09-11-1984, The Calculus of Fear: When Trivial Terrors Become the “Real Threats”

Orange has become America’s new national colour.

Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room. The self-satisfied sheep-like face on the screen, and the terrifying power of the Eurasian army behind it, were too much to be borne: besides, the sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger automatically. He was an object of hatred more constant than either Eurasia or Eastasia.

A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.

For how could the fear, the hatred, and the lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force?

Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery is torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain…. always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.

Extracts from George Orwell’s 1984.

When fear is distributed by the mass media, managed and promoted by the state, even with calibrations of fear that assign specific values to different threats (the colour coding of threat levels in the U.S.), with armies of taxpayers called upon to pay ever more for more “security”, when they have less real income than before, supposedly with the aim of prolonging their lives against “the terrorist threat”, then one has to talk about fear as something that is calculated, controlled, and controlling. It has an economy, a symbolic system, assigned messengers, an armed apparatus, and a routinized discourse. It is not genuine fear–genuine fear is spontaneous, emotional, it goes as quickly as it comes, it cannot be articulated. The fear of terrorism is instead a managed fear, orchestrated by authority, invested with power in the defense of power.

One may be wrong to call the “fear of terrorism” an irrational fear when it has been so carefully rationalized, in all of the senses of the term, both popular and academic. The outcomes, however, cannot be defended as rational ones.

The fact remains apparent, to anyone willing to look critically, that terrorist attacks are, by very far, one of the least causes of premature death on this planet. The death toll from the popularly caricatured “Islamo-fascist jihadist” is comparatively minimal, to the point of being trivial, insignificant, irrelevant, and probably worthwhile ignoring given the social, economic, and political costs of the kind of excessive attention it has been receiving in the North American mass media and among politicians.

In 2001, almost 3,000 people were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In that same year, 42,636 people died in traffic accidents in the United States. Does one need to be a statistician, someone with training in calculating probability, to realize that it is far more likely that an American will die driving than from a terrorist attack? And yet, millions of Americans continue to drive, without seeking to ban it.

What have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost the United States and what are the likely immediate costs for the near future?

In October 2007, the Congressional Budget Office projected that additional war costs for the next 10 years could range from $570 billion if troop levels fell to 30,000 by 2010, or $1.1 trillion if troop levels fell to 75,000 by about 2013. Under these scenarios, CBO projects that funding for Iraq, Afghanistan and the GWOT could reach from about $1.2 trillion to about $1.7 trillion for FY2001-FY2017.

With enactment of the FY2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act (H.R.2764/P.L. 110-161 on December 26, 2007, Congress has approved a total of about $700 billion for military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans’ health care for the three operations initiated since the 9/11 attacks: Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) Afghanistan and other counterterror operations; Operation Noble Eagle (ONE), providing enhanced security at military bases; and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). (Source 1, Source 2)

In 2009, the United States will spend $706 billion on defense.

Keeping in mind that about 3,000 died on September 11, 2001, in the attacks in New York and Washington, and that there have been terrorist attacks in London, Madrid, Bali, and so forth — let’s be really generous and produce an over-sized estimate of 1 million people killed from terrorist attacks since 2001, worldwide.

The key question we need to ask then is: SO WHAT?

Chronic disease was estimated to take 35 million lives in 2005, out of the total 58 million who died globally (source). If you think the death toll from global terrorism has been high, consider that in 2002, 7.2 million people died of coronary heart disease, 5.5 million from stroke or another form of cerebrovascular disease, according to the World Health Organization (source). Also according to the WHO, 7.6 million died from cancer worldwide in 2005 alone (source). Another 3 million people died from AIDS in 2005 as well, according to one estimate (see below). Since 1981, more than 25 million people worldwide have died from AIDS (source).

According to UNAIDS:

An estimated 38.6 million [33.4 million-46.0 million] people worldwide were living with HIV at the end of 2005. An estimated 4.1 million [3.4 million-6.2 million] became newly infected with HIV and an estimated 2.8 million [2.4 million-3.3 million] lost their lives to AIDS.

