We Need To Talk About Fear
A primer for parallels
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The years immediately proceeding 9/11 were chaotic, a period when terrorist threats were very real. National security imperatives trumped concerns about government overreach. “Better safe than sorry” was the predominant mindset.
As the War on Terror began to take shape and fear levels remained high, rhetoric in the name of fighting terrorism allowed the federal government to expand its power more than any other time in American history (q.v. - the Department of Homeland Security’s creation in 2002), with draconian detention and surveillance measures largely ignored, if not tacitly approved of by Congress.
Under the guise of engaging in counterterrorism, the FBI was able to build a network of over ten times as many informants as there were during the infamous “Cointelpro” operations (1956-1971) led by director J. Edgar Hoover. Today’s FBI informants are more often than not well-remunerated con men with criminal histories who the Bureau says it cannot guarantee will avoid coercive tactics when goading marks into plots, which is slightly problematic when you consider that these informants aren’t paid unless successful. And the stakes are high: Informants stand to make as much as $100,000 over the course of a single investigation, not to mention considerable bonuses in the case of successful convictions.
Most informants were used to infiltrate Muslim communities, at which point they’d create and facilitate phony terrorist plots ostensibly “thwarted” by the Bureau's estimable public servants.
The FBI has since developed a reputation for publicizing, often with great fanfare, its foiling of complex, frightening plots and conspiracies thanks to its undercover work, diligently reminding the public of the ever-present threats that are being subverted.
The inflated scale of these threats is intentional and serves several objectionable purposes. In addition to overwhelming the public and the courts, who might otherwise see the FBI’s methods for what they really are (entrapment), when these manufactured terrorist plots are hyped up, it increases possible penalties because of “terrorism enhancement” sentencing provisions. Most of the accused end up pleading guilty when they see the cases stacked against them, which begets the question of whether the FBI’s pre-trial publicity stunts are used in avoidance of scrutiny altogether, both inside and outside of court.
Stirring up terrorism fears is about ever-increasing authority and a desire for more funding; it also explains how the FBI has managed to transform itself from a reactive law enforcement agency to a proactive counterterrorism organization with a $9.7 billion annual budget that excels at trapping hapless individuals in contrived terrorist plots.
Consider what former FBI Assistant Director Thomas Fuentes said in a documentary called The Newberg Sting:
“If you’re submitting budget proposals for a law enforcement agency, for an intelligence agency, you’re not going to submit the proposal that “We won the war on terror and everything’s great,” cuz the first thing that’s gonna happen is your budget’s gonna be cut in half. You know, it’s my opposite of Jesse Jackson’s ‘Keep Hope Alive’—it’s ‘Keep Fear Alive.’ Keep it alive.”
But the specter of Muslim terrorists isn't the only way to stoke fear; they use whatever's most frightening in the public imagination at any given point in time, because fear is essential to the justification of state authority.
Think about it: When people are scared they turn into sheep; they’re infinitely more agreeable to anything the government says will ensure their safety.
But when there’s nothing to fear — and therefore no reason for the excesses of an overreaching federal government — people are much more sensitive to infringements on rights and freedom, and a lot less likely to keep nodding along like Bobbleheads.
That’s when the powers that be will figure out another way to keep the public apathetic to, if not grateful for, their overreach; they’ll give them something else to fear.
During his July 2019 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI director Christopher Wray said that “jihadist-inspired violence” remained the greatest terrorist threat in the United States.
Less than two years later, in the wake of the Capitol riot, he changed his tune and announced that “white supremacy” had supplanted that threat as the top priority.
Additionally, the FBI has said it’s most concerned about domestic-extremist movements driven by “perceptions of government or law-enforcement overreach, sociopolitical conditions and reactions to legislative actions.”
The implications of this shift are massive.
The government’s approach to counterterrorism erodes constitutional protections for everyone — not just jihadists — by blurring the lines between speech and action and by broadening the scope of who’s classified as a threat. As Stanford law professor Shirin Sinnar said, “We treat terrorism in an exceptional way. The ordinary rule of law doesn’t apply when it comes to terrorism — no ordinary oversight or democratic accountability.”
Given that the FBI has embraced an unfounded theory of “radicalization” that alleges a direct progression from adopting certain beliefs, or expressing opposition to U.S. policies, to becoming a terrorist, it follows that anyone holding unorthodox views or challenging government policies could find themselves targeted by overzealous federal agents using crooked informants.
Consider how easily the federal government — in this case, the Federal Bureau of Investigations — has arrogated Orwellian power; they can essentially deploy the full might of the State to shape a fundamental narrative about which ideas Americans must be most scared of, and which ones they should not fear much at all, independent of the relative objective dangerousness of the people who hold those ideas.
What happens when the hazards of risk misperception are more significant than the actual risks people are concerned about? Or when a framework of “permanent crisis” is allowed to persist, long past the point of there being any meaningful “crisis” at hand?