The politics of fear
Today, we seem to recognise the politics of fear only in its most
grotesque caricatured form.
Many commentators have argued that the US presidential election
is dominated by the politics of fear. American media outlets, including
the Washington Post and the New York Times, have criticised the
fear-mongering tactics of the election campaign organisers.
Both President George W Bush and his Democrat challenger John
Kerry have been criticised - but the charge of fear-mongering is
predominantly focused on Bush. Indeed, many claim that fear has
become Bush's favourite weapon of choice, and accuse him of systematically
manipulating the public's fear of terrorism since 9/11 in order
to strengthen his administration's authority. The post-9/11 curbs
on civil rights, such as the Patriot Act, have been discussed as
symptoms of this trend towards domination through fear.
It seems that one of the principal discoveries made by twenty-first
century media pundits is that governments use fear to sustain their
authority. The elevation of terrorism into the biggest threat to
civilisation no doubt provides a lot of material for scripting the
politics of fear - but the script is hardly original. It has been
recycled in different forms for decades. In the post-Second World
War era there was a continuous promotion of fear of the 'other side'.
Fear of communism underpinned Cold War ideology, with periodic outbursts
of fear of crime, fear of immigrants, and fear of nuclear war.
Fear of terrorism is not new either. Even before 9/11 governments
couldn't resist the temptation to play the terror card. Speculation
about 'catastrophic terrorism' and 'weapons of mass destruction'
was rife in the 1990s. It was President Bill Clinton who appointed
a national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection and
counterterrorism in May 1998, in order to 'bring the full force
of all of our resources to bear swiftly and effectively'. In November
1998, a group of foreign policy experts claimed that, 'The danger
of weapons of mass destruction being used against America and its
allies is greater now than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis
of 1962' (1).
A few weeks before September 2001, Sir William Stewart, the UK's
former chief scientific adviser, warned that the New Labour government's
difficulty in dealing with the foot-and-mouth outbreak showed just
how vulnerable Britain was to any future threat from biological
warfare (2). The ease with which he could jump from a crisis of
British farming to the spectre of biological warfare highlighted
the salience of fear as a political resource today.
Since 9/11, politicians, business, advocacy organisations and
special interest groups have sought to further their selfish agendas
by manipulating public anxiety about terror. All seem to take the
view that they are more likely to gain a hearing if they pursue
their arguments or claims through the prism of security. Businesses
have systematically used concern with homeland security to win public
subsidies and handouts. And paradoxically, the critics of big business
use similar tactics - many environmentalist activists have started
linking their traditional alarmist campaigns to the public's fear
of terror attacks.
So after 9/11, the Worldwatch Institute issued a statement entitled
'The Bioterror In Your Burger', which argued that although past
attempts to clean up America's food chain had 'failed to inspire
politicians', a patriotic demand for homeland security could 'finally
lead to meaningful action'. The Detroit Project, a campaign started
by liberal commentator Arianna Huffington and Americans for Fuel-Effiecient
Cars, links its campaign against sports utility vehicles (SUVs)
with the war on terrorism, arguing that Americans need to 'free
ourselves from the nations and terrorists holding us hostage through
our addiction to oil'.
Some environmentalists argue that their programmes offer the most
effective counter-terrorist strategy of all. In an article for the
online journal OnEarth, David Corn, the Washington-based editor
of America's left-leaning weekly The Nation, argued that 'technologies
long challenged by environmental advocates are potential sources
of immense danger in an era of terrorism'. 'Environmentalism will
have to be an essential component of counter-terrorism', he added.
Even radical critics of the war in Iraq argued against the war
by ratcheting up fears of terrorism. The UK's Stop the War Coalition
said that a 'headlong rush into war against Iraq will precipitate
the very terror threats that most sane people want to avert'. George
Michael caused controversy when he released the anti-war single
'Shoot the Dog' in 2002 - but that also was an argument against
war on the basis that it would make us more vulnerable to terrorism.
'I got the feeling that when it all goes off, they're gonna shoot
the dog', he sang, 'they' being the 'Mustaphas' and 'Gaza Boys'
and the dog being Blair's Britain. The video that accompanied the
song showed a map of Britain with a target sign across it.
Radical critics also use the rhetoric of terror to denounce policies
they dislike. They write of the 'terror' experienced by poor Americans
who lack access to health insurance or the 'terror' inflicted through
racist policies on minorities. In attempting to subvert the dominant
rhetoric of the war on terror, they inadvertently lend credibility
There is nothing distinct about Bush's rhetoric on terrorism.
His sentiments are echoed by leaders of other interest groups and
even by his opponents. Indeed, by transforming Bush into a figure
that should be feared the Democrats have proved to be the most adept
cultivators of the politics of fear. While Bush has adopted a one-dimensional
focus on the threat of terror, Kerry has succeeded in promoting
fear on several fronts.
