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Why Fear Always Wins
June 28, 2013 11:34 AM   Subscribe

Imagine two politicians: One preaches fear and excessive "security," while the other says terrorism is a negligible risk. They hold, like me, that risk is part of life, and that while some security is necessary, we should mostly just refuse to be terrorized and get on with our lives. Fast-forward 10 years. If I'm right and there have been no more terrorist attacks, the preacher of fear takes credit for keeping us safe. But if a terrorist attack has occurred, my government career is over.
posted by blankdawn (40 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Pascal's Wager
posted by Ogre Lawless at 11:43 AM on June 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


It's not quite this simple, this nation has no tolerance for terrorist threats but plenty of tolerance for mass shootings, rising sea levels, and fertilizer plants blowing up next to elementary schools.
posted by leopard at 11:48 AM on June 28, 2013 [29 favorites]


the difference is the terrorist threats are very useful and profitable to powerful people, much like lax gun laws and failures in environmental regulation.

it could be argued that in those cases a fear is being invoked as well. the fear of a totalitarian "socialist" state.

which fear wins? cui bono.
posted by blankdawn at 11:50 AM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


also:

A: "You want to buy some elephant repellent?"
B: "But there's no elephants anywhere near here!"
A: "Exactly, it's that good."
posted by blankdawn at 11:50 AM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


blankdawn, sure, but I'm just pointing out that fear doesn't actually always win. It often doesn't, even when it should.
posted by leopard at 11:52 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


also:

A: "You want to buy some elephant repellent?"
B: "But there's no elephants anywhere near here!"
A: "Exactly, it's that good."


I'd like to buy your rock. Wait...
posted by Drinky Die at 11:53 AM on June 28, 2013


Not withstanding the myriad of reasons for fear being present, some genuine and some of highly suspect origin...

Fear always usually wins because any reaction from fear stems from self-preservation which is quite easy to understand and can offer instant gratification (punch, run).

It's a hardwired condition, which only higher thinking can combat.

Reacting from love (of one's fellow man, future generations, etc.) is a selfless act, based upon the preservation of those people and ideals we hold dear, but quite difficult to understand and must be applied over time and with consistency.
posted by Debaser626 at 12:06 PM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's not fear that wins, it's hate. Nobody supports draconian laws to counter heart disease.
posted by Legomancer at 12:09 PM on June 28, 2013 [15 favorites]


I think it's a mistake to think of our political outcomes as arising purely from psychological considerations. Politics is a battle between different groups, things don't happen just because people have feelings -- there are lots of sentiments that people have that never get acted on politically. Political battles are about organizing resources, and generally in order to win you need some combination of money and psychological commitment. The psychological commitment can come from fear but it can also come from other things, ranging from hate to love to some simple tribal identity that's been carefully cultivated by a political party.
posted by leopard at 12:12 PM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's pretty simple; terrorism means the 'away team' wins.
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:16 PM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think fear wins because so many people are profitting grandly on it.
posted by COD at 12:25 PM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


You have to get to the comments to find the one he didn't mention.
Main stream media makes a fortune out of terror whether international or internal.
The talking heads talk. Facts are secundary and eyes to screens and ears to speakers are primary concerns. Hype, hype, hype. Down grade terror and what have they got for the advertizers to sponsor.
Small earthquake it Chile, nobody injured doesn't quite do the trick.
posted by adamvasco at 12:27 PM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Gun laws show this logic is far from necessary, and is perhaps even atypical in the US. Thousands of federal, state, and local politicians cast millions of votes to make it easier for criminals to get their hands on guns. Thousands of people are killed with these guns every year, in ways that are directly traceable to the gun laws these politicians pass. And these murders are well-publicized, decried, and feared. But for most of these politicians, the laws they pass don't hurt them in the slightest, because (for better or worse) their constituencies agree that the risk is worth the freedom. The fact that this logic is so strong for gun violence, even massacres, but not for "terrorism", is of course insane. But it shows that the logic could easily hold for terrorism too, especially if the libertarian right could be split from the totalitarian right.
posted by chortly at 12:30 PM on June 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


Fast-forward 10 years. If I'm right and there have been no more terrorist attacks, the preacher of fear takes credit for keeping us safe. But if a terrorist attack has occurred, my government career is over.
I don't see why that's a given. I don't remember Clinton preaching fear about right-wing terrorism before OKC, and actually remember George W. Bush de-prioritized fighting terrorism before 9/11. Those attacks didn't hurt their careers.

