THIS ISSUE IS DEVOTED TO THE PAPERS FROM THE THIRTEENTH Social Research conference, which was held at the New School in February 2004. The decision to organize this conference, “Fear: Its Political Uses and Abuses,” was motivated by the painful recognition that we are living at a time, not the first, of collective fear-fear that is encouraged by our government and exacerbated by our media.
This fear has its origins in the shocking events of September 11, which horrified and mesmerized the nation and many in the rest of the world as we watched the planes smashing into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and saw the buildings collapsing over and over again as the tapes of these scenes were replayed endlessly on our television screens. A nation that had seemed impervious to attack from the outside suffered grievously at the hands of a small, determined band of fanatics who saw us as the “great Satan.” We were no longer invulnerable, and our vulnerability required swift and decisive action.
This sense of vulnerability, and the fear it engendered, quickly became the justification for so much that our government had done since in the name of protecting us. It has been the justification for two wars, and for “slashing away” our constitutional protections, all in the name of fighting terrorism. The Justice Department now claims the power to hold American citizens in prison indefinitely, without access to lawyers, simply because they have been labeled “enemy combatants.” Terrorism suspects have been held in secret detention for many months, some with no access to an attorney, while their hearings, when they occur, are closed to the public and the press. Treatment amounting to the torture of prisoners, both in Iraq and in Guantanamo, has been tolerated, if not authorized. Questioning the legitimacy of these actions, including the preemptive war on Iraq, is explicitly seen by many as un-American, as aiding and abetting the enemy. These actions, we are told, are necessary to combat and eliminate the very sources of our fears. How can we legitimately oppose them?
This may be the only time in our history when we are not only warned that we should be afraid, but told exactly how afraid we should be (red, orange or yellow alerts). And yet, regardless of how afraid we should be, we are given no advice about what to do, except perhaps to be wary of strangers and stock up on duct tape and bottled water. What is the effect of this?
Fear, of course, also has its positive side, which can be seen when we are asked to be afraid of not only terrorism but also second-hand smoke, bioengineered food, or even diseases, such as SARS or AIDS. When does the invocation of fear go from public education to hysteria, which may lead to unforeseen negative consequences?
What better time then, to step back and reflect on the political uses and abuses of fear. What can we learn from looking at other periods in our own history, or in the history of other countries, when fear was the order of the day? For example, 50 or more years ago this country was in the midst of the “Red Scare,” McCarthy was in his ascendancy, and American civil liberties were being seriously threatened and eroded. Are these similar moments?
There are many unanswered questions about the political uses and abuses of fear, and the processes at work during times such as these, that call for discussion and reflection. What do our social sciences have to tell us about how we respond to fear, and how those responses can be manipulated? Can we learn something relevant to our understanding of these processes from the neuroscience of fear? How can the most significant political theories help us understand fear, and in turn, how has fear figured in these influential political theories? How have new communication technologies changed the ways in which fear is propagated? Can fear and even terror play a positive role in political life, perhaps by inspiring a moral reawakening? Finally, can these avenues of knowledge improve our understanding of the processes now at work? What do they teach us about appropriate action–action we can take both in the name of fear and as a means of reducing it? These are the questions addressed at the conference and in the papers in this issue. One only wishes that they were less relevant now than they were a year ago when the conference was convened.
COPYRIGHT 2004 New School for Social Research
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