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Opinion

Personal fear important, national fear used to enslave

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April 30, 2009

The American economy has been widely discussed, criticized and hotly debated over the last several months. It’s gotten to the point where even I am tired of hearing about the recession and the economic cost of living. I think there is a more important cost that extends to every facet of our lives as U.S. citizens. I call it the cost of fear. It may be elusive and impossible to quantify, but it’s always there.

Our fears are what hold us back from becoming a truly united culture and voicing our full opinions, even in a democratic system. And it’s been that way ever since we became an established nation. For all the variety and potential of the human race, our behavior and actions have always conformed to relatively simple patterns. I believe it all comes down to our instincts. They govern us almost completely, whether we like to admit it or not. As a species, we are geared toward self-preservation. Fear is that timeless emotion that allows us to survive.

The problem is that there’s simply too much fear to go around in today’s America. It has become a detriment to our progress. Even if there are no real threats around, our leaders will exaggerate or imagine new ones so we’ll cooperate with their policies. That’s the point where fear is no longer helping us, but is being used against us. And if you know the basic aspects of history, even just American history, you can see that it’s happened again and again. The aftermath of World War II is a good example.

With the Germans, Japanese and Italians defeated, our leaders needed a new enemy; if only to justify their international ambitions and persuade the American people to go along with it. Because the Soviets’ cultural ideas were so different from ours, making an enemy out of them was not difficult. But no rivalry can last forever, and when the Soviet system collapsed about 20 years ago, we found ourselves in the same position as after WWII.

It may sound strange, but the truth is that we depended on the Soviet Union; which is why its collapse left many of us feeling more uncertain than triumphant. Like so many young nations before us, we were childish and insecure. We depended on our enemies to give us an identity, rather than our common sense. Two huge nations had spent 40 years frightening each other; and themselves; with shadow puppets on the wall of history. And in the end, where did it get us? A massive, dangerous weapons buildup had been rendered useless. An amazing amount of money was gone. Three generations of Americans had lived with the implied threat of nuclear war; all to confront an opponent that, beneath the posturing and propaganda, was just as scared and confused as we were.

And I guess it wasn’t enough, because now we’re doing it again. Since the U.S. is still a representative democracy, its capabilities are limited if it doesn’t have public support. So the authorities find a vague, scary mental concept and repeat it over and over to make us go along with the plans they’ve already decided on. Let’s call it the “-ism factor.” Monarchism, secessionism, anarchism, communism; they’ve all been used that way. And the new one, of course, is terrorism.

When we think of a “terrorist,” most of us picture a fundamentalist Islamic militant, or someone close to that. We act as if there’s something special about what those groups are doing, but there really isn’t. People have always used fear against each other, and they’ll keep doing it as long as it’s an effective way to get what they want. It’s certainly worked on us.

In fact, that’s why we’ll never really eliminate terrorism; because we all use at least a subtle form of it. If our authority figures weren’t exploiting our everyday worries to some degree, national security wouldn’t be such a big deal. It’s kind of a balance of fear. They keep us just frightened enough to support their agendas, but not so frightened that we’ll break down into mass hysteria.  You can’t just blame the people in charge, though. It’s our fault too, because we keep falling for it. I try to be optimistic, but it’s unlikely that the trend will change anytime soon. Real change starts with the individual. Fear is natural and important, but it’s up to us to decide where its usefulness ends.