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No One Can Terrorize Us Without Our Consent

As we approach the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, some politicians and members of the media are promoting and perpetuating terror, consciously or unconsiously.  I'm reminded of a famous quote from the former First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt:

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

I would expand that to a broader statement: no one can make me -- or anyone else -- feel anything without our consent.  People may try very hard to evoke certain feelings in us, but ultimately, we decide what our responses are to these stimuli, individually and collectively.

I acknowledge, with sadness, the suffering of the people who died or were physically injured during the attacks of 9/11, and the families and friends of those people.  However, the emotional and spiritual scars have been far more extensive, and this culture of fear is only benefiting the government, the media, and individuals and groups that fear-mongering members of the former two groups call terrorists.

John Mueller, Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at the Mershon Center of the Ohio State University, wrote an insightful cost / benefit analysis of terrorism, entitled "A False Sense of Insecurity?" in which he addressed the question "How does the risk of terrorism measure up against everyday dangers?"  His conclusions are

  • Assessed in broad but reasonable context, terrorism generally does not do much damage.
  • The costs of terrorism very often are the result of hasty, ill-considered and overwrought reactions.

People are generally unable to realistically assess personal risks and comparative probabilities, and our government and the media take advantage of this -- consciously or unconsciously -- to keep us fearful enough to vote against change and stay tuned to Fox News, but not so fearful as to become debilitated consumers: "Be scared; be very, very scared -- but go on with your lives".

The costs for perpetuating this fear are high.  Money spent on the Department of Homeland Security (US$30 billion annually) and the war in Iraq (estimated between US$657 billion to US$2 trillion) -- which, at least in the view of the current administration, is part of the "war on terror" -- is being diverted from other programs that would keep us healthy, safe and sound.  Mueller quotes a study by Roger Congleton that estimates the annual economic cost of increasing the average delay of airline passengers by 30 minutes to be US$15 billion, a level we may have reached during the more recent "war on moisture".

The United States "won" the cold war against the former Soviet Union largely through spending more on defense -- with the higher GDP in the U.S., the Soviets were unable to match our government's pace of arms buildup, thus ending the mutual assurance of each other's destruction.  In that arms race between nations, the competition was a matter of apples to apples ... or, perhaps, missiles to missiles.  The relatively smaller, less centralized groups who are now pledged to the destruction of the United States cannot be defeated through a similar race, as very small investments by such groups -- who are often depicted as having little to lose -- can carry far disproportionate costs in a society where people feel strong attachments to what they "have", and thus [believe they] have much to lose.  Such groups do not have to inflict much real damage if mere allegations of plots can have such immense emotional and economic impact.

Keith Olbermann, host of MSNBC's Countdown w/ Keith Olbermann, recently offered some piercing commentary on the Nexus of Politics and Terror, in which he noted how the U.S. government has benefited from each announced elevation of the Department of Homeland Security's threat level.

Keith has also noted parallels between Donald Rumsfeld's tactics in promoting the current "war on terror" and the tactics of other leaders who have promoted wars, including Adolf Hitler and [another] Joe McCarthy.

Keith finishes off with an invocation of Edward R. Murrow, and I want to finish off with invoking the wisdom of a few other luminaries.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. (Margaret Mead)

However one might judge the motives of "terrorists", there is little doubt that they are thoughtful and committed.  Would not the best defense, then, be for everyone to be more thoughtful and committed, rather than fearful and disengaged?

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. (Albert Einstein)

We appear to be applying tried and untrue methods to solving the problem of terrorism, and are likely to achieve the same poor results, unless we are willing to risk a higher level of consciousness. 

I would argue that the central problem we face is the persistence of our government and media -- and the people who listen and unquestioningly believe them (despite mounting contrary evidence) -- in distinguishing between "us" and "them" rather than seeing everyone as part of one world.  The Bush administration regularly decries the goal of terrorists ("them") as trying to destroy "our" way of life.  In fact, the current First Lady of the United States, Laura Bush, has offered a quote on this issue:

Terrorists are the enemy of freedom. And they seek to destroy more than our institutions of democracy and freedom, like our schools or places of worship. They want to destroy our very way of life.

Yet the administration itself appears to be taking advantage of terrorist threats to do more harm to our democracy and freedom (e.g., through the erosion of civil liberties enabled by the so-called USA Patriot Act) than the enemies they claim to be defending "us" from. 

Indeed, in the immortal words of Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."


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