Saturday, February 13, 2010

Fear, With Good Reason

Last week, Dahlia Lithwick had a terrific piece in Slate in which she ponders America's "Terrorism Derangement Syndrome." America does seem to be in the grip of morbid fear, doesn't it? KSM could irradiate Manhattan if he's given a trial there... terrorists can melt the walls of supermax prisons... the Underwear Bomber is so diabolically clever he would laugh off traditional interrogation methods. With all this terror, you might even think... I don't know, that terrorism is working pretty well.

Lithwick attributes some of the cause of TDS to Republican fear-mongering and to Democratic acquiescence in GOP scare tactics. I agree -- but I think there's something more fundamental going on, something that explains both the fear and the fear-mongering.

Something like... our own policies.

I believe some deep-seated part of our national consciousness is aware there will be consequences for what we've done, and continue to do. The wars, and kidnappings, and illegal imprisonment, and off-the-mark Predator strikes, and, most of all, torture -- we sense a reckoning for all this, a conflagration waiting to engulf the combustible materials we insist on piling recklessly, relentlessly higher. Our tactics worsen the danger. The worse the danger, the more scared we get. The more scared we get, the less capable we are of rational policies. As our rationality deserts us, we embrace more tightly primitive tactics. And the more primitive we become, the worse we make the danger. And so on.

So yes, we're afraid. After all, we understand revenge, don't we? Revenge is a human need so powerful that, if necessary, we'll attempt to satisfy it by proxy, the way we satisfied our need for 9/11 vengeance against al Qaeda by attacking Iraq, instead. We know payback is coming because by God, if there were a country kidnapping Americans and imprisoning them and torturing them in secret prisons, and if that country constantly threatened to bomb us and sometimes actually did so, and if the bombs often missed and massacred women and children and funerals and wedding parties, we would not -- we could not -- rest until that country came to rue the day it even considered fucking with the United States of America.

That's how it would be if the shoe were on the other foot -- in fact, that's how it was. And you don't have to be psychic, or even exceptionally empathetic, to know that's how it is with other cultures, too. A little imagination and intuition are more than enough.

Imagination and intuition, as it happens, is the same combination that makes us sure Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Our own National Intelligence Estimate claims otherwise, but we don't believe the NIE because what would we do if we were subject to the kind of bellicose rhetoric our politicians and press level at Iran? What would we do if we were Iran, and America had invaded our neighbors east and west? We wouldn't rest until we had nukes, so we know Iran is after them, just as we would be. Anyone who suggests otherwise must be wrong.

As I wrote over a year ago:

It's common for rightists to justify America's embrace of the "dark side" by claiming President Bush has kept the country safe. The claim strikes me as remarkably simplistic. If the temporal frame of reference begins on 9/11, and we ignore the unsolved anthrax attacks that came shortly after, and the geographical frame of reference is the territorial United States alone, then one might accurately claim America has been safe up until now. Whether the correlation between "the dark side" and our safety up until this point has a causal connection is far more debatable. Regardless, to me, "has kept us safe up until this point" has far too much the ring of Neville Chamberlain's "peace in our time." It also makes me think of a parent who seems to be an excellent provider because he's financing all those provisions on a dozen maxed-out credit cards. The temporary comfort he's afforded his family will inevitably be wiped out by the unpayable bill they're all soon to receive. Watching these documentaries, you can't help but feel that bill is out there, and that soon enough, it will be horrifically presented to us. Even if you believe "the dark side" offers benefits, and you're willing to ignore what the dark side has cost us in terms of our own ideals and our image in the world, that bill, when it comes, will represent the dark side's true price.

What every American needs to understand about torture and the rest of the "dark side" is this. Not only has our embrace of the dark side violated our laws and profaned our values. And not only have we received no safety in exchange for our willingness to cash in our national ideals. No, the real irony, the real tragedy is that war and secret prisons and torture and the rest have created and continue to create a new generation of Muslim extremists intent on revenge. We know this. We try to stopper our minds, but our intuition won't be silenced. It's why we're so afraid.

