Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


The cost of living in the kingdom of fear

  • 08 September 2017


Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said that 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.' Current trends both international and at home bear this out.

It's easy to pick foreign examples. The fear of terrorism is being used to sell the failed Afghan war to a new generation of troops — bleeding and dying and killing people whose motivation, culture and history are unknown to both them and those who sent them. As the former CIA analyst Paul Pillar points out, 'kill them there to stop them killing us here' is a furphy: most acts of terror are homegrown these days and truck bombs or speeding cars are not imported from abroad.

Such homegrown (or foreign) acts of terror are fed and watered by the slaughter of innocents and the march of invading armies into foreign countries. As is now known, ISIS was the bitter fruit of the US invasion of Iraq. The fear of terrorism is, however, very useful in selling such lies, consequences be damned.

Another classic is 'Russiagate'. The fear that US democracy has been somehow subverted by the old Cold War enemy — so far without any hard evidence being shown to back it up — has led to a burgeoning arms race and a scare such as would do old Joe McCarthy himself proud. Sanctions have been ratcheted up, troop levels in Eastern Europe multiplied and both sides have been dusting off their fall-out shelters.

Again, this is a classic example where an imaginary or hyped fear threatens to stampede us into something much worse: the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has pushed its famous Doomsday Clock (gauging the risk of nuclear Armageddon) forward to two and a half minutes to midnight.

I have previously argued that, while North Korea's actions are a rational attempt to deter the US, deterrence is a high-stakes game which can easily fail. Here is another case where the initial fear (of the consequences of the North's having nuclear weapons) may lead to something much worse (the destruction of much of the Korean peninsula and possibly cities in the US) if the North's desire for deterrence, or the US' desire to seem strong in the face of perceived aggression, is misread by the other side. Just this week, we have seen contradictory signals put out from within the US administration itself.

The problem, however, is not just one for the foreign policy wonks. The appalling