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There Is Much to Fear

fear itself

One of the exceptional things about Post-Constitutional America is how instead of using the traditional tools of an autocracy– secret police, torture, mass round ups– the majority of Americans have given up their rights willfully, voluntarily, almost gleefully. The key tool used by government to have accomplished this is fear-mongering.

Fear is one of our most powerful emotions. It plays a very important evolutionary role after all; the first folks who learned to fear lions and tigers and bears tended to live longer than those who were slower learners. Fears from childhood about heights or spiders often stick with us forever. So using fear of terrorists and other bogeymen has proven to be the most effective tool of the world’s first voluntary national security state and its coalition partners in scariness.

The post-9/11 months are nothing but a master class in fear-mongering. Condoleezza Rice’s oft-quote statement about not wanting to wait for a mushroom cloud over America to be the smoking gun of terror is near-Bond villain level evil genius. The 2003 Iraq War was sold in large part on fear-mongering over fake nukes, fake biological weapons and a fake hunt for WMDS.

A few recent examples illustrate how the work continues. Because nothing is better to keep fear alive than a regular flow of refreshers (watch out behind you, a spider!).

Australia

The Australians have proven excellent students of the American model. After a single phone call from one purported jihadi in the Middle East to a purported jihadi in Sydney suggesting a random beheading would be a fine terror act, the Aussies kicked off the largest counterterrorism operation in Australian history, with full world-wide media coverage of course, all of which resulted in the arrest of one 22-year-old. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said it showed that “a knife, an iPhone and a victim” were the only ingredients needed for a terrorist attack.

B.S. Factor: Between 2009-2010 (last statistics located) 257 Australians were killed domestically, many with knives. None of those cases involved the largest manhunts in Australian history. Drunken dingoes seem more a threat to citizens than terrorists, perhaps even with an iPhone and a knife for the dingo.

Britain

The British are loosely joining the coalition against ISIS in Iraq, based largely on the beheading video of a single Brit hostage (beheading videos of two American hostages have also been an effective fear-mongering tool in the United States recently.) Since most westerners do not visit the Arabic-language web sites where such videos widely appear, this form of fear- mongering requires the assistance of the main stream media, who appear more than happy to assist by re-running the videos in an endless loop.

B.S. Factor: In 2013, 6,193 Brits died abroad. Very few cases even made the news in a small way.

United States

Back here in the U.S., higher-level encryption built directly into the new iPhone caused much concern among law enforcement, who will have a harder time mass-monitoring the communications of all Americans as they have freely done for the past decade or so. FBI Director James Comey at a news conference already focused on ISIS terror threats said “What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to hold themselves beyond the law.” He cited specifically kidnapping cases, in which exploiting the contents of a seized phone could lead to finding a victim, and predicted there would be moments when parents would come to him “with tears in their eyes, look at me and say, ‘What do you mean you can’t’ ” decode the contents of a phone.

B.S. Factor: We could find no statistics on how often decoding the contents of a phone alone resolved a kidnapping case. We also note that even if the FBI or the NSA could not actually break the iPhone encryption, existing, working tools unaffected by encryption such as triangulation geolocating, standard GPS, cell tower tracking, Stingray intercepts, call logs, email logs, cloud contents, and web searches can provide a wealth of data remotely, without even the need to seize a physical phone.

OMG: Americans May Be Killed By Terrorists

Obviously the uber fear-mongering are the pervasive streams of warnings about “almost executed” terror plots inside America. Whether told “if you see something, say something” on a bus, strip searched in the airport or hearing about one pseudo-plot after another on the news, the meme is that danger lurks everywhere in the United States.

B.S. Factor: Since 9/11, as few as 16 Americans here in Das Homeland has been killed by terrorists, almost all fellow Americans. On the high end, some claim the death count is about 100, but that includes murders at abortion clinics not everyone would call terrorism as far as traditional government fear-mongering is concerned.

The odds of dying in a terrorist attack in the United States are 20,000,000 to 1. By comparison, Americans are 17,600 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack.

Maybe more terrifying than anything else, in America you are eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist. That’s a broad average; it is higher if you are a young African-American male.

Exceptionalism?

To be fair, fear-mongering in general, and fear-mongering over terrorism, have a much longer history of use by autocrats than what has been employed since 9/11. One national leader in fact said “The easiest way to gain control of a population is to carry out acts of terror. The public will clamor for such laws if their personal security is threatened.” That was Joseph Stalin.

So yes, there is indeed much to fear.

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Peter Van Buren writes about current events at his blog. His book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now from Amazon

Photo by Tom Lin under Creative Commons license

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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.

Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean (the book’s all in English, don’t worry). Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler.

Though this is his first book, Peter’s commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael Moore.com, Le Monde, Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and others.

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