P.S. You can also find this piece cross-posted at Truthout, where there are already some interesting comments.


Unknown said...

An excellent book on this subject is "The Terror Dream," by Susan Faludi. She's focusing more on the post-9/11 consequences to women and feminism and the macho cowboy/frail female myth she contends fueled our response, but it's still a fascinating look into why we reacted the way we did.

aaron said...

Ya may have a point...

Anonymous said...

I have not any resources left to dedicate to fearing retribution, as all such fear is presently dedicated to the forthcoming retribution from the Japanese for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's been a while, yes, I know. But, hey, the fount of fear is inexhaustible, and my stamina keeps pace with the patience of the aggrieved.

(In case it be wondered why I haven't ample resources to fear retribution from other quarters when the fount of fear is inexhaustible, let this simple answer suffice--while the fount itself is inexhaustible, my capacity for housing what stems from it is not.)

Interesting book review:

- - - - -

Before starting to write Daring Young Men, [Richard] Reeves, born in 1937, had been contemplating the changed perception of the United States throughout the world. At the end of World War II, it seemed, citizens of other nations looked upon the United States as bighearted, willingly sharing its disproportionate wealth. But during the first decade of the 21st century, many inhabitants of other lands viewed the United States "as arrogant, self-righteous, brutal, even a monster using our very substantial power to try to enforce a new order, a kind of global neo-imperialism," Reeves writes...

(...The divided city of Berlin lay within communist East Germany, and the Soviets refused to allow supplies for West Berlin to cross East German territory, apparently in an effort to force the United States, England, and France to withdraw their troops from West Berlin.) ...

Reeves... wonder[ed] whether the 277,500 high-risk, expensive flights through Soviet airspace to supply food and fuel to the West Berliners had disappeared in the mists of history.

Students questioned by Reeves said they had never heard of the airlift. Reeves' contemporaries generally guessed the effort had occurred during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, not the presidency of Harry S. Truman 13 years earlier.

Unable to restrain his enthusiasm, Reeves told audiences about Truman's heroic decision to supply Berlin by air, in the face of objections from his cabinet and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that it would be impossible to feed a city of more than two million by using cargo planes.

"Then I would babble on about the daring young men (and some women) from the States and Great Britain being pulled away from their new lives, their wives, their schools, their work for the second time in five or six years," Reeves writes. "This time they were supposed to feed the people they had been trying to kill, and who had been trying to kill them, only three years earlier."

- - - - -

Oh, those silly, silly young men and women of the distant past, so naive in their setting aside of the fear of retribution from the Germans upon whom had been levied death, destruction and desolation...

(I am, apparently, in somewhat of a facetious mood today. So it would seem...)

Barry Eisler said...

From Glenn:

"(I am, apparently, in somewhat of a facetious mood today. So it would seem...)"

And perhaps a thoughtless one, too, if you can see no possible differences between cultures, perceptions of justification, and acts of war on the one hand, and torturing captives who often turn out to be innocent, on the other.

But why make this a thought experiment? Click some of the links in my post to find empirical examples of actual jihadists motivated by revenge.

Or we can ignore the actual evidence, as it seems you'd prefer. Here's your argument: no jihadists are motivated by revenge in fact. And, because the Japanese didn't seek vengeance for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we don't have to worry about revenge for torture etc as a motive terrorist recruitment in theory, either.

The dangerous thing about indulging facetiousness is that it can make you sound more foolish than your arguments already do.

Bonnie, thanks for the recommendation. I've heard of the book and have been meaning to read it.

And Aaron, if we keep agreeing, what will we have to talk about when you're stateside? :)

Anonymous said...

Barry, your remarks read as if they were directed towards one who is in favor of torture, and if I were such a one, then those well-articulated excoriations would have had a mark to hit.

