Log Cabin Chronicles

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Chris Braithwaite publishes the Barton Chronicle, arguably the finest community newspaper in Vermont.]

The Fear Factor

Barton, Vermont

In 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America suddenly found itself at war with formidable enemies on opposite sides of the globe.

Eight years earlier, in his inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told his economically attacked fellow Americans that "we have nothing to fear but fear itself…"

What was true in the Great Depression was still true when the nation suddenly became engaged in a great global conflict.

U.S. Representative John Murtha recalled that message in a recent interview.

A Marine veteran who fought and was injured in Vietnam, the Pennsylvania Democrat has become the most prominent - and arguably most effective - critic of the war in Iraq. But Representative Murtha was speaking about that other struggle America is engaged in, the so-called War on Terror.

"There's a fear factor here we keep talking about," he said. "Trying to scare the American people."

Roosevelt, like Britain's Churchill, famously urged his people to summon their courage in the face of grave national peril.

"But the rhetoric that goes on about terrorism puts a lot of fear in the American public," Representative Murtha said.

He's right. And it's a puzzle, because it is fear that gives terrorism its great power.

Terrorists have no hope of conquering America. They can only hope to kill some of us and terrify the rest of us.

It is a fact, not just a linguistic nicety, that without terror there can be no terrorism.

The enormous significance that has been placed on our effort to identify, find and kill a handful of murderers; the very decision - slavishly copied by so much of our media - to call this effort a "war" has only increased their power over us.

It could be that all this power comes from the randomness of terrorist attacks. We fear terrorism so much because it can strike innocent men, women and children anywhere, at any time.

But surely this idea of holding innocent civilians hostage was the hallmark of twentieth century warfare, a grim premium of our mastery of the air and the atom.

Hitler started it with the "blitzkrieg," reducing large tracts of London to rubble for reasons that had more to do with Britain's willingness to fight that its ability to do so.

The allies replied in kind with the fire bombing of Dresden, then Tokyo, and finally the atomic bombs America dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Through four decades of the Cold War we lived with the ultimate terror. Minutes after a distant madman made a very bad decision we might be vaporized, or doomed to a slow and particularly horrible death. Our nation might be virtually wiped off the map. And it was no fantasy that a full-scale thermonuclear exchange could end human civilization, human life itself.

It seems remarkable that we soldiered on through these terrifying decades. As a nation we thrived, and we kept our liberty intact. Indeed Americans' civil liberties were significantly strengthened in those decades.

Now our liberties seem to be slipping away. Is this really due to a handful of suicidal fanatics?

Or is it due to our own failure to stare this new and terrible threat in the face? We have stood down monstrous, implacable enemies in the past.

Yes, of course, we must find these people and put them out of business.

But why should this handful have the power to lure us into hopelessly misguided war; to lose the regard of our most important allies; to give up with scarcely a whimper the very liberties that so many Americans, over so many years, were willing to fight and die for?

In the wiser hindsight of history, the final judgment of George W. Bush may be this: that when America needed to find its courage, he spoke only to our fears.


Copyright © 2006 Chris Braithwaite/Barton Chronicle/02.06