“If You Are Scared, [the Terrorists] Win. If You Refuse To Be Scared, They Lose”
Philosophers have long noted the utility of fear to the state. Machiavelli notoriously argued that a good leader should induce fear in the populace in order to control the rabble.
Hobbes in “The Leviathan” argued that fear effectively motivates the creation of a social contract in which citizens cede their freedoms to the sovereign. The people understandably want to be safe from harm. The ruler imposes security and order in exchange for the surrender of certain public freedoms. As Hobbes saw it, there was no other way: Humans, left without a strong sovereign leader controlling their actions, would degenerate into mob rule. It is the fear of this state of nature — not of the sovereign per se, but of a world without the order the sovereign can impose — that leads us to form the social contract and surrender at least part of our freedom.
In addition to Machiavelli and Hobbes, University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss and German philosopher Carl Schmitt espoused the same views:
Leo Strauss is the father of the Neo-Conservative movement, including many leaders of recent American administrations. Indeed, many of the main neocon players – including Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Stephen Cambone, Elliot Abrams, and Adam Shulsky – were students of Strauss at the University of Chicago, where he taught for many years.
What did Strauss teach?
Strauss, born in Germany, was an admirer of Nazi philosophers such as Carl Schmitt and of Machiavelli (more on Schmitt later).
Strauss believed that a stable political order required an external threat and that if an external threat did not exist, one should be manufactured. Specifically, Strauss thought that:
A political order can be stable only if it is united by an external threat . . . . Following Machiavelli, he maintained that if no external threat exists then one has to be manufactured.
(the quote is by one of Strauss’ main biographers).
Indeed, Stauss used the analogy of Gulliver’s Travels to show what a Neocon-run society would look like:
“When Lilliput [the town] was on fire, Gulliver urinated over the city, including the palace. In so doing, he saved all of Lilliput from catastrophe, but the Lilliputians were outraged and appalled by such a show of disrespect.” (this quote also from the same biographer)
Moreover, Strauss said:
Only a great fool would call the new political science diabolic . . . Nevertheless one may say of it that it fiddles while Rome burns. It is excused by two facts: it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.
So Strauss seems to have advocated governments letting terrorizing catastrophes happen on one’s own soil to one’s own people — of “pissing” on one’s own people, to use his Gulliver’s travel analogy. And he advocated that government’s should pretend that they did not know about such acts of mayhem: to intentionally “not know” that Rome is burning. He advocated messing with one’s own people in order to save them from some artificial “catastrophe”. In other words, he proposed using deceit in order to demonize an adversary and artificially turn him into a dangerous enemy.
But to really understand Strauss – and thus the Neocons – one must understand his main influence: Carl Schmitt. Schmitt was the leading Nazi legal scholar and philosopher who created the justification for “total war” to destroy those labeled an “enemy” of the Nazi state.
Strauss was a life-long follower of Schmitt, and Schmitt helped Strauss get a scholarship which let him escape from Germany and come to America.
Not only was Strauss heavily influenced by Schmitt, but Strauss and Schmitt were so close that – when Strauss criticized Schmitt for being too soft and not going far enough – Schmitt agreed:
Schmitt himself recommended Strauss’s commentary [on Schmitt's writing] to his friends as one that he believed saw right through him like an X-ray.
Schmitt’s philosophy argued that the sovereign was all-powerful in being able to to declare a state of emergency. As Neil Levi explains:
The sovereign is the name of that person (legal or actual) who decides not only that the situation is a state of exception but also what needs to be done to eliminate the state of exception and thus preserve the state and restore order. Note the circularity of the definitions: the sovereign is the one who decides that there is a state of exception; a state of exception is that which the sovereign deems to be so.
The sovereign eliminates the state of exception to restore order, but the content of this order is historically contingent, because it is dependent on the sovereign’s will. All that matters to Schmitt is, as Slavoj Žižek puts it, “the decision for the formal principle of order as such.” Similarly, Schmitt says nothing, can say nothing, about what it is that makes a [principle] worth defending with one’s life, what substance and concrete content could or should compel one to make such a commitment to preserve this form.
Indeed, Schmitt says that “politics” is not the process of debate, making trade-offs, building consensus or letting the best ideas win. Instead, the sovereign – through an act of will – makes a decision, and then the political system should carry it out, and the military effectuate it.
George W. Bush’s statement that he was the “decider” fits in nicely with Schmitt’s theories. [Similarly, Obama is ignoring the will of the people. Indeed, Obama is worse than Bush in favoring the super-elite, bailing out the big banks, protecting financial criminals, targeting whistleblowers, keeping government secrets, trampling our liberties and starting military conflicts in new countries. Obama is even worse than Bush in redistributing wealth from the American people to a handful of fatcats and spying on Americans. Obama is also worse than Bush in appointing cronies to powerful government positions.]
