The Costs of Fear

Sep 13, 2013

September 11, 2001, is often called the Pearl Harbor of our generation.  Like our response to Pearl Harbor, we rallied ourselves to face a dangerous enemy.  Unlike Pearl Harbor, we suffered a blow targeting innocent civilians, designed to elicit fear.  And fear is a dangerous thing. 

While remembrance of the victims is our primary task for today, we do them no dishonor by also reflecting on some of the moral costs of the fear that day inspired and the lessons we might still learn.

First, fear makes us vulnerable to those who would manipulate us into support for their political and personal agendas, for good or ill.  No example speaks louder than the effort by the think tank “Project for a New American Century” to capitalize on 9/11 to garner support for the invasion of Iraq.  Merely nine days after the 9/11 attacks, the group sent a letter to President Bush advocating regime change there.  The group’s overall agenda, articulated in a September 2010 report, called for a major buildup of the American military, and the use of police-type force around the globe to assert American power and influence.    The report even explicitly suggested one type of event that would allow the authors to push their plan forward, namely, “a new Pearl Harbor.”  The cost of our fearful compliance was roughly a trillion dollars of U.S. debt, approximately 4,500 Americans killed, well over 100,000 civilians killed, and tens of thousands more injured.  Millions of refugees were displaced.   And now we confront this agenda again, as we consider next steps in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

A second cost of fear is its capacity to tempt us to simplify our value systems and world views.  When we are afraid, we are more highly motivated to secure ourselves.  Such a response is protective, but it comes with this tendency to reduce our moral universe to the primary value of security.  Both presidents in the post-9/11 era have stated that their primary responsibility as president is to keep Americans safe.  As a result, values of liberty, privacy, and tolerance have been diminished, evidenced in such revelations as secret National Security Agency monitoring of phone and email transmissions.  The war crime of torture became a matter of course.  After 9/11, our grasp for clarity in the fog of fear reduced our other perspectives too, causing many to divide the world into the unambiguous terms of good vs. evil, and civilization vs. civilization.

A third cost of fear is the tendency to elevate the values of retribution and self-defense over self-sacrifice.  We become willing to pay any cost of punishing the guilty and arming ourselves to the teeth, rather than risk vulnerability.  This response may have become the American tradition, but it’s not the moral tradition of the West.  A central tenet of the just war doctrine—an established way to evaluate the morality of warfare with deep roots in the Christian tradition—is that even with a just cause, we must be willing to suffer harm to avoid greater harm to innocent others.

Such willingness is also amplified in the great moral and spiritual foundation of the nonviolent movement of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose ideals we celebrated last week.  Unearned suffering is redemptive, he said—it can transform the injustices of the moment, and even those who cause them.  Being willing to take a blow without causing greater harm in response has roots in a form of Christianity that believes that the forces of hate be met with the forces of love.  It relies on a spiritual vision that much of the world seems to lack.  And it should inspire the imagination of citizens and political leaders alike to take the human solidarity that followed the 9/11 attacks and transform it into a greater international justice, rather than the pursuit of American global dominance.  We can still do that.

Our generation’s Pearl Harbor has given us worthy struggles to pursue, and heroes to remember and honor.  But of the future battles to be fought, the most important ones are within ourselves, as individuals and collectively as Americans.  Fear should not compromise our most important values.  Such does not honor the dead.

Fear is a dangerous thing.  But it exacts only the costs we allow.

This is Mark Hanson, guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.