The facetiousness, which you believe dangerous to indulge, can be found in the opening and penultimate paras of my response above: a) that I've been living in fear of retribution from the Japanese; and, b) that I think it was silly of young men and women to set aside whatever fear they may have had, and gone ahead and done something that is good, useful and right.

And my suggestive argument, which I am quite sure you both misstate and attempt to paint as foolish, is that it is foolish to live a life that is ruled by fear.

Many who have been governed by fear, have condoned torture. And some of the tone (if not also some of the message) of Fear, With Good Reason struck me as containing more than a little encouragement, possibly only subtle, for the rest of us to be governed by fear because torture has been condoned.

Neither camp is for me.

I don't condone torture, because torture is wrong. And I don't care to live in fear, because living in fear can alter one's perceptions, and lead to, amongst other things, misreading the intentions of others (as happened, for one example, in Nisour Square).


Barry Eisler said...

Glenn, thanks for making your argument so plain. Before it was well-concealed.

"My suggestive argument... is that it is foolish to live a life that is ruled by fear."

That's all you were trying to say? May I ask then, to whom you were addressing your argument? Was anyone advocating the contrary? Do you know anyone, is it possible to imagine anyone, who would respond, "Wrong, Glenn, it is in fact wise to live a life ruled by fear."

If your argument is so banal it's really nothing more than a truism, if your argument is merely a statement so obvious and unobjectionable that no reasonable person would disagree with it (or even notice it if you didn't take the trouble to spell it out), you really can't complain if someone thinks you were trying to say something else. Because why would you waste electrons offering up... nothing?

For the record: I wholeheartedly agree. It's foolish to live a life ruled by fear. I just don't know what this truism has to do with my post, which argued that the reason many Americans are morbidly afraid of terrorism is because of a collective sense that our policies are making it worse.


Me: "Many Americans are morbidly afraid of terrorism because of a collective sense that our policies are making it worse."

You: "It's foolish to live a life ruled by fear."

Do you really think your argument is a coherent response to mine? Or that anyone would be able to figure out without aid that you meant something so incoherent?

For next time, I'd recommend reading a bit more carefully the post you purport to answer, and crafting an argument in reply that's an actual response. The effort would require a little more labor than indulging a facetious mood, but it would also be worthwhile.


aaron said...

Take heart...

Agreeing that our current course of action is bad still leaves infinite possibility for disagreement as to what would be better. :-)

Anonymous said...


You state for the record that you wholeheartedly agree with my argument. And later state that my argument is incoherent. It wasn't specified whether this latter statement was for the record or not, but, either way, wholeheartedly agreeing with my argument, and defining my argument as incoherent, amounts to wholeheartedly agreeing with my incoherent argument. Interesting.

Blog: "With all this terror, you might even think... I don't know, that terrorism is working pretty well."

If "terrorism is working pretty well", and the 'terror' of "terrorism" is something akin to 'fear', then perhaps (some) people need to be reminded of a certain banal truism.

Granted, it (the banal truism) is "so obvious and unobjectionable that no reasonable person would disagree with it".

But the problem, or one of the problems, as I recall having been pointed out in the blog, is that "America does seem to be in the grip of morbid fear, doesn't it?"

In which case--and assuming that reasonableness and morbid fear do not work so well together in a positive way (see below regarding your 'vicious cycle')--perhaps there is no harm, and maybe some good, in reminding the 'reasonable-challenged' of what is obvious to those who are not so challenged.

> So yes, we're afraid.

If by "we" you mean "all", then I see this as a misstatement. I offer myself as a counter-example. You can too, if you're so inclined (and doing so would not be a misrepresentation of the truth).

> Our tactics worsen the danger. The worse the danger, the more scared we get. The more scared we get, the less capable we are of rational policies. As our rationality deserts us, we embrace more tightly primitive tactics. And the more primitive we become, the worse we make the danger. And so on.

A vicious cycle. Obviously. Equally obvious is that banal truism. So banal, so true, that it matters not. It is, after all, or so you say, an empty argument.

