I'm disappointed in the way we've been moving towards a culture of fear over the last decade or so. Franklin Roosevelt was quite right in saying it's the only thing we have to fear, and as Frank Herbert wrote in "Dune", it is the mind-killer.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were the most obvious trigger for the current descent into fear-driven politics, and I need not go on at any length about how spectacularly terrifying those events were. Much has already been written about how fear drove us as a society to engage in a whole lot of silly and self-destructive behaviour. Fortunately, we managed to avoid the consequence that was the chief objective of the architects of the plan, which was for a U.S. overreaction to spur a global jihad against it, though it was touch and go for a while. (In fact, I suspect that this particular attack may have unwittingly prevented the global jihad it was meant to incite; imagine if the invasion of Iraq had proceeded without the windfall of international sympathy and support received by the second Bush Administration following the attacks.)
But we certainly have harmed ourselves in innumerable ways owing to our disproportionate and largely unthinking fear of further attacks. We endure ridiculously intrusive and inconvenient security screening at airports, and thousands of people are further inconvenienced by their mistaken inclusion on no-fly lists, little of which has any actual positive effect on making us materially safer, though the whole process does seem to show that we're especially cowardly and weak if we're afraid of what a grandmother might do to us with a set of nail clippers. This is especially silly when one considers that it's actually been heroic and unarmed passengers who have foiled most airborne terror attempts since 9/11, starting with United Flight 93 on that very day.
Just as silly, and far more shameful, has been the move towards what are euphemistically called "enhanced interrogation techniques", more properly called torture. We've known for centuries that torture is generally not very good for getting useful intelligence out of people who will say absolutely anything to get it to just stop, please stop. Yet the desire to get tough and take off the gloves is overwhelming when you're afraid. That's natural, of course. But those who advocate the use of torture are really telling us that torture (or the threat thereof) would work on them, too. (They might not work on particularly determined subjects, and when we're dealing with people who are happy to blow themselves up, it might not be appropriate to assume a lack of resolve on the part of our opponents.)
Here in Canada, our Conservative Government is happy to exploit the culture of fear through its omnibus crime bill. Despite the fact that crime rates have been consistently dropping for years, they made much political hay about their promise to "stand up for victims and get tough on crime". Never mind that the policies they're about to implement will be disastrously expensive and very probably lead to rising crime rates (unless that's their cunning plan -- "See?! Crime rates are rising! We need to get even tougher!"). The psychology is virtually the same as that behind the torture advocacy: Maybe if we can make criminals/terrorists more afraid of us than we are of them, we'll at least be the least afraid people in a world of fear.
I want to argue that that's a dismal and fruitless approach. For one thing, the more afraid we are, the more powerful the use of terror becomes, not only by our enemies but also by the governments that are supposed to be protecting us. After all, the more we fear being accused of terrorism, or being beaten or pepper sprayed, the more we'll strive not to make waves or trouble for those in power, even if our complaints are legitimate. That's simply not a recipe for a healthy society (although it may not be that those who crave power are really interested in a healthy society). The cure for fear is not simply more fear.
The answer I'd like to propose is this: Don't be afraid. Or more precisely, don't let your fear cloud your judgment or make you act foolishly. It's natural to be afraid, but courage is a matter of controlling fear so that one can remain rational and make good choices.
Easier said, than done, perhaps. Aristotle said that courage was a matter of knowing what properly to be afraid of. I'm not sure I agree with that completely. Sure, there are times when the instinctive fight-or-flight response is useful, but by and large, I don't think that the problems that face us today are ones for which being afraid (and therefore reacting in a fear-driven mode) is appropriate. Being afraid of crime should not make us vote for foolish policies, and being afraid of terrorists should not make us waste resources on pointless security theatre; however afraid we are, we should still strive to act rationally about these sorts of threats.
It occurs to me that one of the ways to overcome fear is, in a way, through more fear. Consider terrorist attacks, for example. The idea of being blown up or burnt to cinders by a terrorist attack is frightening, to be sure. But is it worse to die that way than, say, being blown up or burnt in an industrial accident, or a car crash, which is a far more likely threat. Or is it worse than dying of cancer or stroke or some other terminal disease? Because hey, I don't want this to come as too much of a shock, but you are going to die some day, and chances are it's not going to be entirely pleasant. No need to dwell on it, of course, but we really should get over the idea that if we're safe from terrorists, then we'll live out long and happy lives free from pain and suffering. If you accept and even embrace the inevitability of your own (quite probably painful) death, then the people who try to use your fear of death to control you suddenly lose a lot of their power.
And really, that's the only power they have, relative to us. It's not as if terrorists or other criminals have access to huge armies, after all; that's why they resort to using things that are readily available to just about everyone. I drive a car; If I chose to, I could use it to cause a helluva lot more death, pain and property damage than the shoebomber was ever able to inflict. We decent folk are potentially every bit as scary as any terrorist; it's just that we have properly developed moral instincts that prevent us from engaging in such stupid and pointless mayhem.
That isn't the case when our governments attempt to intimidate us. The state does have access to more force than we do, as well as the power to enact laws. Yet the basic principle still applies: they cannot use fear against us unless we let them. Indeed, as important as it is not to fear terrorists and criminals, it is even more essential that we not fear our government. Perhaps the best way to combat that is to remember that our governments, at least in democratic countries, belong to us and are accountable to us. That means we need to continually assert our authority as citizens, not only by voting in large numbers (another reason why I'm worried by declining voter turnout) but by engaging in vigorous public discourse wherever the opportunity arises, including (I hope) in the comments sections of blogs like this one.