I mean seriously look at George W. prior to 9/11 and even on the day itself. He was ignoring PDBs telling someone at the CIA "now your ass is covered" or something like that. But he got a huge political boost out of it.

So the whole conceit is bullshit. It's just a cowardly excuse politicians can use to justify their fear-mongering. It's likely that any leader will receive a boost in popularity after a major attack.

But let's keep it real: The reason to preach fear of terrorism all the time isn't a hedge against the possibility of a terrorist attack. It's to keep people afraid. Because if people are afraid, they're more pliant, more likely to vote for conservative politicians, as well as for the people in power out of fear. You'll notice that in 2002 and 2004 Bush and the republicans hammered on the terrorist issue, calling democrats "soft on terror" even if they went out of their way to be as pro war-on-terror as possible

And by the way, you'll notice that Obama doesn't really talk about terrorism all that much. At least not that often that I notice it - the only time he talks about it is when he's trying to justify some kind of surveillance or whatever. He spends a lot more time talking about women's rights or the economy then terrorism, compared to bush who spent most of his time talking about terrorism. And his take on it in general is more "you've got nothing to worry about we've totally got this under control, Al Quadia is scattered and defeated, etc" - his rhetoric is designed to make people not be afraid (again, except when defending surveillance programs)

Compared with Bush and Cheney who talked about it and always tried to make AQ seem like an existential foe, rather then a largely defeated and pathetic band of losers.

It's because fear makes people more conservative.

So while that's an easy to understand aphorism it doesn't really capture a lot of how politics actually works, which is much more complex and nuanced.
posted by delmoi at 12:31 PM on June 28, 2013 [14 favorites]


I really think this is one of the defining problem of American politics in the 21st Century, along with how we'll respond to global warming, and like Schneier I am pretty pessimistic that we'll be able to overcome our cognitive biases toward things like security theater and mass surveillance.
posted by Aizkolari at 12:31 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


this nation has no tolerance for terrorist threats but plenty of tolerance for mass shootings, rising sea levels, and fertilizer plants blowing up next to elementary schools

I despise the way we have traded in our liberties for no likely increase in security because of the never-ending war on terror. Few things trouble me more.

But I will say that there is a big difference between the fear that comes from knowing that an organized, well financed group is continually looking for opportunities to kill in huge numbers ordinary people doing ordinary things, like going to work at the World Trade Center, versus fearing random crazy people with weapons or fatal results from negligence. The risk of a dirty bomb, chemical or biological weapon, or commandeered aircraft is just a lot larger in scale and harder for individuals to manage than that posed by a person with a gun or a sloppy plant operator.

What gets me is that I don't think anyone's shown the gutting of civil liberties has done much at all to protect against terrorism. If anything, the death of liberty is terrorism's biggest achievement.
posted by bearwife at 12:33 PM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


@chortly

opposition to gun control IS a fear-based position. didn't you know the govt is going to come and take away your right to protect your family from dangerous (probably foreign-born) criminals?
posted by blankdawn at 12:48 PM on June 28, 2013


@delmoi

Remember that "9/11 changed everything." Hence Obama's expansion of Bush's "security" powers.

And right-wing terrorism has never been a good boogie man. It's goals are too close to those of the powerful.

Why do you think actual plots by Tea Party speakers to mine the border and take over govt offices in armed rebellion got so little press and a few broken windows during Occupy Oakland were enough to marginalize the whole movement in terms of mainstream media coverage?
posted by blankdawn at 12:51 PM on June 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


If I'm right and there have been no more terrorist attacks, the preacher of fear takes credit for keeping us safe. But if a terrorist attack has occurred, my government career is over.