The Democrats claim that if Bush is re-elected he will conspire
to reintroduce a military draft, and will turn the world into a
more dangerous place. 'Despite a lot of rhetoric, Bush has failed
to provide adequate homeland security', states one Democrat website.
The message, in short, is that the security of the USA depends on
the election of Kerry.
In fact, Kerry is a far more sophisticated practitioner of the
politics of fear than his Republican opponents. Consider the recent
controversy over the shortage of flu vaccines. Kerry seized upon
this issue and declared that Bush could not be trusted with protecting
the public's health. His intervention provoked a panic; people who
hadn't previously heard about the flu vaccine started queuing up
to receive it.
The narrative of fear has become so widely assimilated that it
is now self-consciously expressed in a personalised and privatised
way. In previous eras where the politics of fear had a powerful
grasp - in Latin American dictatorships, Fascist Italy or Stalin's
Soviet Union - people rarely saw fear as an issue in its own right.
Rather, they were frightened that what happened to a friend or a
neighbour might also happen to them. They were not preoccupied with
fear as a problem in an abstract sense.
Today, however, public fears are rarely expressed in response
to any specific event. Rather, the politics of fear captures a sensibility
towards life in general. The statement 'I am frightened' is rarely
focused on something specific, but tends to express a diffuse sense
of powerlessness. Or fears are expressed in the form of a complaint
about an individual, such as 'Bush really scares me' or 'he's a
scary president'. Ironically, in the very act of denouncing Bush's
politics of fear, the complainant advances his own version of the
same perspective by pointing out how terrifying the president apparently
Fear as a perspective
As I argue in my book Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the
Morality of Low Expectation, fear has become a powerful force
that dominates the public imagination. This was the case for some
time before 9/11, and its ascendancy has not been predicated on
the issue of terrorism.
The defining feature is the belief that humanity is confronted
by powerful destructive forces that threaten our everyday existence.
The line that used to delineate reality from science fiction has
become blurred. So government officials have looked into the alleged
threat posed by killer asteroids to human survival; some scientists
warn that an influenza pandemic is around the corner; others claim
that 'time is running out' for the human race unless we do something
about global warming. 'The end is nigh' is no longer a warning issued
by religious fanatics; rather, scaremongering is represented as
the act of a concerned and responsible citizen.
Advocacy groups often claim that we are not scared enough and
that the public should be more 'aware' of the risks they face. Newspapers
compete with one another in the promotion of different scare stories,
whether it's Frankenstein foods, the risks posed by the MMR vaccine,
economy-flight syndrome, or asylum seekers.
The prevalence of such scary stories suggests that society feels
uncomfortable with itself. It cannot discuss a problem facing children
without going into panic mode. Overnight we discover that obesity
is an 'epidemic' and is likely to kill more people than smoking
does. Discussions about new technology, drugs, health or the environment
invariably focus on worst-case scenarios. The cumulative impact
is to transform fear into a cultural perspective through which society
makes sense of itself. Fear is rarely about anything specific -
it is about everything. The culture of fear is underpinned by a
profound sense of powerlessness, a diminished sense of agency that
leads people to turn themselves into passive subjects who can only
complain that 'we are frightened'.
Politics has internalised the culture of fear. So political disagreements
are often over which risk the public should worry about the most.
British politics is currently dominated by debates about the fear
of terror, the fear of food, the fear of asylum seekers, the fear
of anti-social behaviour, fears over children, fear about health,
fear for the environment, fear for our pensions, fears over the
future of Europe. The politics of fear transcends the political
And yet the politics of fear could not flourish if it did not
resonate so powerfully with today's cultural climate. Politicians
cannot simply create fear from thin air. Nor do they monopolise
the deployment of fear; panics about health or security can just
as easily begin on the internet or through the efforts of an advocacy
group as from the efforts of government spindoctors. Paradoxically,
governments spend as much time trying to contain the effects of
spontaneously generated scare stories as they do pursuing their
own fear campaigns.
Perhaps the distinct feature of our time is not the cultivation
of fear, but the cultivation of vulnerability. In an era where children,
women, the elderly, the infirm and the poor - around 80 to 90 per
cent of the population of the Western World - are routinely discussed
as 'vulnerable groups', there is little need for an omnipotent state
to remind us of our lack of power. When most forms of human experience
come with a health warning, we are continually reminded that we
cannot be expected to manage everyday risks. And if vulnerability
is the defining feature of the human condition, we are quite entitled
to fear everything.
(1) 'Catastrophic Terrorism; Tackling the New Danger', Ashton Carter,
John Deutch and Philip Zelikow , Foreign Affairs, November/December
(2) Biological warfare warning for UK, BBC News, 2 September 2001
published on spiked, 28 October 2004