I see two main 'driver' components in the vicious cycle you describe: the tactics that worsen the danger, and the fear that leads to a degradation of the rationality of policies which give reign to the tactics.

Stop the tactics, and the danger will cease to be worsened. No brainer. But the tactics are children of policies. And if the policies don't change, neither will the tactics. So, the policies need to be changed. I have no argument against this, and agree with your arguments in favor of it.

But what to do with that fear (which you took the time and trouble to identify and comment upon in your blog, and) which is likely not only to continue at least until such time as the policies change, but also to continue to drive adherence to the policies in effect?


Anonymous said...

I submit that, generally speaking, no useful and beneficial changes to those policies can be reasonably expected while the fear that gave them their life is permitted to perpetuate their embracement, thus that those in fear of consequences stemming from those policies have two basic choices: a) continue to obtain in impotent fear until the policies are changed; and, b) find some way to shake off (or distance themselves from) that impotent fear. (At least one other choice is available, true--that of aiding in the effort to precipitate policy changes. Yet even here, while aiding in the effort to bring about policy changes, one is confronted with the basic choices of remaining in fear or shaking it off.)

It seems to me to be reasonably probable that most of those "Many Americans [who] are morbidly afraid of terrorism" have a great deal more say in whether they personally are overwhelmed, driven by, and/or succumb to their morbid fear than they do in the making or changing of policies. Thus, choice b) is probably the better of the two basic choices.

Given that fear is driving the continuation of the policies that give rise to the tactics that engender the fear, it follows that just as changing the policies that give rise to the tactics represents a good and welcomed change, so too does reducing the fear that gives rise to the policies enabling the tactics. So, those who are morbidly afraid, or residing in an impotent fear, would, by opting for basic choice b), and assuming the rebound of rationality upon the removal of fear, make a positive contribution towards the laying of a rational foundation which is free of the taint of fear, and which adds to the pressure for the formulation of policies more nearly resembling something similarly rational.


Barry Eisler said...

Glenn, stop. As I said, your truism was "an incoherent response." Can you really not understand that point? Either you're pretending to be obtuse, or you're not pretending. Neither alternative is attractive.

Here's an unrelated hypothetical example:

Argument: "America should abolish the electoral college via Constitutional amendment."

Response: "It's foolish to live a life ruled by fear."

Still a truism. Still an incoherent response. Get it?

Truism or no, you need to get in the habit of responding to what's actually been said, not to phantom points that no one's making. Try pausing before responding to a post and asking, what is the writer's main point? Respond to that. If you try this exercise, there's a chance your responses will become more focused, which will enable you to cut the non-sequiturs and a lot of the other excess verbiage, too.

Forgive me if this comes across as insulting. Arguing is like driving -- everyone thinks he's good at it, not everybody is, and people often get insulted if someone points out their shortcomings. You're someone who could use some remedial attention and I hope you'll follow the advice in the paragraph above before commenting again. Which reminds me of a post I've been meaning to write for a while, on how to argue. There's clearly a need for it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the advice, Barry. I'm now looking forward to your post on how to argue. Particularly the sections, "In Responding To What's Actually Been Said, Quote The Person Who Said It", and "Supporting Your Argument Through The Use Of Unrelated Hypothetical Examples."

Also looking forward to your new book, Inside Out.

Re what Aaron said... heart taken.


Anonymous said...

Okay, Barry, I'll respond to your challenge, and attempt to be more focused, while leaving out the non-sequiturs and excess verbiage. So, starting from scratch:

I hear what you're saying, Barry.

However, I haven't any meaningful input to or control over the policies that are made or the behavior of those given charge for policy implementation. And I'm disinclined to fritter away my emotional and psychological health by fretting over potential reactions (however likely or probable) to the policies, their implementations, or their abuses.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks, Glenn. I'd call that a step in the right direction.

Travis said...

"...torturing captives who often turn out to be innocent..."

