My first tour in Vietnam, I was a 22-year-old second lieutenant and Combat Platoon Leader in the 101st Airborne Division. The year was 1968, when more than 14,000 GI’s were killed in action. During the Tet Offensive and our counter-offensive in Hue, Quang Dien, and the A Shau valley, it was a rare day that we did not have a firefight with casualties on both sides. On arrival I had 30 men in my platoon, but because of the heavy casualties I never had more than 26 thereafter. On one occasion I was down to eight. From the first firefight I was awe struck by the courage of my platoon of paratroopers. They would advance in the face of withering fire. They would risk their own lives repeatedly to save a comrade. They carried out orders that often required sacrifice of their own life or limb. I was their leader but they were my inspiration.
On hundreds of occasions, I wished that Americans could witness the extraordinary courage of their native sons directly. I could imagine what pride Americans would feel whether they were for the war or against it. Today I ask myself how a nation that could produce such young men could become a nation so dominated by cowardice. In the pusillanimous America of today, Syrian women and children are treated like terrorists. Every Mexican looking to feed his family is seen as a murderer or rapist and every orphaned child from Central America is a national security threat.
There are many factors that contribute to this national cowardice. The social displacement due to economic globalization, and profound demographic changes that are pushing white Americans into a minority status are two major factors that heighten the level of fear. However, the largest single factor is political fear mongering.
The politics of fear are not new to our country. Politicians throughout our history have used fear to manipulate the people for political gain. When people are afraid, they are willing to sacrifice their rights, values, and even their freedom for the illusion of safety. Joseph McCarthy manipulated American fear of Communism to grab power and embark on a reign of terror until courageous Americans stood up to his bullying and pulled the plug on his histrionics.
However, Joe McCarthy can’t hold a candle to 21st century alarmists. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 paved the way for a tsunami of fear-mongering. The attacks dealt a devastating blow to America’s sense of invincibility. The Twin Towers were not only symbols of America’s economic power but were monuments to our country’s greatness.
The 9/11 attacks established Islamic terrorists as America’s primary object of fear. George Bush and his Neo-Con allies took that fear and directed it into self-destructive strategies meant to achieve their own twisted goals. Bush wanted to get revenge on Saddam Hussein and to finish the conquest of Iraq that his father had wisely discontinued. He was supported by Neo-Cons of the New American Century who dreamed of American hegemony. They longed for a world dominated by American military power to satisfy their own warped sense of grandiosity.
To push America into their destructive strategies, they waged an unprecedented campaign to terrorize Americans. They conjured images of “mushroom clouds” and imaginary “weapons of mass destruction” to scare Americans into supporting the very ill-advised invasion of Iraq. Their scare tactics were so successful that they persuaded 82% of Americans to support the invasion.
The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq produced disastrous results. The more terrorists that we killed, the more their numbers increased. Terrorist groups multiplied. Al Qaeda, Taliban, Hezbollah, and Hamas metastasized into Al-Shabaab, Abu Sayyaf, Boko Haram, al-Nusra, and ISIL. There were no active terrorist groups in Iraq before the invasion and it has been plagued by terrorists ever since. Bush fear-mongering had become self-fulfilling.
When the Patriot Act forced Americans to give up their rights, it was a short step to give up the values and national norms that had made America great. For the first time in history, torture became the official policy of the United States. Bush and the Neo-Cons attempted to hide torture behind a rhetorical disguise by calling it “enhanced interrogation.” The “ticking time bomb” fantasy was a very effective technique to push this new policy past a cowering American public. The para-logic was: If a terrorist had planted a time bomb in Manhattan, wouldn’t you torture him to get the location? If torture is OK in this instance, isn’t it always OK.? This new torture policy brought shame on our country at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram Airbase, and “Black Sites” all over the world. This public shaming of America resulted in a recruiting windfall for all terrorist groups.
By the end of the Bush years, fear mongering had become the “go-to” Republican tactic. Bush crashed the economy in 2008, creating even more fear especially among the more affluent white population. White fear exploded with the election of an African-American president and Republicans rushed to fan the white panic. Republican trolls trafficked in claims that Obama was “foreign-born.” Chief among the “birther” trolls was a Republican billionaire named Donald Trump. They made false claims Obama was a Muslim and a “socialist.” A constant stream of “stranger danger” was manufactured by Republican operatives.
And who can forget those “death panels”? The “death panel” claim was a Republican scare tactic to panic old white people about the Affordable Care Act. It was totally bogus, but many gullible Republicans still believe it. A few days ago I even witnessed a Republican congressman attempt to use this discredited lie in his town hall meeting. He was booed into silence.
The white fear pot seethed through the Obama presidency. It manifested itself in a growing irrational anger toward the President and minorities. Republicans hyped the world as a dangerous place, encouraged the public to be terrified, and encouraged everyone to carry firearms even into elementary schools. Republicans stoked white fear into racial hatred.
America was in a fear-hatred cycle that was ripe for demagoguery. Enter Donald J. Trump, demagogue extraordinaire. He launched a presidential campaign based on misogyny, racism, bigotry and xenophobia and found a receptive audience in undereducated fearful white men. (72% of this demographic voted for him.) His message to America was: Be afraid, be very afraid and I am the only one that can protect you from Mexican rapists and murderers, Islamic terrorists, black criminals and assertive women.
In the first month, the Trump White House was a veritable fear factory ginning up imaginary threats. Trump and his quislings, Sean Spicer and Kelly Anne Conway, manufactured two terrorist attacks and a massacre. Trump created a bogus attack in Sweden based on a phony Tucker Carlson report on Fox News. Spicer claimed there was an Islamic terrorist attack in Atlanta that was completely bogus and Conway fabricated the “Bowling Green Massacre.” These scare tactics succeeded in gaining support for unconstitutional bans on Muslim immigration. More than 50% of Americans heeded the call of cowardice and supported the ban.
In their cowardice, many Americans believe walls will protect them. This is an illusion. They don’t realize the greatest threat to our country is the authoritarian fear mongers who want to strip us of our rights, freedoms, and values to fuel their own power and grandiosity.
Terry Stulce got a master’s degree in social work after his military service and was licensed as a psychotherapist. He now lives in Ooltewah, Tenn.
From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2017
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