Sunday, November 05, 2006

Shades of tyranny in our use of fear


The way we think and talk about war leaves us unable to evolve beyond it. Like a hypnotic suggestion, the language of war subdues the conscious mind and makes us embrace unthinkable ideas.

With reverent words to acknowledge suffering, stirring words to honor courage, and persuasive words to rally the troops, attitudes and the phrases that express them have become hard-wired into our cultural consciousness. We utter them without needing to think. Reason gives way to habit and emotion. We don't seem to notice that over time the resignation connected with grief has morphed into acceptance of the unacceptable. We seem blind to the exploitation of our gratitude by the powerful, who send people to war, then silence opponents by equating opposition to policy with disloyalty to those who serve.

After centuries of fighting, not only do we accept war, we applaud and honor it. When it comes to war, we seem willing to shut down our brains and surrender to the emotional tide of popular sentiment.
''There are some things worth fighting for,'' we say, though the phrase offers no evidence for its assertion that violence is an effective strategy for protecting things we hold dear. We say ''freedom isn't free'' to express gratitude to veterans, but confuse promoting freedom with protecting our safety. Any use of force denies the freedom of another. A military victory may provide a measure of safety to the victors, but usually only a lull in a balance of terror, while the defeated bide their time.

Fear and the desire for revenge lurk at the heart of the most powerful attitudes about war. These emotions know no cultural boundaries, and I am not surprised that they exist, but I am amazed that we don't object to their continuing to govern our behavior in the 21st century. Respected nations still speak of ''bringing their opponents to their knees,'' and fearful populations rally in support of leaders who act tough. Seeking revenge should not be confused with problem solving. An enemy subdued is often an enemy lying in wait.

The Bush administration used fear to win initial support for the war in Iraq, and won re-election with the same appeal. To be sure, there is plenty to fear, but using fear to elicit support is more appropriate to tyranny than to democracy. At the core of our democratic ideals is the belief that government derives its power from the consent of the governed. That consent should be given after careful reflection, not taken by emotional manipulation.

Emotional thinking creates a gap between reality and what we choose to believe. The planners of the war failed to take into account the possible consequences of their actions. In a moment of hubris, they convinced themselves that they could wish a democratic ally into existence. They didn't trust democracy enough, however, to listen to voices from the region they planned to liberate, who correctly warned that attacking Iraq would inspire a million bin Ladens. Our invasion was a bonanza for terrorist recruitment, and our removal of Saddam Hussein without an effective strategy for maintaining order was an invitation to every outlaw and power seeker to take advantage of the chaos that ensued.

Experts on terrorism tell us that humiliation is one of its causes. It was certainly not logic, then, that possessed the administration to use a campaign of ''shock and awe'' to send a message to the Middle East. Our power is exactly what angers and motivates terrorists to defy us. Vast numbers of the world's people live in our shadow, and we have yet to come to terms with their resentment. Agents of our country have overthrown democratically elected governments and made behind-the-scenes deals that benefit us at the expense of others. Like frustrated players who upset the game board because they can't win, more and more angry people have decided not to play by our rules. They've empowered themselves to hurt us using methods that armies cannot easily combat. The benefits of any military action must be weighed against its value to terrorists as evidence that we deserve to be hated.

President Bush has inadvertently demonstrated just how vital democracy is to civilization. When a few people act with arrogant disregard for the opinions of others, they erode the glue of consent that holds civilization together. That is true whether plans are hatched in a cave in Afghanistan or in an office in Washington, D.C.

With violent conflicts spiraling out of control, we must think clearly about war. As some begin to call for military strikes in Iran, we need the combined wisdom of every mind capable of reason to choose strategies that make sense, not rash actions that suit our emotions.

The world will not forgive and may not survive another disastrous mistake. We would be wise to act with an eye to the rights and safety of those who have not yet joined the terrorists. Otherwise, we will continue to create enemies faster than we can kill them.
Gail Bangert lives in Harwich.
(Published: October 10, 2006)


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