The US seems much in need of former US president Franklin Roosevelt’s maxim to stop fearing fear itself. Virtually all comment on the Mumbai massacre has mentioned Sept. 11, 2001, and al-Qaeda, and thus invited citizens to continue feeling afraid. No matter that Mumbai appears to have been primarily about Kashmir and the status of India’s Muslims.
No matter that Osama bin Laden has no dog in that fight. Any stick will do to elevate al-Qaeda as the US’ enemy No. 1.
Last week, the CIA warned of a terrorist threat that “might be unleashed” during the presidential transition, a threat that US President George W. Bush described as “dangerously real.”
Last Wednesday US president-elect Barack Obama was formally told by a congressional inquiry: “It is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction, either nuclear or biological, will be used in a terrorist attack” in his first year of office.
The inquiry demanded that an official must be appointed “to oversee efforts to prevent such an attack,” as if millions of Americans in and out of uniform were not doing that already.
Then London added its pennyworth, with a Home Office minister, Lord West, telling of “another great plot building up again” and a “huge threat” from al-Qaeda.
The purpose of all this scaremongering remains a mystery.
Reactions to Mumbai have seemed to suggest Americans are still seeking fellowship in their Sept. 11 pain, as after the London and Madrid bombings. Gone are the days when Americans would tell Britons to shrug off IRA terrorist attacks (many instigated from the US) and grow up. Any explosion anywhere now abets the extraordinary Sept. 11 iconography, underpinning the politics of fear that has been the leitmotif of the Bush presidency.
Debating this presidency in New York last Tuesday night, I found myself pitted against Bush’s impresario of fear, former deputy chief of staff Karl Rove. Nothing in his master’s glorious reign quite matched his “victory” over terror. The sense of unreality was equaled by Rove’s supporters, to whom all who did not fear the “Islamofascists” were “liberal upper-east side elitists,” an apparently crushing epithet. One assured me that Afghanistan would soon be won by merely “moving the surge” to Kabul. The whole evening was like the scene in Gone with the Wind where Southern gallants out-boast each other in predicting victory over the Yankees.
Rove was undeniably a master manipulator of fear politics, like former British prime minister Tony Blair’s director of communications, Alastair Campbell, who called him a “kindred spirit.”
Both Bush and Blair were led to portray al-Qaeda in its Tora Bora cave as they had former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, as a threat to their respective realms. It was what the sociologist Ulrich Beck described as an exaggerated risk “exploited as an elixir to an ailing leader.” On this the two leaders built a culture of self-validating counter-terrorism, where both the absence of any threat and the presence of one can be made equally supportive.
The media’s fondness for describing any explosion as “al-Qaeda-linked” has turned what was a tiny, if efficient, cabal of fanatics into a global menace, ridiculously on a par with Hitler and postwar communism. Whoever said the political brain has advanced over time was mad.
On every visit to the US I am stunned by the pervasiveness of fear. Terrified officials pounce on the slightest deviation from security rules. Americans must strip almost to their underwear to board even the shortest domestic flights. IDs are scanned in the meanest office blocks. Computers must be dismantled. National guardsmen troop out at dawn to protect New York installations “against the terrorist threat.”