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Frightened—and Fighting Fear

Liberal Art

By Peter P.M. Buttigieg

If you feel like getting goose bumps today, borrow your English-concentrating roommate’s copy of the Norton Anthology of English Literature and read W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming.” Though written in Ireland in 1922, many observers have pointed out that the poem seems almost explicitly about the second coming of the Bush Administration.

“Things fall apart,” Yeats wrote; “the centre cannot hold.” Prefiguring the war, terror and bloodshed that quickly followed the dawn of our new millennium, he spoke of a “blood-dimmed tide” drowning “the ceremony of innocence.” He reads as though scolding a spineless Democratic Party when lamenting that “the best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Eventually, the mystical poem goes farther than we would. When Yeats’ millennial vision warns that “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” one suspects that the poem’s aptitude for our age has ended. Yet speeches and articles have been using even this line in earnest; one post-9/11 commencement speaker, citing it, noted that “We know not yet if the center will hold, or if civilization itself will fall apart.”

This brings us to another set of words which, re-read for our time, makes a frightful amount of sense: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904, is famous for saying that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” However trite this used to seem, lately it has come to sound urgently appropriate. Indeed, we should all be very, very afraid of fear. Lately, I’m terrified of it.

The thing about fear is that it makes things possible that otherwise would not be. Things you would never imagine doing—kicking puppies for example—would suddenly become possible or even inevitable in a context of fear—if, say, you feared the puppies were rabid and looked ready to bite. A more real and heartbreaking example is that of soldiers my age at roadblocks and checkpoints in Israel and Iraq alike, shooting children, women and journalists. These soldiers are not malicious; they are simply afraid for their lives. If a warning shot goes unheeded, fear leads to death.

When fear is this deadly among individuals, the thought of a whole country afraid—afraid enough to read Yeats and think civilization is coming to an end—is truly terrifying. Terrorists create such fear, among individuals and nations, with the precise hope of driving us into a cycle of violence; it is up to leaders to undo this damage, to curb the terrific destructive power of fear itself.

Or they could stoke it. The Bush administration did just that, most notably in the run-up to a war on Iraq which, if we set aside the retrospective talk of “liberation” and return to the beginning, was sold principally on the basis of fear. Iraq, we were told, was developing nuclear weapons. It had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction ready to go at a moment’s notice. Remember? Just days before the October vote in Congress on Iraq (and just as the Air Force was preparing an internal report to the contrary), President Bush announced the existence of Iraq’s “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” intended to spray chemical death on American cities. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles! And so, in fear, we went to war against this threat, only to find terrified and angry Iraqis with a decidedly conventional arsenal. (The harmless drones we found seem to have been for reconnaissance, as the Air Force believed all along.) The enabling power of fear was remarkable; even now conservatives note that the flimsy links between Saddam and al-Qaeda “have not been totally disproven”—as though standards of evidence for war were looser, not stricter, than those of the courtroom.

At home, our leadership continues to peddle fear. The new Department of Homeland Security whipped up enough fear of chemical attacks that there was a run on tarp and duct tape. John Ashcroft’s website defending the USA PATRIOT Act is not only frightening but alliterative. Take a look at to read all about the “deadly plans of terrorists dedicated to destroying America.” And President Bush, in each of his last three addresses to the nation, has not once failed to conclude his remarks with references to “dangers,” “evil,” “harm” or “peril.”

But fear, again, is the enemy of conscience and hence of peace. Fear’s track record in making us safe is depressing, with no better evidence than current events: it was fear of Communism, after all, that let our national conscience slip enough for Reagan to arm, fund and train terrorists and dictators around the world during the 1980s—among them Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Surely, there must be an alternative to fear, a mindset that will strengthen rather than suspend basic human, and American, values rather than drive us to set more traps for ourselves.

Here’s where the Democrats come in. When a government peddles fear, it’s up to the opposition to offer something better. As early as this fall, before the black ink has worn off the lettering on our ID cards, ten Democrats are asking for the support of young people like competing restaurateurs on a European city street. Each has a familiar and appetizing menu of red meat—class resentment for starters, some anti-administration anger, maybe a sweet life story for dessert. But the offerings so far lack what is most needed as an antidote to fear, namely hope.

Until someone emerges in the American public eye as a decisively hopeful candidate, strong enough to remind voters that fearmongering plays into the hands of terrorists, yet positive enough to offer a meaningful alternative, the Democrats risk continued, perhaps fatal paralysis, while the genuinely fearsome specter of a second George W. Bush administration slouches toward Washington to be born.

Peter P.M. Buttigieg ’04 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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