Symposium | A Decade Squandered

The Politics of Fear

By Corey Robin

Tagged Democracynational security

In my 2004 book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, I argued that “one day, the war on terrorism will come to an end. All wars do. And when it does, we will find ourselves still living in fear: not of terrorism or radical Islam, but of the domestic rulers that fear has left behind.”

When I wrote “one day,” I was thinking decades, not years. I figured that the war on terror—less the invasions, wars, torture, drone attacks, and assassinations than the broader atmosphere of pervasive and militarized dread, what Hobbes called “a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known” and an enemy is perceived as permanent and irrepressible—would continue at least into the 2010s, if not the ’20s.

Yet even before Osama bin Laden was killed and negotiations with the Taliban had begun, it was clear that the war on terror, understood in those terms, had come to an end. As early as the 2004 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate John Kerry had hinted at such a possibility in an interview with Matt Bai in The New York Times Magazine:

When I asked Kerry what it would take for Americans to feel safe again, he displayed a much less apocalyptic worldview. “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance,” Kerry said. “As a former law-enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”

A Kinsley gaffe if ever there was one, Kerry’s comment may have helped seal his fate in that election. Even so, it laid down a marker of what has essentially come to pass: Though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan go on, though the United States continues to assassinate actual and suspected terrorists throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, though security lines continue to snake around airport corners, the high-octane politics of fear we saw in the aftermath of 9/11 has, for all intents and purposes, dissipated. The threat of terrorism is no longer the focus of our days—indeed, probably hasn’t been since 2006; it is instead a nuisance, something the government continues to fight but not something threatening the fabric of our lives.

Yet, as others in this symposium have noted, the political infrastructure of fear—the bureaucracies and institutions created in the wake of 9/11, the profiling and practices of surveillance, the laws and enforcement agencies—survives. We still have a Department of Homeland Security and a Patriot Act, Guantánamo is open for service, and what my colleague Jeanne Theoharis calls “Guantánamo at home”—the draconian policies and procedures, directed primarily at Muslims and Arabs, in the federal prison system—has not been scrutinized or even discussed. And all this, it hardly needs be said, nearly three years into the Obama Administration.

From these polar realities—a thinning atmosphere of political fear, an expanding infrastructure of political fear—I draw two conclusions. First, the politics of fear is far less dependent upon the actual psychic experience of the public than analysts would have us think. While many believe that the individual emotions of the citizenry propel the policies the government pursues, I see little evidence of that. Even if we assume that each and every member of the public is experiencing fear, that experience still doesn’t explain the policies. A frightened population could just as easily inspire the government to pursue policies that would dampen rather than arouse fear. It is politics that produces policies, not fear.

In any event, the public’s putative experience of fear cannot explain the persistence, indeed the enhancement, of the kind of government policies and practices we’ve seen in the last five years or so. A combination of bureaucratic inertia and partisan interests, in which neither party has much incentive to do anything on behalf of a persecuted minority—the sorry stuff, in other words, of old-fashioned political science—explains far more than do speculation and experiments in social or cognitive psychology.

Second, journalists and scholars too often assume that the public is united in its fear because the objects of fear—terrorism, radical Islam, and so on—are equally threatening to each and every member of the public. But as Hobbes understood so well, men and women do argue about political threats—whether they exist, whom they threaten, whence they come, how to respond to them. They argue about political threats for the same reason they argue about other political matters: Perceptions of harm are dependent upon beliefs about good and evil, justice and injustice, and experiences of harm are mediated by material factors such as one’s standing in the world.

Indeed, it was this profoundly human penchant to argue about threats that drove Hobbes to insist it was among the sovereign’s most important duties to simply decide, to declare by fiat, whether a nation was threatened or not—and that it was among the subject’s most important duties to allow the sovereign to make that decision. Far from assuming that this right of the sovereign to identify public threats would be easily accepted, however, Hobbes understood that it had to be defended through a comprehensive effort of popular instruction—a project, judging by the debates over national security that have punctuated American history from its inception (remember the Hartford Convention?), in which few governments have ever succeeded. That sovereigns have to assert that they are the deciders of our fears testifies to the fact that national security is no more a source of unity than Social Security.

As we’ve seen over the last decade, citizens still disagree about threats and how to respond to them, and they experience political fear in different ways. A Muslim or Arab citizen of the United States might well be more afraid of government surveillance than of a terrorist attack. An unemployed middle-aged woman may be more concerned about economic insecurity or poverty than Al Qaeda. And even threats that do temporarily command the public’s attention seldom yield united responses beyond the very short term.

A unity of fear, then, is not an artifact of mass psychology; it is a political project, crafted through leadership, ideology, and collective action. Like many political projects, it often fails, or at least does not fully succeed. And when it fails—dissenters question whether we need be afraid, citizens cease to pay attention to “orange” and “red” alerts, parties focus on other items of public concern—governments either try to enlarge the infrastructure by insulating it against the vagaries of public opinion, or dampen the dissent. Again, old-fashioned politics.

Since 9/11, we’ve gotten used to the phrase “the politics of fear.” It’s high time we started taking the politics part more seriously.

From the Symposium

A Decade Squandered

If on the morning of September 12, 2001 we'd been asked what we hoped to see happen in the United States over the coming decade, we'd have said something like: a forceful and proportional response to the perpetrators of the...

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Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author, most recently, of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin.

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