Fear Itself

By Michael J. Hershman & Mark Monsky

September 11, 2001, is a date to live in infamy. We are engaged in a global war, faced by an explosion of hate that means to slaughter us, our children, and what we stand for. As in World War II, fear has become more than a tool; it has again become a purpose.

Fear functions best in the shadows of the unknown, and its purpose is to intimidate, confuse, and coerce. In this case, the Jihadis, “holy warriors,” want to spread fear and chaos in the Islamic word as a step toward imposing a unified religious state with ultimate power.

The short-term goal is to unite the Islamic world. The longer-term goal is to provoke a cataclysmic war that will end in a global dominion for Islam. From this viewpoint, the Jihadist sees the United States as the main obstacle.

Americans must live free from the fear aimed at us. If our parents and grandparents could conduct a global war and win an absolute victory, we can do no less. As John F. Kennedy said, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

There are many things to define how we meet on this field of war. But we have no need for a state of fear. We have nothing to fear so long as we hold to our Constitution and to each other.

All across the Middle East, a parable is told repeatedly by half-shaven men in coffee shops, educated individuals in their living rooms, and leaders in their tents and palaces: A camel comes to the bank of a deep and dangerous river. As the camel is preparing to cross, a scorpion, sitting on a rock, asks if he can get on the camel's back for the ride.

"But you are a scorpion," the camel says with caution, if not outright fear. "If you sting me, I will drown and die!"

"What sense does that make?" replies the scorpion. "If I sting you and you drown, I will drown also."

The camel, not the brightest animal, agrees, and the scorpion climbs up on his hump and off across the river they go. Just at the deepest, most turbulent spot in the water, as the camel is fighting to keep his head (and hump) above the raging waters, the scorpion strikes.

In pain, the camel turns to the scorpion and says: "Why? You've killed us both!"

The scorpion shrugs and replies with a voice dripping with disdain. "Why? Don't be silly. This is the Middle East."

Indeed, this is the Middle East. This is the world America has been drawn into.

It has a long history with many warnings along the way, yet these signs were ignored, misinterpreted, and misrepresented by Presidents and the appointed watchdogs of the United States Senate and the House of Representatives. They were ignored or misrepresented in the media.

Until the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

There was a very brief moment before the word "war" began to rumble through America. And it still rumbles today.

The icon of "9/11" has now assumed its place among such monumental acts in our history as Pearl Harbor. And it has become the emblem of a new state of war. That war continues to be misrepresented because it is labeled a "War Against Terrorism." But terrorism is a tool, not a motive or a purpose.

The motive is the renewed convulsion of Islamic fundamentalism in the hands of ruthless self-styled Jihadis, who have been trying to unite the Islamic peoples for decades. The purpose of 9/11 and such outrages to come is to embolden the discontented in the world of Islam and in the West to provoke retributions that will unite the Islamic world − 1.3 billion people − and accomplish what the extremists have not.

The very fact that terrorism remains our enemy's most potent tool is also the evidence that their power is still weak. Despite the pictures of reckless hatred that are being fed into the global airwaves, the billion-plus peoples of the Koran have shown no willingness to join the fundamentalist jihad. But they are watching. And they wonder.

And so we seek to make the argument that military response is necessary. More than a billion people are waiting to see who will have the strength to lead them out of the poverty, despair, ignorance, and the humiliations these conditions breed. Should we fail in the military test, we will enable the extremists to seize power and − through the sword − unite part or all of the Islamic world in slavery. Beyond that lies the ghastly specter of religious fanatics with nuclear weapons.

The chaos that would be generated should the Jihadis prove a military strength is easy to forecast. Look at what happened in Afghanistan when that society was captured and dominated by the Taliban. It became the armory and refuge for Usama bin Laden and al Qaeda and a variety of other Jihadis.

We also seek to make the argument that the second test − the longer term − is a contest of ideas. It is from a deep and ancient well of rivalry and hatred that Islamic fundamentalists see the West and Christianity as their hereditary and evil foe. That the West has become free and secular has, perversely, only fed the hatred. And when the United States assumed the unchallenged role of the super-power of the West, America became their primary target.

Virtually every accomplishment of the evolution of our society is a polar opposite of the Islamic fundamentalist view. We draw a line between government and religion. They quote passages from the Koran that recognize religious leadership and law as the sole legitimate State. We enfranchise female citizens fully. They regard that as an abomination.

In the United States, virtually all our citizens now know that we have been drawn into a bitter and seemingly relentless war. We have sought no religious or political dominion in any part of the Islamic world and thus − the beneficiaries of secularism and civil society − are unable to feel that hatred.

In the last century the industrialism and power of the United States has been fueled largely by oil-rich states, governed by despots and tyrants both religious and secular. Very little of that wealth has gone to alleviate the abject poverty of the vast populations of the Islamic world. The vast majority of people in the Islamic world are functionally illiterate and their sole source of knowledge has come from Koranic instruction in the hands of local preachers, the Imams.

In the last three decades, the most potent tool in the affairs of states, communities, and individuals has been the global reach of television. Until recently, the effect of television was to demonstrate the vast differences between the secular and industrialized West and the Islamic world. Television is a showcase for our social and material successes and became the greatest threat in history to the power of the Islamic clergy.

