Back in 2004, at the height of the American war in Iraq, the BBC aired a stunning three-part documentary series called The Power of Nightmares. It told the parallel stories of neo-conservatives and radical Islamists, arguing that both turned fear and the collapse of the liberal project into powerful support for their extreme violence. I saw it the next year in the aftermath of the re-election of George W Bush, an event that today seems completely inexplicable. At the time, however, it was easy to see that Bush and his handlers had skillfully exploited America's post-9/11 fear and hate. The point about America's insatiable fear also came across in Bowling for Columbine, which while about gun control had one of its most powerful moments in showing how a constant drumbeat of fear by the television media to shock viewers into tuning in became all-consuming after the terror attacks on the World Trade Center.
In the past few years I have let myself forget the potency of fear in this country. According to a recent Times article, conservatives have not forgotten, and are running political ads blaming Ebola and ISIS on the president.
This is a nation that exudes fear and paranoia, from anti-vaccers who refuse to innoculate their children to "doomsday preppers" expecting the apocalypse. White people are drilled from day one in their lives to fear black people as some kind of dangerous, criminal other, which has had murderous consequences from Ferguson to Fruitvale Station. Since the election of Barack Obama his conservative opponents have exploited the fears of his most bigoted detractors. Expanded health insurance, for example, became a genocidal vehicle for "death panels" in the Tea Party imagination.
The response to the Ebola virus this week has been most telling. The infection of one person in Texas has led to unhinged panic and conspiracy theories that is somehow has something to do with refugee children from Central America or a plot by Barack Obama to Africanize the country. (The latter bit of nonsense comes straight from the mouth of hate-crone Phyllis Schlafly.)
Our republic of fear has birthed two destructive, open-ended conflicts still ruining lives, the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Since the panics over crack in the 1980s we have been incarcerating our nation's population on a truly staggering level. This same War on Drugs has given the police ridiculous power to confiscate property and ruin lives without due process. To fight the terrorist bogeyman, the public is told they must allow the government to secretly tap our phones, look at our email, and scan our bodies at the airport. For the most part, the public has acquiesced, despite the occasional complaint.
Political reactionaries with an authoritarian bent will continue to prosper, since fear is the fuel that they live on. The United States will never be able to progress and improve from its appalling state unless it gives up its addiction to fear. I can't say that I'm optimistic that it will happen.