But, as we know, the US all by itself has spent about $700 billion in its so-called Global War on Terror. From a very rough tally of those dying from AIDS, cancer, heart disease, roughly giving us a death toll of 52 million people in one year globally, and assuming an outrageously high figure of 1 million deaths per year from “terrorism”, we can see which is the far greater threat to people’s lives. And yet:

In 2005, $8.297 billion (US) were spent on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

In 2003 $125.8 billion (US) were spent on health research, globally.

In other words, a fraction of what is spent on airport security, on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on training for “first responders”, on new equipment and surveillance programs, on new surveillance and new agencies, outweighs spending on far greater threats to human life.

Even in anthropology, many of us, myself included, engaged in debates about the role of anthropology in counterinsurgency, with some defending such a role, as if keeping the “terrorist threat” at bay even mattered–when in comparative and numerical terms alone, it clearly cannot and should not matter at all.

The promised eternal defense against terrorist threats, with symbolic prohibitions against bottles of water on aircraft while cargo on planes and ground crew go largely unchecked, the long lines at security in airports, the repeated announcements of “Code Orange” by the “Department of Homeland Security”, the detentions and surveillance, and the incessant, obsessive fixation of the mass media on terrorist threats and how to counteract them, is more than a gigantic waste of energy and resources, it is a threat in itself. The real terror is the constant repetition that there is a terrorist threat, and that such a threat should matter to us.

If terrorism seems to matter to so many, to the extreme extent that they would re-elect a George Bush, consider a non-alternative as a John Kerry, think that John McCain might be better for national security, or cheer a Barack Obama who has done little to suggest the need to diminish the obsession with security, then there must be a reason, aside from pure indoctrination.

One reason may be that a terrorist attack, unlike a heart attack, is loaded with ostensible, audible, tangible politics. It is a goal scored against one’s home team. The game is on. We have to show them who they’re messing with. Another may be that HIV, cancer, and other diseases are automatically relegated to the realm of “nature”, rooted in biology, with multiple causes and in many cases no known way of “winning” against them–whereas terrorism is caused by people, who can be targeted, who inhabit a “culture” of terrorism. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear leaders likening “Islamic radicalism” to a “cancer” that can spread–however, it is in likening terrorism to a cancer that one implicity acknowledges that it is not cancer (or the logical bases for comparison would not exist), and that cancer is still the more powerful threat (terrorism is “like” it, or could become like it, and thus become “really bad”). How many will perceive that distinction? Cancer, the bigger threat, is named in the process of overemphasizing terrorism, the minimal threat.

In the meantime, those in power relish and revel in the new command opportunities to be exploited by a population that wants to “put it across” to the enemy. Terrorism is lucrative for important supporters of a given regime; it provides excuses for shutting up and tarnishing opponents; it helps to produce a patriotism that whitewashes continuing differences within the society, while exacerbating them and creating new lines of cleavage; it encourages people to police others and themselves; it wins votes for the tough talkers; it allows for a sweeping overhaul of a social and political order; and, by fomenting new forms of destruction, it creates opportunities for “economic growth”.

But for those who will persist with the authorized forms of fear, I can only offer a gift. Here are your two minutes of hatred, dear “patriots”:

This is our land.
A land of peace and of plenty.
A land of harmony and hope.
This is our land.

These are our people:
The workers, the strivers, the builders.
These are our people:
The builders of our world,
Struggling, fighting, bleeding, dying,
On the streets of our cities,
And on the far-flung battlefields,
Fighting against the mutilation of our hopes and dreams.

Who are they?
They are the dark armies,
The dark, murdering armies of Eurasia.
In the barren deserts of Africa and India,
On the oceans of Australasia,
Courage, strength and youth are sacrificed.
Sacrificed…to barbarians whose only honour is atrocity.

Even as we grasp at victory,
There is a cancer.
An evil tumour,
Growing, spreading in our midst.
Shout. Shout! Shout out his name!

It is figuring out which the real threat that should be named that remains a tremendous challenge for too many.