The first inkling of the uses of television by the Islamic fundamentalists was shortly after the Ayatollah Khomeni, exiled and protected in France, returned to Iran and rode a flood of fundamentalist revolution into power. When the United States Embassy was invaded and American diplomatic personnel humiliated before the TV cameras, that picture brought power to the anti-Western forces − secular and religious − throughout the Islamic world. It lasted more than a year, was the focus of nightly global television, and was a match in the powder keg. At virtually the same time, Soviet army forces were driven from Afghanistan by the Mujahaddin, another word for the Jihadis.

It is no accident that modern Jihadis have shaped their attacks to make dramatic television pictures. Hostages’ pleas for their lives are shown on television – as are their deaths. The aircraft hijackings of 9/11 were timed for daylight to enable more pictures. Al Queda's communications have been overwhelmingly self-recorded television tapes. And the emergence of the Arabic satellite broadcaster Al Jazeera provides the constant platform to carry the message.

Indeed, there is a war of bullets and bombs. There is also a war of ideas being waged on television. It is one of life's great ironies that on the battlefield of television, which America created and has mastered in every other way, we have failed so far to meet that challenge. We obligingly repeat the images, and the more barbaric and horrendous they are, the more the images captivate and dominate.

We do indeed live in an atmosphere of terror, which is breeding suspicion and division. We have placed an overwhelming value on the concepts and tools of anything that might offer "security."

The instruments of governmental power have been focused on these goals. But where they show successes, those are marginal. Our airports are safer now. But our ports, mass transit, water supplies, and the rest of our infrastructure have made more marginal gains. And terrorists do not have to focus on the U.S. to feed the atmosphere of fear. That can be done on trains in Spain or nightclubs in Indonesia. Any horrible act anywhere in the world now feeds the machinery.

During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, we feared what we could see: Thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear warheads. We were dealing with a hostile and subversive political machinery that had definite borders and a clear chain of command for even its most shadowy forces.

This is the start of the Third World Wars, when our fears are activated by what we cannot see, coming from places we cannot identify. And there's no political structure with which to speak, much less negotiate. This point was driven home in the Executive Summary of the 9/11 Commission:

Are we safer? Since 9/11, the United States and its allies have killed or captured a majority of al Qaeda's leadership; toppled the Taliban, which gave al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan; and severely damaged the organization. Yet terrorist attacks continue. Even as we have thwarted attacks, nearly everyone expects they will come. How can this be?

The problem is that al Qaeda represents an ideological movement, not a finite group of people. It initiates and inspires, even if it no longer directs. In this way it has transformed itself into a decentralized force. Bin Ladin may be limited in his ability to organize major attacks from his hideouts. Yet killing or capturing him, while extremely important, would not end terror. His message of inspiration to a new generation of terrorists would continue.

Because of offensive actions against al Qaeda since 9/11, and defensive actions to improve homeland security, we believe we are safer today. But we are not safe….

What should Americans expect from their government? The goal seems unlimited: Defeat terrorism anywhere in the world. But Americans have also been told to expect the worst: An attack is probably coming; it may be more devastating still.

Vague goals match an amorphous picture of the enemy. Al Qaeda and other groups are popularly described as being all over the world, adaptable, resilient, needing little higher-level organization, and capable of anything. It is an image of an omnipotent hydra of destruction. That image lowers expectations of government effectiveness.

It lowers them too far. Our report shows a determined and capable group of plotters. Yet the group was fragile and occasionally left vulnerable by the marginal, unstable people often attracted to such causes. The enemy made mistakes. The U. S. government was not able to capitalize on them.

No president can promise that a catastrophic attack like that of 9/11 will not happen again. But the American people are entitled to expect that officials will have realistic objectives, clear guidance, and effective organization. They are entitled to see standards for performance so they can judge, with the help of their elected representatives, whether the objectives are being met.

When you boil down the officialese, the reduction is inescapable: The best defense is a good offense. We need better plans to handle the impacts of the attacks we fear are yet to come.

But the government is caught in a bind. The American public absorbed the impact of 9/11 directing little anger at the government. But a second successful attack with no effective response will generate domestic political resentment and, perhaps worse, fuel popular anger that would demand an overseas response of increased harshness.

In Franklin Roosevelt's inaugural address to the nation, he uttered a phrase which has lasted to this day: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

Now we do have something to fear in the Jihadis' suicidal impulses. The fear that there will be another strike. The fear that it will be done with chemical or biological weapons. And in the darkest anticipations, an attack with a rudimentary "dirty bomb" that would spread radiation.

But we must also come to grips with fear as an enveloping mood in our lives, one that takes on a life of its own, independent of specific actions.

We do have something to fear in fear itself.

Fear is our enemy. And not just the fear of a 9/11 act of murder. Within an atmosphere of fear we will find only confusion, obsession, exhaustion, and a corrosive mistrust. Worse, we will be enticed to slice away at our Constitutional guarantees. These have been given to our hands, in trust, by our ancestors. We must hold them as dearly as they did. Freedom is our gift, but it is not free.