Moreover, Schmitt argued that war against one’s enemy is total – lacking any legal constraints – but the sovereign can use ever-shifting definitions of who the enemy is:
War is the existential negation of the enemy.
As with the state of exception, there are not rational criteria for distinguishing friend from enemy. All conflict is situational conflict.
Indeed, Schmitt said that those who are like our “brothers”, who are as much the same as different from us, must be demonized so that we don’t feel any compassion for them. They are either “with us or against us”, regardless of whether or not they are good people, or how close to us they may be.
The Georgetown University Law Center notes:
Schmitt denounces all “neutralizations and depoliticizations,” which for him are the hallmarks of liberalism. There are no neutralizations: if you are not with us you are against us and we will destroy you: “If a part of the population declares that it no longer recognizes enemies, then, depending on the circumstance, it joins their side and aids them.”
Indeed, Schmitt believed that demonization and war must be maintained for their own sake, or else a horrible world where peace and culture reined would be created:
Schmitt writes that if war became impossible, then “the distinction of friend and enemy would also cease” and what remained would be “neither politics nor state, but culture, civilization,economics, morality, law, art, entertainment, and so on”….
Current American Politicians Still Follow the Old Fear Playbook
Professor Ludlow continues in the New York Times:
Since 9/11 leaders of both political parties in the United States have sought to consolidate power by leaning not just on the danger of a terrorist attack, but on the fact that the possible perpetrators are frightening individuals who are not like us. As President George W. Bush put it before a joint session of Congress in 2001: “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” Last year President Obama brought the enemy closer to home, arguing in a speech at the National Defense University that “we face a real threat from radicalized individuals here in the United States” — radicalized individuals who were “deranged or alienated individuals — often U.S. citizens or legal residents.”
The Bush fear-peddling is usually considered the more extreme, but is it? The Obama formulation puts the “radicalized individuals” in our midst. They could be American citizens or legal residents. And the subtext is that if we want to catch them we need to start looking within. The other is among us. The pretext for the surveillance state is thus established.
And let there be no mistake about the consolidation of power in the form of the new surveillance state. Recent revelations by Edward Snowden have shown an unprecedented program of surveillance both worldwide and on the American population. Even Erik Prince, the founder of the private military contractor Blackwater Worldwide thinks the security state has gone too far:
America is way too quick to trade freedom for the illusion of security. Whether it’s allowing the N.S.A. to go way too far in what it intercepts of our personal data, to our government monitoring of everything domestically and spending way more than we should. I don’t know if I want to live in a country where lone wolf and random terror attacks are impossible ‘cause that country would look more like North Korea than America.
The interesting thing about the security measures that are taken today is that they provide, as Prince puts it, the “illusion of security”; another way to put it is that they provide “security theater.” Or perhaps it is actually a theater of fear.
During the George W. Bush administration we were treated to the color-coded terror threat meter. It was presented as a way to keep us secure, but constantly wavering between orange and red, it was arguably a device to remind us to be fearful. Similarly for the elaborate Transportation Security Administration screenings at airports. Security experts are clear that these procedures are not making us safe, and that they are simply theater. The only question is whether the theater is supposed to make us feel safer or whether it is actually intended to remind us that we are somehow in danger. The security expert Bruce Schneier suggests it is the latter:
By sowing mistrust, by stripping us of our privacy — and in many cases our dignity — by taking away our rights, by subjecting us to arbitrary and irrational rules, and by constantly reminding us that this is the only thing between us and death by the hands of terrorists, the T.S.A. and its ilk are sowing fear. And by doing so, they are playing directly into the terrorists’ hands.
As the Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen notes in his book “A Philosophy of Fear,” Hobbes already anticipated the need for the sovereign to manipulate our fears. The state, Svendsen writes, “has to convince the people that certain things should be feared rather than others, since the people will not, just like that, fear what is appropriate from the point of view of the state. Hobbes points out that this can necessitate a certain amount of staging by the state, which magnifies certain phenomena and diminishes others.”
Even democracies founded in the principles of liberty and the common good often take the path of more authoritarian states. They don’t work to minimize fear, but use it to exert control over the populace and serve the government’s principle aim: consolidating power.
Fear is even used to prevent us from questioning the decisions supposedly being made for our safety. The foundation of this approach in our government can be traced back to burning rubble of the World Trade Center, exemplified by this statement by John Ashcroft, then the attorney general of the United States, in December 2001: “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this. Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends.”
As Svendsen points out, Ashcroft’s reasoning is straight out of the playbook of the German legal philosopher Carl Schmitt, who was notorious for defending Hitler’s extrajudicial killings of his political enemies. Schmitt too felt that national unity was critical and that liberty should be subjugated to safety.