I'm not sure how many of the captives actually turned out to be innocent.

"and if that country constantly threatened to bomb us and sometimes actually did so, and if the bombs often missed and massacred women and children and funerals and wedding parties"

Having personal knowledge of 2 instances where there were claims that the US had bombed the wrong place and 'massacred women and children' I'm skeptical of all such claims. Yeah sure I can only speak to 2 times but it was a lie both times. Small sample poll but it is a 100%. The insurgents mount their own disinformation campaigns.

Barry Eisler said...

"I'm not sure how many of the captives actually turned out to be innocent."

Travis, there's been so much written about this, and it's so widely known that even the Bush administration eventually released about three quarters of their 800 original "worst of the worst," I really don't know how you could remain unsure. Read The Guantanamo Files, or The Guantanamo Lawyers, or just Google a few key words like "number of Guantanamo detainees innocent."

As for disinformation, are General McChrystal's apologies part of the Taliban's disinformation campaign?,2933,587211,00.html

Travis said...

First let me state that while I attacked a couple of the assertions I actually agree with your overall points. I think we, as a nation, should fight “a never-ending battle truth, justice and the American way” (Superman reference for anyone who missed it), even when dealing with our enemies. Maybe I should let the small points go in light of the bigger picture but I also think we should remember that our enemies are murderous scumbags who lie, cheat, steal and put innocent women and children into the line of fire so that they can then claim the US killed women and children.

So onward with the re-rebut.
Release is not evidence of innocence. People are released from prison all the time but aren't found to have been innocent all along. “Worst of the worst” is an overstatement for many of them but so is “innocent”. While many of these people were low-level and would have been handled differently later in the war that doesn’t mean they were innocent all along.

As for “so much being written” I did a quick read and do find a multitude of articles but they pretty much all make that leap from, “administration overstated” to “it’s completely devoid of value and wrong”. In many articles using the “innocent” wording one particular former official is the source. One source repeated over and over is still only one source, not multiple pieces of evidence.

Re: Gen. McChrystal’s apology.

Nope, I'm sure that one is real. I didn't mean to imply (though re-reading I see where I kind of do) that I thought NONE of the claims are true. The Armed Forces are made up of people with the full spectrum of human fallibility.

Yet our media is disproportionately inclined to believe the terrorists. I’ve seen the media blindly report insurgent claims when I know they not only aren’t accurate, but rather, are outright fabrications.

Yes, this doesn’t disprove any other specific report but it does cause me to be skeptical of all reports. I just think our media system is fundamentally flawed and, for whatever motive, is biased against the former administration and the American Soldier.

Travis said...

I left out "for" in my Superman opening quote.

I'm so ashamed...

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I'm myopic, but on removing from consideration the illegality and inhumanity of torture, I'm not able to see how it might put an end to terrorism, or enable the acquisition of something that might. At the same time, I see cowering in fear and acceding to terrorist demands as similarly ineffectual.

There are people who will provoke and provoke so as to elicit a reaction which they may then not only condemn, but also use as a concrete 'reason' for continued provocation. It's called 'picking a fight'. And terrorists love to pick a fight.

In fact, terrorists have been provoking, and executing their reprisal attacks (not to mention those who fail to toe-the-line of their demands), for hundreds of years.

How to deal with people like this?

Perhaps Barry can offer some insights from his martial arts training which may be scaled up to the larger issue of terrorism. Though it is helpful, it isn't enough to know that responses/reactions X, Y and Z are ineffectual at best, and exacerbating at worse. One needs also to know what will 'work'. So, how about it Barry--or anyone, any ideas on what will 'work' when dealing with terrorism?

(Though it goes without saying, let it be said nonetheless: since we already know that they do not work, 'kill', 'torture', 'fear', 'cave in', etc., should be excluded from consideration of what will/might 'work' .)

Travis said...

"since we already know that they do not work"

How do we know that? Seriously, in an epistemological sense has that, or can it even be proven?