The Case for Fearmongering

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If the stock market is a contest between greed and fear, elections are a contest between hope and fear. This year fear is winning. We have gone way beyond the traditional red scare or Medi-scare deployments. The Kerry campaign warns darkly that the President has secret plans to do all kinds of nefarious things upon re-election: reinstate the draft, privatize Social Security and, brace yourself, lower dairy prices — the prospect of which in Wisconsin, where Kerry made the charge last month, can make a grown man cry. Of course, the biggest "fear" scandal of the campaign thus far (the night is young) was Vice President Dick Cheney saying that we are more likely to be "hit again" by terrorists if John Kerry is elected.

This elicited a Mount St. Helens protest from Democrats. "It is completely inappropriate and dangerous," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, "for the Vice President to in effect threaten the American people, to be part of instilling fear into our country." John Edwards declared that "Dick Cheney's scare tactics crossed the line" because "protecting America from vicious terrorists" is not a partisan issue.

That is quite insane. Or at least insanely disingenuous. What is this election about if not protecting America from "vicious terrorists?" John Kerry has been going up and down the country for the past year saying that the President has made us less safe and that he will make us more safe. Safe from whom? From al-Qaeda and the other terrorists, of course. Safe from what? From another attack and in particular another 9/11. This entire election hinges on a single question more than any other: Under which man are you and your country more or less likely to be attacked?

Senator Edward Kennedy thunders that re-electing Bush will make a nuclear 9/11 more likely. Did Kennedy cross the line? Not at all. He was making the Democrats' case, without the League of Women Voters' niceties.

The chin-pulling do-gooders (in addition to the disingenuous partisans) lament the injecting of fear into the campaign. The candidates, they insist, should instead be pointing to the sunny uplands of the American dream and showing how their seven-point program will get us there.

Such piety is always ridiculous but never more ridiculous than today. Never in American history has fear been a more appropriate feeling. Never has addressing that fear been a more relevant issue in a political campaign.

Shortly after Hiroshima, wrote physicist Richard Feynman in his memoirs, "I would go along and I would see people building a bridge ... and I thought, they're crazy, they just don't understand, they don't understand. Why are they making new things? It's so useless." Useless because doomed. Futile because humanity had no future. That's what happens to a man who worked on the Manhattan Project and saw with his own eyes at Alamogordo intimations of the apocalypse. Feynman had firsthand knowledge of what man had wrought — and a first-class mind deeply skeptical of the ability of his own primitive species not to be undone by its own cleverness.

Feynman was not alone. The late 1940s and '50s were so pervaded by a general fear of nuclear annihilation that the era was known as the Age of Anxiety. That anxiety dissipated over the decades as we convinced ourselves that deterrence (the threat of mutual annihilation) would assure our safety.

Sept. 11 ripped away that illusion. Deterrence depends on rationality. But the new enemy is the embodiment of irrationality: nihilists with a cult of death, yearning for the apocalypse — armed, ready and appallingly able.

The primordial fear that haunted us through the first days and weeks after 9/11 has dissipated. Not because the threat has disappeared but for the simple reason that in our ordinary lives we simply cannot sustain that level of anxiety. The threat is as real as it was on Sept. 12. It only feels distant because it is psychologically impossible to constantly face the truth and yet carry on day to day.

But as it is the first duty of government to provide for the common defense, it is the first duty of any post-9/11 government to face that truth every day and to raise it to national consciousness at least once every four years, when the nation chooses its leaders.

Fearmongering? Yes. And very salutary. When you live in an age of terrorism with increasingly available weapons of mass destruction, it is the absence of fear that is utterly irrational.

The '90s are over. It's not the economy, stupid. It's Hiroshima — on American soil. If that doesn't scare you, it should. We could use more fear in this election, not less. Cheney should be commended for his candor. Kennedy too.