Saturday, November 14, 2009


Back in 2006 in ‘The New Republic’ the noted legal commentator Cass Sunstein reviewed several books about terrorism. *

As often happens in even well-intentioned campaigns nowadays, the dangers of this or that can be greatly exaggerated in comparison to the actual risk that they pose. In the same year that 3,000 Americans died in the 9-11 bombings, 40,000 died in motor vehicle accidents, and an American was 15 times more likely to die in an MVA than in a terrorist attack, and 7 times more likely to die of alcohol-related problems. In fact, he calculated, “if an attack of the magnitude of September 11 occurred every three months for the next five years … the probability of being killed in such an attack would remain tiny: 0.02.”

And yet the ‘fears’ of Americans do not correspond to the statistical realities. More Americans are greatly worried about their loved ones dying in a terrorist attack than are fearful of a loved one’s death by MVA or alcohol.

One of the reviewed books identified a ‘complex’ of government bureaucracies, politicians, and the media as the source of much of the fear-mongering; each of them benefits greatly from public fear. He fails to go beyond the usual suspects to include those elements of allegedly ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ origin that have also become adept at fear-mongering.

Advocates often have to emphasize the ‘danger’ posed by their ‘enemies’ in order to weld together disparate sub-demographics of their adherents. And there is always that ancient tactic that the Russians called prebedniatsia, the purposeful exaggeration of your claim or your plight in order to gain the attention of a bored official or bureaucrat (apparatchik). In this country, you want to make your own case stand out in order to attract the attention of the politicians and bureaucrats and media; but you want to instill fear in the citizenry so that they will sympathize with you – support you even – in the hopes that supporting you will reduce their ‘danger’.

It would be wiser, Sunstein notes, simply to sit down and do some quick figuring: the question isn’t whether you are ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’, but rather: what is the probability of X happening to me or my loved ones? This, Sunstein and the various authors realize, would add a major reality check to much of the fear-induced stampeding that has befogged and besplattered the national landscape in the past few decades. After all, if everyone yields to anxious rumination about whether they are ‘safe’ or not, who would be able to get out of bed in the morning and face the day (without the assistance of mood-enhances, quarts of energy drinks, or what-have-you)?

This, of course, is precisely not the approach taken by assorted advocacies and the government: the false question – am I safe? – taps into abiding fears, and not simply specific fears but also the deep and dark pool of anxiety that is ‘down there’ in every human being, just waiting to be given a vent up to the surface of consciousness.

Sunstein examines political philosopher Robert Goodin’s core description of ‘terrorists’: they “act with the intention of frightening people for their own political purposes”. Whether they actually shed blood or how much or how little they shed is not the core element in their definition; rather, it is that they are deliberately trying to frighten folks in order to achieve their political purposes.

That actually sounds like a pretty solid bit of description. Until it dawns on you that it fits a rather significant chunk of Beltway folk such as advocates and politicians (not always the media, who more often do it for sales, not purely for ‘political purposes’).

But Sunstein can’t completely agree, and rightly so. Surely there is a difference between persons looking to instill fear and gain political compliance by bombs and bloodshed, and persons seeking to gain their political purposes by non-bloody (not to say non-violent) means.

I make that little distinction between non-bloody and non-violent since you can do quite a bit of damage to an individual, a group, a society, a culture, or a nation without necessarily shedding any blood at all (yes, I’m thinking of the SO mania, among other things).

Nor does Goodin make such a vivid but wayyyy too –simplified and wayyyy too-easy equation between terrorists and politicos. Rather, he says, “it follows that public officials, frightening people for their own ends, are to that extent terrorists, even if the underlying threat is real, and even if they are not responsible for creating the threat in the first place”.

Biff! Pow! And this is in the context of the 9-11 terrorism that Goodin is speaking: there really are violent terrorists out there, the Beltway didn’t create them, but the Beltway is fomenting fear in order to achieve its own political ends and its own political success and continuance.