Was that the only reason you got into government -- so you could have a career?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:30 PM on June 28, 2013


Essentially, I think it's the same reason football coaches keep punting on fourth down even though punting on fourth down is usually not all that effective. If you go for it (or say terrorism is a negligible risk) and something bad happens, you're going to be raked over the coals, your career could be seriously damaged, people are going to publicly dress you down, and you're going to be thoroughly trashed...even though, statistically speaking, you're completely correct. If you punt on 4th down and it doesn't work out (or support the security state and there's a terrorist attack anyway), you'll get a shrug and a "Hey, that's what I would've done" because that's the conventional wisdom.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:32 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


> Was that the only reason you got into government -- so you could have a career?

"If only half you motherfuckers at the district attorney's office didn't want to be judges, didn't want to be partners in some downtown law firm... If half of you had the fucking balls to follow through, you know what would happen? A guy like that would be indicted, tried and convicted. And the rest of 'em would back up enough, so we could push a clean case or two through your courthouse. But no, everybody stays friends. Everybody gets paid. And everybody's got a fucking future."
-McNulty, Season 1, Episode 11.
posted by officer_fred at 1:51 PM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell: "Was that the only reason you got into government -- so you could have a career?"

See Jim Manley's definition of political success in one of John Oliver's Daily Show segments on Australian gun control.
posted by jason_steakums at 2:11 PM on June 28, 2013


Edwards: Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.
Kay: A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.

posted by The Card Cheat at 2:21 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fear is an easy sell. I would guess, judging from reactions to things like the Boston marathon thing even on a fairly liberal site like this one, well over half the population is scared all of the time, of the wrong things even then.
posted by maxwelton at 2:24 PM on June 28, 2013


The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. -- H. L. Mencken (1918)
posted by jfuller at 2:24 PM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


opposition to gun control IS a fear-based position. didn't you know the govt is going to come and take away your right to protect your family from dangerous (probably foreign-born) criminals?
Fear of government, which is the same reason people oppose intrusive surveillance laws and other totalitarian actions, like locking people up without charges or doing drone strikes on citizens.

The specific theorem, or koan or whatever you want to call it says that the politician who preaches fear of terrorists has an intrinsic advantage over the one who says terrorists specifically are not a problem is at an intrinsic disadvantage. My point is that that's not true.
Remember that "9/11 changed everything." Hence Obama's expansion of Bush's "security" powers.
The fact that "9/11 changed everything" is exactly what makes that theorem false. A politician can go around saying terrorism is no big deal, and if terrorists ever attack then can just turn around and say "[whatever] changed everything" for a while until people stop caring about it, and therefore won't look bad. If politicians on the other side try to attack them for it immediately they'll look like monstrously craven opportunists. If they wait a while no one will care.
posted by delmoi at 3:06 PM on June 28, 2013


Why aren't we spending just as many tax dollars on shark attacks as terrorist attacks? More people are injured by sharks than terrorists, but you know, Blackstone doesn't make any shark repellant, but Wayne Industries does (warning: yakkety saks, YTMND).
posted by Monkey0nCrack at 5:26 PM on June 28, 2013


"A politician can go around saying terrorism is no big deal..."

Not in the United States. I understand your thought experiment, but find me successful current politicians who do that.

Again, opposition to gun control is not specifically or even mainly about fear of govt. It's fear of "thugs." Generally non-white ones.

Fear of govt., such as it is, is often tied to the idea that "thuggish" people (and "takers") are going to influence the govt to do their bidding.

Another absurd idea in reality, but that's their version of a thought experiment.
posted by blankdawn at 9:36 PM on June 28, 2013


@Cool Papa

"Was that the only reason you got into government -- so you could have a career?"

The quote is from an expert on security who does not work for the govt.

