Plaid Adder: We Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself

From Plaid Adder of Democratic Underground comes one of the best essays I’ve read in a while: Panic Button. I heartily recommend reading the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt from his conclusion:

It’s been almost three years since the towers came down. If we really don’t want the terrorists to win, then it is about time that we stopped letting our own government jerk us around. Al Qaeda’s primary weapon is not the box cutter, the airplane, the unidentified white powder or the bomb: it’s fear. In the war on terrorism, the one damn thing that we as average Americans can do is to refuse to be terrified. Even and especially when our own government tells us to.

In the end, death is going to come for us all like a thief in the night, no matter how prepared we think we are. Till that time, all we can really do is live as well as we can. Eventually, fear kills all the things that make life worth living – love, joy, compassion, community, desire, creativity. It’s up to us to protect ourselves from this death of the heart, even if we can’t do anything to protect our bodies.

6 Responses to “Plaid Adder: We Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself”

  1. paul Says:

    The recent blockade of Washington DC in response to the “new” old threat by federal buildings not part of that old threat is just one way the government, left or right, is using the threat of terrorism and the terrible events of 9-11 to achieve pre-existing agendas.

  2. Dean Says:

    “An aphorism ought to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world like a little work of art and complete in itself like a hedgehog.” – Friedrich Schlegel. Your sentiment: “Al Qaeda’s primary weapon is not the box cutter, the airplane, the unidentified white powder or the bomb: it’s fear.” is case in point. You propagate one of the greatest misunderstandings people believe of terrorism: fear is not a terrorist’s weapon; it is a side effect of their use of weapons toward achieving their goals. Your statement, while seemingly trying to empower us against fear, by no means accurately reflects Al Qaeda’s power. On the contrary. On 9/10/2001 there were no color coded warnings, no dire warnings from Homeland Defense, no government telling us to – as your core thesis states – “be terrified”. There was no fear of terrorism in the US. Most Americans had never heard of Al Qaeda much less spent their days in fear of them and their actions. So on 9/11/2001 fear was certainly not Al Qaeda’s greatest weapon – it was a side effect of achieving their goal. Understand that fear is merely one of their minor goals, not their weapon of mass destruction. The naiveté of thinking that Al Qaeda’s greatest weapon is fear is dangerous. They will nuke the city you live in without first checking to see how afraid we are. Fear does not “kill all things that make life worth living”. Fear as imbued by nature in the human animal is there to keep us alive to enjoy the things that make life worth living. Just as fear keeps us from sticking our hand in fire, it can empower us to reactively and proactively defend our lives and the lives of others. Indeed, our fear can be our greatest weapon if heeded, understood, harnessed, and most importantly, acted upon properly.

  3. John Callender Says:

    Here’s another aphorism: Beware militarists who quote philosophers.

    Your point about fear needing to be understood and harnessed is apt, though it doesn’t lead me to the same place that I suspect it is leading you. Fear is there to keep us alive, yes, but it can also be exploited by those who wish to manipulate the public into supporting things that from a rational standpoint are not in the public’s best interest.

    Let’s talk about al Qaeda for a moment. Three years ago al Qaeda carried out a spectacularly successful terrorist attack. At the cost of some training, a relatively small amount of money, and a handful of people willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause, they managed to kill about 3,000 innocent Americans. Beyond that, though, they managed to bring about a radical transformation of US foreign policy toward the Arab world, the overthrow of the hated secular regime in Baghdad, and the movement of the world several steps closer to an open war between their brand of radical Islam and the West. So yeah, they weren’t just trying to make us afraid; they had more-concrete goals in mind as well, and they were successful in reaching those goals.

    According to Osama bin Laden, they didn’t even intend for the World Trade Center towers to collapse. They just got “lucky” on that, a characterization that sickens me as much as it surely does you or any other moral human being.

    But having seen how successful they were with that attack, they will surely continue to look for ways to attack us again, and will endeavor to inflict even more carnage in the future. We should be afraid of that, and we should make sure that as a people we take appropriate measures in response to that fear. One such measure I strongly support is the election of leaders who exhibit intelligence and good judgement, rather than the sorts who pursue ill-conceived adventures that actually make us less, rather than more, secure.

    Nuclear weapons are a horrible danger. We should indeed be devoting every effort to making sure that the world’s supplies of nuclear weapons are secured, reduced, and, if and when it becomes possible, eliminated. Sadly, the Bush administration is doing a really poor job of that. They’ve actually pulled resources away from anti-proliferation efforts aimed at securing the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union, so as to be able to devote more attention to the neocons’ silly dreams of empire-building in Iraq. Poor decision-making like that has created plenty of healthy fear in people like Rand Beers and Richard Clarke, career counterterrorism experts who served under Republican and Democrat alike, but who have concluded that the gravest danger the country faces today is the possibility of Bush retaining the presidency in November.

    Fear is important: it tends to concentrate one’s attention. But one must temper it with reason if one is to channel it in useful directions. Here’s one more point to think about: On average, more people are killed in automobile accidents every single month in this country than were killed in the September 11 attacks. In the 35 months since the attacks, 35 times as many Americans have died on US soil from car crashes as from terrorism. If, as you say, we should be fearful of al Qaeda, should we not also be absolutely terrified of getting in our car and going driving? If not, why not? If we can retain our judgement and common sense in the face of the threat posed by automobiles, why can’t we aspire to the same sort of judgement and common sense in the face of the threat posed by terrorists?

