blame us for being scared after such
horror in our own country. The question is rather, how are we going to deal
with this fear, and of what do we really have to be afraid?
We live in a media culture where terror sells news, as anxious people make
loyal customers. The more scared we are, the more information we like to
have. Similarly, fear yields political support, because people condone
whatever promises relief. In face of these gains, it is crucial for us to
examine our fright, as well as the actions that it supports. Our military
wields terrible, devastating force - a force that must never be triggered by
Fear-based decisions are often irrational - the overwhelming desire is for
unease to go away. Being afraid makes us blind, both to the larger picture
and the consequences of our actions. Therefore, if we're going to war over
supposed Iraqi weapons, accepting the death of American soldiers and tens of
thousands of civilians, we must ask ourselves: is this rational policy or a
The threat from Iraq
To look objectively at what threat Iraq really poses to the US, one first
needs to do something very difficult: separate this war from September 11
and the war on terror. After extensive investigation, the CIA cleared Iraq
of any suspicion in the attacks. Even Cheney and Rumsfeld admit that no
connection has been established. Nonetheless, people support invading Iraq
for fear of future attacks, and we fear future attacks mainly because of
September 11. Shaken with fright, we make an unconscious, irrational
connection, and regardless of blame, Iraq is paying the price. No one talked
pre-emptive strikes before September 11. No one, including the president,
had worries about Iraq, which hadn't threatened the US since the Gulf War.
Secondly, fears of Hussein giving weapons to al Qaeda are baseless. A year
ago, Britain's prime minister Tony Blair announced a dossier detailing
Iraq's terrorist links. Yet despite great international pressure, he never
delivered - for a reason. Not only has Iraq never dealt with terrorists of
this nature, but al Qaeda hates the secular tyrant, who has a history of
crushing Islamic fundamentalism. Osama bin Laden has for years wanted
Hussein killed, viewing him as a Western-created dictator, the evil
incarnate. Clearly, to protect ourselves from al Qaeda, we don't need regime
change in Iraq.
The US war on terror has become a murky affair, where enemies and objectives
are shifting without notice. Just like striking against al Qaeda morphed
into liberating Afghanistan, some people believe that invading Iraq will
protect us from terrorism. The opposite is the case. War on Iraq will boost
al Qaeda recruiting offices, and almost certainly lead to retaliation in the
US. In the name of protecting the homeland, it is the worst approach
As for the weapons Iraq actually possesses, again, the CIA assessed that
Hussein poses no immediate military threat to the US. Former UN weapons
inspector Scott Ritter, a Republican and expert on-site, concludes: "90-95
percent of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capability have been
verifiably disarmed. This includes all of the factories used to produce
chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. There's absolutely no evidence
Iraq worked on smallpox, Ebola, or any other horrific nightmare the media
likes to talk about...The vice president's continued claims about Iraq's
nuclear weapons capability are unsubstantiated speculation."
Therefore, if Bush presses for war "unless Saddam disarms", it is not clear
what the president expects him to do. Without evidence of existing weapons,
the administration hasn't specified what Iraq should get rid off. "Time's
running out," Bush says, but why the rush? We have Hussein cornered, with a
gun pointing at his head - you would think we had all the time in the world.
Commenting on whether Iraq might re-establish a nuclear weapons program,
Scott Ritter says that "this is not something that could happen overnight,
nor is it something that could happen as long as weapons inspectors were
inside Iraq". It follows that, using inspections and containment, the US can
defuse whatever threat might exist. If it spares tens of thousands of lifes,
let the inspectors work as long as need be.
Alternatives to war
Of course, Hussein lies and deceives. People favoring an invasion have
compared him to Hitler - who was first appeased and then caused worldwide
destruction - saying diplomacy won't work with dictators. But if in 1938 a
country had sent weapon inspectors to Germany, demanding to search any
place, any time, they would have been scoffed at and war declared the next
day. As for Iraq, here is a dictator who lets inspectors turn over every
stone in the country. Not half-bad for an evil madman. Granted, the US
complains about lack of co-operation, and sure enough, we can't trust the
word of a tyrant. But even if there are hidden weapons or programs to build
them, the US completely controls the situation. Regardless of Hussein's
deception, inspectors can verify what he has and closely monitor him in the
future. To be safe from Iraq, a peaceful solution is entirely feasible.
If war is a last resort, it is also a concession of failure - no solution
has been found to resolve a conflict. Consequently, force can only be
justified when every peaceful effort has failed. For Iraq, this effort mean
weapons inspections, to ensure it can't harm the US. Yet while inspectors
are still at work, without producing any hard evidence, Bush has surrounded
Iraq with the most fearsome war machine in history, preparing attack to the
point of no return. This procedure upends any legal notion of "innocent
until proven guilty": it's like accusing someone of a crime, putting all
burden of proof on the suspect, while at the same time warming up the
That's not due process. It's deliberate escalation.
By the time you are reading this, the decision will have been made. If
indeed the US invades Iraq over empty chemical warheads, it will not be the
result of failed diplomacy. It will be the failure of not being honest about
diplomacy. Bush is turning the inspections into a farce, declaring them
irrelevant once they can't find what the administration owes us and our
soldiers: convincing proof that this war is necessary.
After September 11, it is crucial and legitimate for the US to protect
itself. We have the right and the obligation to prevent future attacks on
our country and citizens. However, though vulnerable and disturbed from our
loss of safety here at home, we mustn't blindly sign death sentences abroad,
violating international law and the justice we hold dear. Like a wounded
bull in a global china shop, the US is turning the world into a battlefield,
rounding up random suspects to eliminate at its whim. As difficult as it is,
we'll need to learn to live with ambiguity and doubt, in a world we cannot
make safe by force alone. We need to learn how to deal with threats
peacefully, which we never attempted with Iraq. Invading countries on
suspicion isn't part of any US mandate, nor is it going to protect
Americans. Instead, what the US needs in these trying times is true
leadership, a calm, rational approach with skill for diplomacy and a vision
In the name of such leadership, let's not roll into Baghdad. Let's not
slaughter civilians for a false sense of security. It's un-American, if
anything ever was.
Originally Published in STREET SHEET
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