The Fear Fundamentalists

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

It’s 3 a.m. and your child is sleeping. A detainee groans at Guantanamo. On the campaign trail, the Clinton PR team is guzzling coffee, dreaming up new ways to milk votes out of fear.

Why, I wondered, is she going after these votes in the primary? Surely she doesn’t imagine that the fear fundamentalists are part of her constituency: the ones who think a wall across our Southern border, and a macho preener in the White House, will make them safe. Then I thought, oh, maybe it’s that Republican crossover thing. Rush Limbaugh loans the dittohead vote to Hillary so the GOP doesn’t have to run against Obama in the fall, and she eases their journey across the party divide with a little shameless fear-mongering so they feel temporarily at home.

Would she be so cynical? I worry more that she’s serious, and imagine a Clinton-McCain square-off in the fall, with the two of them zeroing in on those same fear fundamentalists, as though those are the only votes that matter. I imagine the headlines, the media glee, as both candidates strain to project comic-book macho bombast to the electorate and all pretense of an issue-based campaign disintegrates (and the Republican operatives cackle).

It’s 3 a.m. and your child is sleeping. The Gitmo detainee is dragged from his cell. What will it be? The ever-popular waterboarding, with a little sleep deprivation on the side? Dogs, sexual humiliation, excruciating discomfort? Should we flush the Koran down the toilet (that’s always fun)? Or maybe just go with the simple elegance of bludgeoning this poor heathen to death with a blunt instrument?

“Because the danger remains, we need to ensure our intelligence officials have all the tools they need to stop the terrorists,” President Bush explained to the nation as he vetoed legislation that would put the U.S. out of the torture business.

“The bill Congress sent me would not simply ban one particular interrogation method, as some have implied,” he said. “Instead, it would eliminate all the alternative procedures we’ve developed to question the world’s most dangerous and violent terrorists.”

It’s the same brand of fear. That’s what struck me as the stories — the veto, the ad — converged.

Oh Lord, the last thing we need is bipartisan agreement about this — bipartisan collusion, the equivalent, you might say, of price-fixing: We pledge not to challenge our fundamental illusions or question the righteousness of the military pursuit of “national interest.” We pledge not to unravel history by suggesting that our country has ever been wrong. We pledge not to ridicule the fear card.

But somebody has to do just this: Challenge the fundamentals of our national identity, to the extent that that identity is a front for something predatory and amoral. At a moment in our history when, thanks to the smirking shabbiness of the Bush era, something really could change, Clinton and her advisers seem hell-bent on maintaining business as usual. We cannot repudiate the Bush administration if we pull up short.

And the selling of fear — “Hey, America, boo!” — is at the core of everything. Invent an enemy, call him evil, dehumanize him and do what you will. The roots of this are deep. The Bush administration didn’t invent the practice, just employed it with shocking cynicism and assumed a mandate it didn’t have.

In fact, our use of waterboarding, as a recent article by Paul Kramer in the New Yorker reminds us, dates back to 1899 and our war to maintain colonial control over the Philippines.

Kramer quotes a letter from an infantryman serving in the Philippines, which was published in 1900 in the Omaha World-Herald: “Now, this is the way we give them the water cure. Lay them on their backs, a man standing on each hand and each foot, then put a round stick in the mouth and pour a pail of water in the mouth and nose, and if they don’t give up pour in another pail. They swell up like toads. I’ll tell you it is a terrible torture.”

When news of this barbarous practice reached the States, Kramer writes, there was sufficient outrage that Congress held hearings and, ultimately, one officer was tried by a military court, found guilty and “sentenced to a one-month suspension and a fifty-dollar fine.”

“Responding to the verdict,” Kramer writes, “. . . Judge Advocate General Davis had suggested that the question it implicitly posed — how much was global power worth in other people’s pain? — was one no moral nation could legitimately ask. As the investigation of the water cure ended and the memory of faraway torture faded, Americans answered it with their silence.”

Its 3 a.m. and your child is sleeping. A phone rings in the White House. The future is calling.