Fear mongering as a political tool

Risk and danger are parts of life. We cannot overcome them. Yet, oftentimes most individuals fail to notice the risks and dangers they confront. They are not foolish or blind; they merely trust the world around them. They believe the world and its institutions will behave, more or less, as expected and benignly. After all, today was much like yesterday and yesterday was much like the day before...

Disasters destroy this faith.

9.11 reminded Americans that they do indeed trust the world to behave in a certain way but also that their trust is a social accomplishment. Some days are not like the previous day. Thus the truth content contained within the belief that 9.11 changed everything. The attacks did undermine the faith many Americans had that the United States was the most powerful country in the world. They established as a fact that the United States was vulnerable, that it could be attacked. Together the 9.11 events formed a spectacle, one persuasive enough to obscure the illegality and illegitimacy of the 2000 presidential election, to enable the Bush administration to drum up support for another global war of indefinite duration, to intimidate Congress sufficiently that it would authorize Bush's World War along with regional invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and even attacks on constitutional norms within the United States. Some Americans were frightened enough that the country would be attacked again that they defended themselves by sealing their homes with tape and plastic.

At the moment the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has set America's threat level to Orange (High). The DHS website also announces that it has "no credible information at this time warning of an imminent threat to the homeland." That's odd. The DHS has the threat level at High although no one believes the United States is actually threatened by a terrorist attack! Why, then, set it to High? The DHS explains that its "strategic threat perspective is that we are in a period of increased risk." The country is at "risk" but not from anything tangible!

I wonder what strategy is in play here. The plan seems to have the Bush administration trying to derive political benefits from the fear it spreads throughout the country. Its actions suggest that it believes it will receive support from a significant number of American citizens if it generates a sense of anxiety that cannot be tested against personal experience or the known record. The upshot of this effort: The Bush administration terrorizes its own citizens.

The Federal Reserve website, unlike the DHS site, lacks a threat level meter. It does not inform Americans of the immediate risks and dangers posed by the objects and institutions it administers. This also is odd because the country's financial system now appears to be collapsing. On Friday (3.14.2008) the Fed saved Bear Stearns, the teetering Wall Street investment bank. It did so not out of altruism but "simply to keep the financial markets functioning," according to the New York Times. As a matter of fact, the financial crisis has been such that the banks have feared lending to each other since late last year. The collapse of a major investment bank like Bear Stearns might further undermine business confidence in the system. Trust, it seems, is scarce on a rapidly sinking boat. But it, like safe bets in current credit markets, has become even scarcer still in "…in recent weeks, breeding an every-man-for-himself attitude among Wall Street firms," according to the Wall Street Journal. Who can trust anyone when there is so much money at stake? Because money is a basic social glue binding together a capitalist society like the United States and because the financial system is in trouble, America might be near to becoming the social Darwinist society its neo-liberals wish it to be. It will achieve this dystopian condition if the financial crisis becomes a general condition directly effecting everyone.

In short, a country will soon be in crisis when its financial system is in crisis. Therefore the United States is now politically vulnerable. What ails Wall Street eventually afflicts us all. The threat originating from Wall Street (and, by extension, the world financial system) is real. It is not a chimera. Professionals consider it real. They speculate about its course and consequences. I would imagine they are taking care of their own nests. Unfortunately, its destructive effects in the United States could easily dwarf those generated by 9.11, and do so even if one does not discount the problems generated by the reckless policies the Bush administration implemented after the attack. If the 9.11 attacks motivated the Bush administration to "change everything," the financial crisis may indeed change everything without the administration's help.

Unlike 9.11, the Bush administration may find it difficult to use the financial crisis to its advantage, although the President recently pitched renewing his tax cuts on the basis of the crisis. Its time is short. Besides Bush reaching the end of the line, avoiding these crises seemingly requires a new and strict regulatory regime. Once again America's finance capital might require the paternalistic help of the administrative state. But Washington in general and the Republicans especially are presently committed to disciplining citizens so that capital and profit-taking might be free. The political will needed to complete this project would be lacking as things now stand.

It is for this reason that the Washington and the mainstream media has not made much out of the financial crisis. They do not want American citizens to panic and act rashly, which is so unlike the use they made of 9.11 attacks. Given the magnitude of the problem, anxiety-driven individuals may come together to make runs on the country's banks. Moreover they would likely become a fearful electorate, one that may just demand a government committed to regulating the economy so that it fairly distributes the benefits, risks and costs it generates. They would make this demand because human beings tend to want to live in a world that is orderly and predictable. They would want to live in a world in which they can place their trust.

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