Indeed, FBI agents and CIA intelligence officials, constitutional law expert professor Jonathan Turley, Time Magazine, Keith Olbermann and the Washington Post have all said that U.S. government officials “were trying to create an atmosphere of fear in which the American people would give them more power”.
And former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge admits that he was pressured to raise terror alerts to help Bush win reelection. Fear sells.
Ludlow points out that the government has steered us away from addressing the threats which actually threaten our safety … and whipped up an disproportionate fear of a terrorist hiding behind every bush. In reality, you’re more likely to be killed by lightning, toddlers, or brain-eating parasites than by terrorists.
Sociologists have shown that fear of terrorism makes people stupid and malleable (indeed, fear can make people miss obvious absurdities … such as the fact that America now supports are supposed mortal enemy.)
So politicians will go to tremendous lengths to create fear … in the way the Machiavelli, Hobbes, Strauss and Schmidt recommended.
As we’ve previously noted:
A continuous “state of emergency” is required for the type of leadership advocated by Schmitt and Strauss. In 2002, Slavoj Žižek pointed out how this continuous state of emergency works:
A notable precursor in this field of para-legal ‘biopolitics’, in which administrative measures are gradually replacing the rule of law, was Alfredo Stroessner’s regime in Paraguay in the 1960s and 1970s, which took the logic of the state of exception to an absurd, still unsurpassed extreme. Under Stroessner, Paraguay was – with regard to its Constitutional order – a ‘normal’ parliamentary democracy with all freedoms guaranteed; however, since, as Stroessner claimed, we were all living in a state of emergency because of the worldwide struggle between freedom and Communism, the full implementation of the Constitution was forever postponed and a permanent state of emergency obtained. This state of emergency was suspended every four years for one day only, election day, to legitimise the rule of Stroessner’s Colorado Party with a 90 per cent majority worthy of his Communist opponents. The paradox is that the state of emergency was the normal state, while ‘normal’ democratic freedom was the briefly enacted exception. This weird regime anticipated some clearly perceptible trends in our liberal-democratic societies in the aftermath of 11 September. Is today’s rhetoric not that of a global emergency in the fight against terrorism, legitimising more and more suspensions of legal and other rights? The ominous aspect of John Ashcroft’s recent claim that ‘terrorists use America’s freedom as a weapon against us’ carries the obvious implication that we should limit our freedom in order to defend ourselves. Such statements from top American officials, especially Rumsfeld and Ashcroft, together with the explosive display of ‘American patriotism’ after 11 September, create the climate for what amounts to a state of emergency, with the occasion it supplies for a potential suspension of rule of law, and the state’s assertion of its sovereignty without ‘excessive’ legal constraints. America is, after all, as President Bush said immediately after 11 September, in a state of war. The problem is that America is, precisely, not in a state of war, at least not in the conventional sense of the term (for the large majority, daily life goes on, and war remains the exclusive business of state agencies). With the distinction between a state of war and a state of peace thus effectively blurred, we are entering a time in which a state of peace can at the same time be a state of emergency.
[On 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney initiated Continuity of Government Plans that superseded America’s constitutional form of government (at least for some undetermined period of time.) On that same day, a national state of emergency was declared … and that state of emergency has continuously been in effect up until today.]
Columbia Law School professor Scott Horton notes that Schmitt’s philosophy formed the basis of the famous torture memos:
Where exactly did [Department of Justice torture memo author John] Yoo come up with the analysis that led to the purported conclusions that the Executive was not restrained by the Geneva Conventions and similar international instruments in its conduct of the war in Iraq? Yoo’s public arguments and statements suggest the strong influence of one thinker: Carl Schmitt.
Perhaps the most significant German international law scholar of the era between the wars, Schmitt was obsessed with what he viewed as the inherent weakness of liberal democracy. He considered liberalism, particularly as manifested in the Weimar Constitution, to be inadequate to the task of protecting state and society menaced by the great evil of Communism. This led him to ridicule international humanitarian law in a tone and with words almost identical to those recently employed by Yoo and several of his colleagues.
Beyond this, Yoo’s prescription for solving the “dilemma” is also taken straight from the Schmittian playbook. According to Schmitt, the norms of international law respecting armed conflict reflect the romantic illusions of an age of chivalry. They are “unrealistic” as applied to modern ideological warfare against an enemy not constrained by notions of a nation-state, adopting terrorist methods and fighting with irregular formations that hardly equate to traditional armies. (Schmitt is, of course, concerned with the Soviet Union here; he appears prepared to accept that the Geneva and Hague rules would apply on the Western Front in dealing with countries such as Britain and the United States). For Schmitt, the key to successful prosecution of warfare against such a foe is demonization. The enemy must be seen as absolute. He must be stripped of all legal rights, of whatever nature. The Executive must be free to use whatever tools he can find to fight and vanquish this foe. And conversely, the power to prosecute the war must be vested without reservation in the Executive – in the words of Reich Ministerial Director Franz Schlegelberger (eerily echoed in a brief submission by Bush Administration Solicitor General Paul D. Clement), “in time of war, the Executive is constituted the sole leader, sole legislator, sole judge.” (I take the liberty of substituting Yoo’s word, Executive; for Schmitt or Schlegelberger, the word would, of course, have been Führer). In Schmitt’s classic formulation: “a total war calls for a total enemy.” This is not to say that in Schmitt’s view the enemy was somehow “morally evil or aesthetically unpleasing;” it sufficed that he was “the other, the outsider, something different and alien.” These thoughts are developed throughout Schmitt’s work, but particularly in Der Begriff des Politischen (1927), Frieden oder Pazifismus (1933) and Totaler Feind, totaler Krieg, totaler Staat (1937).
