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They're Always Scheming Against Us

James O'Brien

Last week while I was out driving the freeways of Minneapolis, I saw something I'd never seen before. All of the digital message boards on the highway, the ones that usually flash mundane news of traffic snarls and roadside accidents, now sought to enlist every driver on the road in a police manhunt. It was an "Amber Alert"--the message transmitted through every available outlet when a child goes missing under suspicious circum-

stances, in accordance with a 2002 state law. The flashing message described a vehicle by color and make and gave a license number.

Well, who could be opposed to putting out the word on missing children? Yet the Amber Alert law is an odd deployment of social resources, to say the least. According to FBI statistics, the total number of children abducted by strangers nationwide in an average year is around 100. As social problems go, this one barely exists outside the fevered imaginings of the media. My first reaction was to shiver--suddenly I was in an episode of COPS--and my second was to wonder how many accidents would ensue as drivers began ignoring the cars around them in a bid to be first to spot the renegade van.


We live in a siege culture now, obsessed with inventing new ways to assure that they don't get us. The express premise of the war on terror--a war we've been told we'll live with for a generation--is that there's a whole world out there filled with jealous ne'er-do-wells who hate us for our affluence and virtue. Thus, through no fault of our own, we must sacrifice freedoms on a wholesale basis at home and mount hundreds of billions of dollars worth of pre-emptive foreign incursions besides.

The picture sketched by the Bush administration has a Brothers Grimm quality to it--simple virtue beset by boundless peril. The news media, especially the TV outlets where most Americans get their news, excel at serving up this stuff, along with more quotidian variations on the same theme. Interesting fact: In the six weeks between the commencement of the final ramp-up to war and the fall of Baghdad, events in Iraq were displaced as the lead story on the news networks exactly twice--once when a missing child, Elizabeth Smart, turned up alive, and once when a pregnant woman, Laci Peterson, turned up dead. Bedtime stories, both of them, one with a happy ending and one without, but both animated by deliciously titillating, archetypal predators.

This is a very old current in American life, this paranoid imperative; it didn't start with the shock waves from September 11. The modern age was born in a paroxysm of calculated fear-mongering. At the outset of the Cold War the senator from Michigan, Arthur Vandenberg, warned Harry Truman that if he wished to sell the cost of converting the U.S. military to a permanent wartime footing, he'd better "scare hell out of the American public." Truman did exactly that, and thus we were set on the road to Bush--and to a Pentagon-dictated political culture that takes for granted the otherwise absurd notion that the richest nation in the world cannot afford things like universal health care and good public infrastructure.

Fear and precaution and the sacrifice of expensive domestic reforms were the deliberately constructed ethos of the Cold War, but for the duration of that generation and a half we at least knew who the enemy was supposed to be. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has lurched about its business--of keeping its status as the world's only remaining colonial power, and continuing to stifle democratic political and economic reforms at home--with no very compelling fig leaf to cover its designs: no enemy to call its own.

Another thing: The resurgence of superstitious religious fundamentalism in the U.S.--and is it a coincidence that its ranks have grown as American public education collapsed over the last generation?--has helped grease the way for this president and this age. Evangelical Christians are permanently annoyed by the larger world's indifference to their truth; they always make a devoted audience for pious, Manichean fables. (These people's religious faith, remember, is defined by their proud insensitivity to nuance and complexity, to the Bible as anything but the literal, magical Word--should it be surprising that a vast majority of them revere the word of Brother-in-Christ W just as steadfastly?)

But back to our story. Around the time the Soviets started to fade from the world stage in the mid-1980s, the U.S. started looking around anxiously for new foils. First it was popular and guerrilla leftist movements in Central America, but the scale of that threat amounted to a fleeting diversion at best. The wars at home, against "crime" and "drugs," were similarly deficient in scale. Good sideshows, but hardly worthy foes for the military edifice the U.S. was committed to maintaining. This is not to say those comparatively feeble domestic bogeymen had no effect, though. They set a certain portion of the public to looking under its beds every night more avidly than ever.

The hangover from this decade-plus of wandering in the wilderness in search of bogeymen is evident in the spectacle before us now: a frightened and woefully uninformed public that is ready to believe anything when it comes to purported threats against the American way of life.

And no one is saying the threats are wholly imagined. Though September 11 was, or could have been, a more isolated historical event than the Bush administration made it into, it's also incontestable that we have entered an age in which terrorist attacks can happen anywhere, and they are particularly liable to happen to the world's last great imperial power. As for the subtler domestic currents of menace--the ones that strike closer to home, like school shootings and Internet pedophiles--there is something real in back of those specters as well. The rhythms and routines of everyday life are less stable now. There are a whole lot more people walking around among us with no human connections and not a single self-interested reason to play by the rules, and that is a dangerous and erratic breed.

It's no wonder that all this reaches down to the deepest places in us. But whatever basis in fact our collective fears can claim, it pales beside the purposeful, hyperbolic cynicism of the Bush administration. I really would not be surprised to learn that some of the Bushies had studied Goebbels sub rosa. He was the first philosopher of modern media propaganda, and he wrote much of the playbook that, consciously or not, they now follow. It is framed by the two most basic principles of all. The first, in Goebbels's own words, is this: "The rank and file are usually much more primitive than we imagine. Propaganda must therefore always be essentially simple and repetitious."

And the second? "The masses need something that will give them a thrill of horror."


I haven't written in this space much lately. But you can see what I've been up to by visiting my Bush Wars weblog via tcb.citypages.com. Nearly everyone on the CP staff, and a number of freelancers besides, have blogs there. Check them out and let us know what you think.

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