  4. Dean Says:


    Good response, thank you. Your analog between automobile fatalities and terrorist fatalities is factually accurate though philosophically misleading. Again, it would lead us – like the aphorism that began this discussion – to a belief that we can and should deal with terrorism by looking at it as yet another day-to-day threat like the automobile. The threats are not the same. Stating that automobiles killed more Americans than terrorism is factually accurate, but ignores the fact that one nuclear or biological attack – just one – could easily kill more Americans than all other sources of death in our environment for a year or more. It also ignores the fact that such an attack would have a far more devastating effect on history itself.

    To illustrate, assume that the next terrorist attack (obviously I’m speaking rhetorically and hope there is no ‘next’ attack) kills exactly the same number of Americans as died in automobile accidents in the preceding year. Does that mean our and our government’s response – proactive or reactive – should be exactly, or even near, the same due simply to a statistical anomaly?

    I for one honestly fear the thought of the next Al Qaeda attack far more than the thought of driving to work and back. Where your statement is most misleading in my perspective though is that it ignores the fact that the goals of the two sources of fear and death are different. Missing that point is crucial to how we should approach dealing with each threat to the lives of our loved ones and other fellow Americans and others. Neither automobiles nor their drivers have the stated goal of destroying Americans and America – Al Qaeda does. It is not prudent or wise to apply toward automobiles “the same sort of judgment and common sense in the face of the threat posed by terrorists?” that we would to dealing with automobiles.

    If Bush were to state that from now on he’s going to have the government deal with terrorism with the same mind-set that it deals with automobiles I for one would not be thrilled. I suspect he would be impeached in zero time and appropriately so. But that kind of governance seems to be what many think they want from him.

    The government can’t and shouldn’t even try to win any popularity contests in dealing with terrorist threats. Too much information and they compromise sources and are accused of engendering fear (for nefarious purposes related to their ‘agenda’) and wasting our time and tax dollars on useless alerts by the public. Too little and they ‘failed’, ‘should have known, and should have told us what they knew’, and ‘should have protected us’ when the next attack happens.

    I believe our fear of Al Qaeda’s behavior should drive us to act as urgently and intelligently as possible to alleviate the threat from that source. To be clear I am not advocating irrational panic. I agree that ‘common sense’ should prevail, however as always the problem with the ‘common sense’ approach is simply that my idea of common sense in the matter may differ significantly from yours. If so, whose definition do those Americans in responsible government positions use to take action, yours, mine, their own, or someone else’s?

    You and I can have a friendly disagreement on this matter, but at the end of the blog, we are not held accountable for doing anything about it. Many in our government are. I respect that and do not envy their task. I also do not want to make their work more difficult. The reality is that dealing with the threat of Al Qaeda is infinitely more difficult and non-deterministic than dealing with the threat presented by automobiles. Common sense tells me that I have to account for that fact in my assessment of government actions as well.

  5. Dean Says:


    I didn’t want to go there, but just how do you arrive at your assessment of me as a ‘militarist’? That seems a very large leap based upon the facts you had at hand. I had hoped that name-calling, one of the weakest of intellectual tools would not surface in the comment stream, but I was wrong. Again a well-meaning overestimation on my part. I learn. Truth is you have a lot of company in that type of knee-jerk reaction. All too many Americans and others in the world think they *know*, just *know* the motivations and inner thought process of others based upon the most superficial evidence. Based upon that _knowledge_, they call people names. Good old ah hominem attacks. We both know that ad hominem attacks speak reams about the attacker and little if nothing about the attacked party. Now, had you stated that my statements were militarist and backed that up with proof that would be deserving of respect. However, you failed to do so.

    I realize that with the proliferation of web and sites like this one (on both sides of the political spectrum) providing smug, childish, paranoid, psuedo-intellectual inferences and leaps to judgment, it is all too easy to fall into the trap. The trap being the age-old problem of believing… no, just _knowing_ you know more than you actually do.

  6. John Callender Says:

    You make some good points. Apologies for tarring you with the militarist brush. I was reacting to pieces I’d read recently by others, not by you. It may be human nature to leap to that kind of conclusion, but it isn’t right, and I’m sorry I engaged in it here.

    The risk of terrorists detonating nuclear weapons in this country is frightening to me, too. But I weigh it against the risk that my own country will kill thousands of innocents at the direction of dishonest, dishonorable leaders who would use an unreasoning fear of terrorism as a tool to help them pursue a profoundly un-American agenda.

    Al Qaeda wishes to destroy this country, it’s true. But their wish to do so does not mean they have the means to do so. Some time back on this site I quoted from an article by Robert Kennedy, Jr., that sums up my feelings on this point really well. Here it is again:

    I’m not scared of Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. They can never hurt America in any fundamental way. As Teddy Roosevelt said, American democracy will never be destroyed by outside enemies — but it can be destroyed by the malefactors of great wealth who subtly rob and undermine it from within. And I see that process happening today.

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