Of all the myriad consequences of September 11, 2001, among the most distasteful was the jolt of fear it gave to the American body politic. For years thereafter, politicians would regularly act with the understanding that my being more fearful was in their interest. Even though the majority of the attempts were transparently manipulative, this was infuriating. While the effect was neither immediate (the country rallied around President Bush in the months after the attack, so there was no need to manipulate) nor permanent (the electorate rejected the exploitation of fear in 2006 and 2008), it lasted for most of the Bush presidency, more than enough time to leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
The apex of this unfortunate phenomenon was the Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004. The president mentioned terror or terrorism constantly on the stump, including 16 times the night he accepted the nomination. One of his ads combined a menacing pack of wolves and the line “weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm”; another featured images of the burning World Trade Center and flag-draped coffins. The calculation, as a Republican operative (rather needlessly) explained to the NY Daily News reporter just before the election, was that “anything that makes people nervous about their personal safety helps Bush.” Every communique emanating the Republicans in 2004 emphasized that previously unwise but ultimately acceptable decisions –namely, voting for Democrats– could now get Americans killed.
Of course, the political fear-mongering wasn’t limited to campaigns. It was precisely that emotion that motivated the excesses of the Patriot Act and the drum-beating for Iraq. Even beyond the unsightliness of it, the deliberate exploitation of fear in politics is pernicious because it is also irrational. A less fearful country would have immediately recognized that waterboarding is counter-productive, that calls to invade of Iraq were gravely wrongheaded, and that all the investment in cosmetic security measures on airplanes were an anxiety-boosting waste. But fear, being what it is, not only led American leaders to make those decisions, but also led to large groups of people supporting them.
Compared to 2004, the first four presidential campaigns of of which I was aware were happy affairs. Not that there weren’t any unethical attacks or partisan rancor or even hateful acts–of course, there were. But Willie Horton notwithstanding, the principal goal wasn’t to physically scare the electorate into your camp. Part of that was a product of the times: Dukakis-Bush came amid a moment of profound hope regarding the thaw of relations with the USSR, while during the three subsequent elections there was no significant security threat keeping Americans awake at night.
But the post-9-11 turn toward fear-mongering was not merely the inevitable consequence of the emergence of a new threat. It was the conscious decision of the political operators around George W. Bush, a decision made with enormous cynicism and subsequently emulated by many in his party. It remains a black eye, even after the unfortunate era has largely passed.
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