A careful review of the original materials shows that the following rationales were advanced for decisions not to apply or to restrict the application of the Geneva Conventions of 1929 and the Hague Convention of 1907 during the Second World War:
(1) Particularly on the Eastern Front, the conflict was a nonconventional sort of warfare being waged against a “barbaric” enemy which engaged in “terrorist” practices, and which itself did not observe the law of armed conflict.
(2) Individual combatants who engaged in “terrorist” practices, or who fought in military formations engaged in such practices, were not entitled to protections under international humanitarian law, and the adjudicatory provisions of the Geneva Conventions could therefore be avoided together with the substantive protections.
(3) The Geneva and Hague Conventions were “obsolete” and ill-suited to the sort of ideologically driven warfare in which the Nazis were engaged on the Eastern Front, though they might have limited application with respect to the Western Allies.
(4) Application of the Geneva Conventions was not in the enlightened self-interest of Germany because its enemies would not reciprocate such conduct by treating German prisoners in a humane fashion.
(5) Construction of international law should be driven in the first instance by a clear understanding of the national interest as determined by the executive. To this end niggling, hypertechnical interpretations of the Conventions that disregarded the plain text, international practice and even Germany’s prior practice in order to justify their nonapplication were entirely appropriate.
(6) In any event, the rules of international law were subordinated to the military interests of the German state and to the law as determined and stated by the German Führer.
The similarity between these rationalizations and those offered by John Yoo in his hitherto published Justice Department memoranda and books and articles is staggering.
The Terrorists Lose If We Refuse to Be Terrorized
Ludlow ends on a hopeful note:
Fear is a primal human state. From childhood on, we fear the monsters of our imaginations, lurking in dark closets, under beds, in deserted alleyways, but we also now fear monsters in the deserts of Yemen and the mountains of Pakistan. But perhaps it is possible to pause and subdue our fears by carefully observing reality — just as we might advise for trying to calm and comfort a fear-stricken child. We might find that, in reality, the more immediate danger to our democratic society comes from those who lurk in the halls of power in Washington and other national capitols and manipulate our fears to their own ends.
What are these ends? They are typically the protection of moneyed interests. In 1990, the Secretary of State James Baker tried to make the case for the first Gulf War on economic grounds. “The economic lifeline of the industrial world,” he said, “runs from the gulf and we cannot permit a dictator such as this to sit astride that economic lifeline.”
That rationale, although honest, did not resonate with the American people — it hardly seemed to justify war. The George W. Bush administration abandoned the economic justification and turned to fear as a motivator.
Ultimately we are not powerless. We can resist the impulse to be afraid. We may not at the moment have answers to the very real dangers that we face in this world, but we can begin to identify those dangers and seek solutions once we overcome our fear. Or as Bertrand Russell rather more elegantly put it, as World War II was drawing to a close, “to conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”
Indeed, security expert Bruce Scheiner writes:
The damage from terrorism is primarily emotional. To the extent this terrorist attack succeeds has very little do with the attack itself. It’s all about our reaction. We must refuse to be terrorized. Imagine if the bombs were found and moved at the last second, and no one died, but everyone was just as scared. The terrorists would have succeeded anyway. If you are scared, they win. If you refuse to be scared, they lose, no matter how much carnage they commit.
Reason noted in 2006:
Already, security measures—pervasive ID checkpoints, metal detectors, and phalanxes of security guards—increasingly clot the pathways of our public lives. It’s easy to overreact when an atrocity takes place—to heed those who promise safety if only we will give the authorities the “tools” they want by surrendering to them some of our liberty. As President Franklin Roosevelt in his first inaugural speech said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself— nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” However, with risks this low there is no reason for us not to continue to live our lives as though terrorism doesn’t matter—because it doesn’t really matter. We ultimately vanquish terrorism when we refuse to be terrorized.
Courage is contagious … and every single one of us has a huge reserve of courage just waiting for us to tap.
When we tap into our inner strength, we beat the terrorists … whether they’re sitting in a cave on the other side of the world or in Washington.