Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The value of enemies

I have often said that Osama bin Laden is the best friend George W. Bush ever had. But their symbiosis could only succeed because of some unfortunate proclivities of human psychology. Alan Block reviews the book "Terrorizing Ourselves". Here's the core of it:

Terrorism is the tactic of the weak, of those who oppose a given state or culture but know they do not have the power to face it openly on the field of battle or even in a guerrilla insurrection. So they strive to turn the power of the state against itself. . . . The Patriot Act was passed in a flurry of panic, and the privacy of every American was compromised, with little or no impact on terrorist activities. It was recently renewed with little notice by a Congress peopled with politicians who had previously criticized it but found it acceptable now that a man with a D after his name occupies the Oval Office. Americans have become accustomed to removing their shoes and not putting shampoo in their carry-on bags and waiting in long lines to travel. Many Americans justify torture and indefinite detention without trial of people simply accused of cooperation with terrorists.

Several chapters dissect the threat posed by bioterrorism and find it minuscule, yet the government has spent $64 billion on it since 9/11, which has probably made us less rather than more safe.

So why is this tactic so successful? Tom Jacobs makes it crystal clear. We want to have powerful enemies. They comfort us. "It is less scary to place all our fears on a single, strong enemy than to accept the fact our well-being is largely based on factors beyond our control. An enemy, after all, can be defined, analyzed and perhaps even defeated. . . A research team led by social psychologist Daniel Sullivan of the University of Kansas reports on four studies that suggest people are 'motivated to create and/or perpetually maintain clear enemies to avoid psychological confrontations with an even more threatening chaotic environment.'"

Indeed. But, the fact is, our real enemies can be defined, analyzed and perhaps even defeated; it's just that they are more complex and less palpable than al Qaeda or the communofascist plots of the Obama administration. Structural unemployment, growing economic inequality and declining living standards of working people; multiple environmental crises; the threat of emerging infectious diseases; these and other pressing problems are understandable and they are not insoluble. But they require us to give up some cherished illusions and confronting them requires accepting the likelihood of troubled times and struggle ahead. For many people, it's just easier to worry about the bearded guy holing up in the mountains halfway around the earth.

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