But then: what if the Beltway did create the threat, and what if the Beltway continues to sustain the threat for its own political ends? Now, as you may have guessed, we are getting much closer to the SO mania with the monstrous, incorrigible, stranger sex-offender (duly Certified by official Finding) and the public constantly whipped up into fear because hordes of these ravenous wolves are allegedly roaming the landscape.

By Goodin’s definition, this is most genuinely a case of terrorism. Perhaps we might call it terrorism under color of law: on the basis of their public authority, elected officials and bureaucrats are deliberately fomenting public fear and anxiety, even though the evidence is clear that the ‘threat’ is hugely exaggerated and statistically negligible. And that’s even before you start wondering if the ‘threat’ is actually more ‘invented’ than ‘actual’.

I use historical material quite a bit on this site. There’s a reason for it: whereas material that’s current can be vivid, there’s no way to know if it actually describes a situation accurately.

Whereas a slightly older bit of material – something from within your own lifetime (or mine, anyway) – allows you to look at things with some perspective. So for example I chose the 1995 Poritz case to do an 11-Post series about, because 1995 isn’t all that long ago, and yet it’s long enough ago so that a reader can judge for him/herself just how much of the Poritz vision was accurate.

And in that regard, I came across a bunch of material** on the pre-school trials of the early 1980s (although the McMartin case – cause of the longest trial in US history, 7 years – was not resolved until 1990). Since a lot of you may have reached consciousness before the 1980s, I am including in the Notes some links to material that I found in conjunction with the 1995 book “Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt”.

I’ll let the material in those links speak for itself. You’ll find a lot of the evidentiary corruption, investigative misfeasance and malfeasance, and incredible obtuseness (or duplicity) on the part of some judges and prosecutors.

But you’ll also note the literally outlandish assertions made by these toddlers (after questioning by ideological experts and prosecutors). They are so outlandish that it stuns to imagine that any public official would have dared to air them in modern-day America. But the prosecutors did, and for a while there was quite a bit of public agitation … and at least 50 adults went to prison (not a few of them female) on the basis of no-evidence but simply on the phantasmagorical word of these children.

This was in America of the 1980s, hardly the ‘old days’, and yet before the bar of history this era has no right to snigger at the addled villagers of 17th-century Salem.

Reading this material, I think the SO community can refresh a sense of just how crazy – literally – a substrate flows just beneath the surface of things even in this oh-so-modern and enlightened era. But also how quickly the public can snap out of it if given a chance to count-to-ten. (Which hasn’t happened so quickly nowadays because, I would say, back then there was no element of Beltway political influence, which only began to flex with the Domestic Violence and Sex Offense campaigns of the early 1990s.)

And you will notice again in this material that awful confluence, that alliance, between elements and advocacies of the Left and the law-and-order fundamentalism of the Right. (Don’t forget: the pre-school cases centered around ‘ritual Satanic abuse’ – providing a hook for anti-sex, anti-male and anti-‘Satan’ interests.)

Looking at it now, you can almost see the seams and stitches by which this Frankenstein’s monster of a ‘threat’ was put together, almost according to spec.

This unholy alliance, grounded only in the sure and certain outcome that the Big Government police power would get even Bigger, survived the opprobrium of having fomented the pre-school crisis, and in almost no time was back for the Domestic Violence campaign and then – most recently – the Sex Offense mania.

This unholy ‘alliance’ is the biggest monster and the biggest threat, feeding on the fear of the people and its own ideological craziness.

Our era seems less and less rational, less and less mature, less and less sane as time goes on.


*Cass R. Sunstein, ‘The Case for Fear’, in ‘The New Republic’, December 11, 2006, pp. 29-33.

** First, an article from the Counterpunch about mainstream feminist silence in the face of the pre-school trials. Second, a site about the Fells Acres saga in Massachusetts. Third, a review by noted mania researcher Philip Jenkins of the 1995 book “Satan’s Silence: The Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt”.

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