His point was that if an elected official WERE to speak rationally about security they would soon cease to be elected officials.

What is your point.
posted by blankdawn at 9:38 PM on June 28, 2013


"Corporations care very much about maintaining the myth that government is necessarily ineffective, except when it is spending money on the military-industrial complex, building prisons, or providing infrastructural support for the business sector."

-Michael Lerner
posted by blankdawn at 9:44 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


A: "You want to buy some elephant repellent?"
B: "But there's no elephants anywhere near here!"
A: "Exactly, it's that good."


This is what I think of as the Sadie method of Homeland Security. Sadie is the dog I had growing up (she died a year or so ago and was the best dog ever, RIP Sadie). Every day (except Sundays) the postman came and every day she barked at the postman. And the postman NEVER broke into the house and murdered our entire family. IT WORKS!
posted by NoraReed at 12:13 AM on June 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


the fear that comes from knowing that an organized, well financed group is continually looking for opportunities to kill in huge numbers ordinary people doing ordinary things
posted by flabdablet at 2:51 AM on June 29, 2013


Al Qaeda's fundamental mistake was failing to establish a Washington pressure group.
posted by flabdablet at 2:52 AM on June 29, 2013


All those reasons pale in comparison to the number one reason, a right wing party not only hellbent on taking advantage of the fear but on doing everything to inflame it.
posted by blue shadows at 3:24 AM on June 29, 2013


It's easy to argue that post 9/11 security has gone overboard, but the tiger repelling rock defense is not a valid argument. There are no tigers in that analogy, but there very clearly are terrorists in the world.
posted by gjc at 7:37 AM on June 29, 2013


If you live at the centre of the universe, anyone assailing your position is a "terrorist."
posted by temporicide at 7:45 AM on June 29, 2013


@fladablet and @gjc

you are right. there are Islamist terrorists, though the threat is still much less than advertised and the victims are almost exclusively poor fellow Muslims whose stories we will never see.

the biggest cause of such terrorism is US foreign policy. the new film Dirty Wars does an amazing job detailing this. I highly recommend it.
posted by blankdawn at 8:40 AM on June 29, 2013


...though the threat is still much less than advertised...

And so is the threat from eavesdropping on everyone in a giant electronic net, in order to have a historical backdrop to suspicious activity in the future. The real benefit, of course, is that it makes it harder for all kinds of organized conspiracies to crop up within US itself. With over 60 anti-American dispensationalists in Congress trying to turn us into a fundamentalist nightmare, and major political candidates and donors laundering their money abroad, I would like them to know that someone might be able to expose them someday if their plans get any weirder. Terrorism was just the last straw, as it were.

...and the victims are almost exclusively poor fellow Muslims whose stories we will never see.

This sounds crass to me. I also think the phrasing of the original scenario was poorly rigged. What we're really talking about is personal levels of guilt being compared to personal fears of crime and terrorism. Regardless, it is too complex to make any assertions about which level of security invites which level of crime or terrorism, and this is complicated by the fact that any terrorism or crime against the public actually creates a police-state response to the freedom of movement and association that is more difficult to remove, so it is best to keep it proactive rather than reactive.

As others have pointed out in other links and threads, the concern for civil liberties is sorely misplaced if we are suddenly concerned at all. Local cops and prosecutors have been framing and railroading citizens for decades over their purported drug use, with confiscations and racism urging them onwards, and most people still don't care about this kind of personally destructive and local surveillance, merely that their web surfing habits are being logged with everyone else's by a computer in a warehouse in Utah.
posted by Brian B. at 10:58 AM on June 29, 2013


There are no tigers in that analogy, but there very clearly are terrorists in the world.

This is why the Sadie metaphor is great, because there are postmen who murder, but your chances of being murdered by your postman are vanishingly small.
posted by NoraReed at 6:15 PM on June 29, 2013


More Schneier: Beyond feudal security: what's happening to online security and freedom
posted by homunculus at 4:03 PM on June 30, 2013


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