On Terror and Fear

On Terror and Fear

In an upcoming post I will be discussing the role of Authoritarianism and the gravitation towards it in America over the last thirty or so odd years as part of Trump’s Wall. But before we get there, I feel it is necessary to take a moment and discuss the differences between fear and terror.

There is a fundamental difference between fear and terror. In the modern American lexicon, we often use these words interchangeably. However, this isn’t accurate. On the surface, fear is a natural and rational reaction to an external stimulus; fear of the unknown, a fear of heights, etc. Terror, on the other hand, is an irrational reaction to same; being terrified of spiders, for instance. A fear of spiders might lead someone to swat at the spider or to lay out a trap. A terror of spiders might lead someone to burn the house down. Yes, this is over the top; but such is the reaction to terror.

Indeed, I would argue that fear is not just something that can be overcome through bravery. Rather, fear is the necessary requisite for bravery. One is not brave for doing something that they have no fear of. Bravery is the overcoming of fear. Terror, on the other hand, does not lead to an overcoming of fear. On the contrary, terror leads, more often than not, to an acquiescence. Whereas fear may lead someone to do that which they might not normally do, finding strength and then perseverance for some greater good; terror may lead someone to do that which they might not normally do, in a way that is likely to cause more harm than good.

It is this distinction which I believe that terrorists and terror groups understand all too well. For terror groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIL, it is not enough to simply make those in the West afraid, the West must be terrorized. If Western actors are afraid, they may find their strength and, joining together, fight for the preservation of their common ideals. If they are terrorized, however, they will tear themselves apart. They will give up their freedoms and betray their ideals – all in the name of a false sense of security.

President George W. Bush stated about the terror groups sometime after the attacks of September 11, 2001, that “they hate us for our freedoms.” I disagree with this to some extent. I think the terror groups are, at least at the leadership level, quite aware of many things geopolitical. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these groups don’t hate the West, but I do not think it is simply about free speech, secular government, or a woman’s right to drive a car in a t-shirt and shorts. They may very well hate those things too, but a good deal of their ideology is informed by the long term effects of proxy wars during the Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R. as well as the fall-out of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Osama bin Laden stated many times, publicly, that a major motivation for him and his group was due to the U.S. coming in, ravaging their land, and then leaving them with the mess when we beat back the Soviets. We can argue as to whether or not that is an accurate picture of what happened, but the point still stands that it isn’t solely about our secular government and our civil rights and liberties.

Let us assume, for the moment, however, that W. was correct and that terror groups do hate the West for our freedoms, and this is their motivation for acts of terror. What then, to make of our responses in the form of the PATRIOT Act? Or more recently, when Theresa May stated that she was willing to forego human rights in the fight against terror? Again, if they (the terrorists) hate us (the West) for our freedoms, then what does it mean to not only pursue policies that would deny others their rights and freedoms, based on arbitrary, superficial physical similarities to another group, but to also willingly give up our own?

This is the central point of distinction between fear and terror. As I stated, fear can, and quite often does, lead to bravery. Terror leads to paralysis. At a national level, fear can lead to a sense of purpose. Terror cannot. The Abolition Movement, for instance, was powered by bravery, an overcoming of fear to do what was right; that all were created equal. Internment camps during World War II were powered by terror, an overwhelming acquiescence to the notion that some were created evil or inferior. We can see in the post 9/11 world not a return to the sense of bravery during the days of the Underground Railroad, but a return to the sense of terror that was present in the days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

To put all this more simply, fear may lead to a fighting that expands the recognition of the rights of men. Terror can only lead to a fighting that restricts the recognition of the rights of men. In this regard, fear becomes an ally for the advancement of rights and protections of those rights. It may not be a natural or immediately apparent ally, but it at least follows the idea of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Terror, then, becomes the existential threat to rights and protections of those rights.

A fear of creeping fascism may inspire men to band together and fight against the common threat. It leads to trust and to a mutual understanding that, despite our differences, we place a high premium on our values. And we should be willing to fight for those values. Terror, which is utilized by fascist regimes, breeds a distrust among brothers and a willingness to sell each other out, often through silence, to protect a shell of an existence. Life at its most literal and empty meaning, only the biological existence of an organism once capable of critical thought and a devotion to something higher than the self; now only a husk of a human devoted only to self preservation.

If fear can inspire power, then terror is what breeds the sense of powerlessness. And it is this sense of powerlessness that drives men, reduced from classes with some distinguishing characteristics to masses focused only on a false perception of sameness, to reach for a strong leader. It is what causes men to not seek to join the fight in whatever way they can, the fight against an enemy to preserve ideals and values, but to turn over their own self autonomy to a leader who will take care of such things for them.

It then becomes a self perpetuating cycle. Terror leads to a desire for an authoritarian, but authoritarians rely on terror to attain and maintain power. The rub is that this is not an inherently left or right issue. Authoritarianism can come from either direction, and in the last thirty or so odd years, it has. And with each presidential election, Americans have shown an ever increasing willingness to forego their own individual autonomy in the hopes of a strong leader to solve their problems for them, to protect them from the external other.

With this in mind, I will turn next time to the roles of xenophobia and religious intolerance as part of the building of an isolationist movement, both at the national scale and how that has created isolation among individuals; and how that has added the next few bricks in the wall.

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