A foreign policy driven by fear


MY COLLEGE'S graduation ceremonies were covered by the national news recently. The West Point Class of 2005 received special mention since its members enrolled in 2001, just before 9/11 - the events, we are told, that "changed everything."

The young lieutenants were presented as courageous volunteers in the "war on terror," and most of them expect within a year to be fighting in Iraq. How did the events of 9/11 become conflated with our Iraq adventure?

It was, of course, easy. We know now that the Bush administration was preoccupied with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein long before those airliners hit the World Trade Center. The neoconservatives in charge of the country exploited our national hysteria over the attacks to launch a pre-emptive war on a country that posed no real threat to us.

The history of misjudgment, cooked intelligence estimates and deception concerning the existence of weapons of mass destruction is so well known that the original pretext for the war has been abandoned in favor of our supposed dedication to securing freedom for the suffering Iraqi people as part of a broader effort to spread democracy throughout the Middle East.

Despite the facts, the administration's efforts to connect 9/11 to the war in Iraq have been a signal success. In fact, standing on the ash heap of mistakes and lies that have led to the deaths of more than 1,600 Americans, cost more than $100 billion and shows no sign of an early or favorable outcome, this administration was re-elected largely on the basis of its perceived competence to protect us from further terrorism. This is a triumph of fear over rationality.

If you doubt the role of fear in our lives, look at our current fondness for evangelical Christianity, with its visions of a rapture in which the believers are saved and the rest of humanity is consigned to apocalyptic punishment. Is it a coincidence that our fear-driven foreign policy is the creation of a faith-based administration?

In our reaction to 9/11, we immediately declared we were in a "war against evil." In fact, the destruction of the twin towers was the result of a criminal conspiracy involving perhaps 50 to 100 people. Our response, to seek out and punish the leaders of this conspiracy in Afghanistan, was a notable, if incomplete, success, and had we stopped there, we would be safer than we are today.

But what we did was to mount an invasion on an Arab country under false pretenses and then engage in behavior that has alienated most of the Muslim world. Now our troops and the citizens who are the objects of our "liberation" are the daily targets of terrorists.

When Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in an act of domestic terrorism, this was treated like the criminal act it was. No one declared war on the right-wing militias that had given birth to the thinking that underlay his actions. We have learned to live with and contain these forces that sanction the overthrow of our government, and they remain marginalized.

Why could we not similarly contain the radical Islamists who seek our destruction? The answer, of course, is fear. They are foreign to us and therefore more threatening, their motives and methods obscure. So we attack them (and those who resemble them) and try not to notice how like them, brutal and ruthless, we are becoming in the process.

We also seem not to notice how our lashing out is creating more of them. We act as if we can revoke some basic rules of human behavior: We are not defined by what we say but by what we do. Illegitimate means cannot be justified by laudable ends. We can't spread freedom by lies and torture.

We are frightened by what we cannot understand: death, foreignness, religious fanaticism. What we ought to consider is what our fear has driven us to become.

Gordon Livingston, a Vietnam veteran, is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia.

Columnist Ellen Goodman is on vacation.

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