In Britain’s dark days of World War II, Winston Churchill famously said “We have nothing to fear but Fear itself.”
There was a good deal to fear at the time, including the possibility of a German bomb dropping on one’s home, the U-Boat attacks on shipping, the lives of armed service members, and of course the threat of a Nazi invasion of Britain and all the horrors that would entail.
But nonetheless, there’s an important lesson in this statement. When we are overcome with fear, we often forget important things we want to protect. We give up our freedoms to a strong leader who promises to keep us safe without much thought about whether we actually trust this leader and what are circumstances under which that leader surrenders those powers.
Keep a watch on how politicians use fear and a desire for safety to advance their own agenda. Be critical about what they tell us to fear. Be critical about what they tell us will bring safety.
One of the most dramatic uses of fear was Hitler’s use of the crisis of the Reichstag Fire to cement his own autocratic power. The event is an extreme example, but there are many others in recent history that also serve to illustrate this type of seizure of power in reaction to a fear-stoking event. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichstag_fire
The George W Bush administration used the climate of fear in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to launch a war in Iraq (which had no connection to those attacks and none of the claimed Weapons of Mass Destruction). He also created the USA Patriot Act and a vast increase in the mechanism for monitoring electronic communication, even for US citizens on US soil, something typically seen as illegal overreach.
Recently the Army Corps of Engineers issued an eviction order to the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies that the water protector camp in North Dakota is to be closed “to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protestors and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area, and to prevent death, illness, or serious injury” from the winter weather.
This is a definitely example of an appeal to safety that seems plausible, but coming from an organization that has fired rubber bullets and water cannons (in below-freezing temperatures) at members of the group, the concern for preventing death, illness, or serious injury rings hollow. They have already deliberately caused serious injury to dozens of people at this site.
In China, the government is dismantling up to ¾ of the town of Larung Gar because it has become a center for Tibetan Buddhism, and the government fears the potential political power. Again, the pretense is that the housing is unsafe. However, their solution is simply eviction and tear-down without any plan for replacement of the housing.
The incoming Trump administration, which has already threatened to institute a registry for Muslim Americans and stricter enforcement of immigration laws, could easily use the fear associated with some dramatic event in our near future to enact draconian laws around these issues. Many commentators have warned that we should watch out for Trump’s Reichstag Fire moment – a large scale terror attack or riot to be blamed on immigrants and/or Muslims that he will use to suspend regular processes of law.
For those of us who live in diverse communities, elbow to elbow with immigrants and Muslims, we know that these people are not a threat. They are typically regular people working to improve their lot and help their families. But it seems very likely that the powers of the government will be turned against these people to make their lives more difficult. And a little bit of fear is all it takes to shut down dissent from those who will speak against such policies.
Don’t let those excuses based on fear and safety stand when they are being used to destroy our freedoms and supress our neighbors. Be critical about reactions of attacks – will new restrictions, new spying programs, or new military actions really make us safer? Or are these just ways to give up our power to an unscrupulous leader?