Fear and Loathing in America

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by James A. Russell

A variety of recent opinion polls indicate that a significant portion of the American public remains deeply fearful of international terrorism. Many Americans even feel less safe now than they did before the 9/11 attacks.

A CNN poll conducted in September found that 53% of Americans believe that more terrorist attacks on the homeland are likely. Seven out of ten Americans meanwhile believe that Islamic State (ISIS or IS) has operatives in the United States who are planning future attacks.

These deep-seated fears formed part of the backdrop in the recent US midterm elections that swept Democrats from power in the Senate and added to the Republican majority in the House. America today lives in an age of fear, loathing, and anxiety that might have produced good copy by Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, if he was alive today, but which bespeaks a republic that has lost its confidence as well as its emotional and intellectual moorings.

Yet it’s hard to understand why if we consider our present circumstances. As noted by terrorism expert Peter Bergen at a recent symposium (echoing figures from a variety of sources) 22 Americans have lost their lives in the United States since the 9/11 attacks in violence perpetrated by attackers expressing support for Islamic extremist causes. Of those 22, 13 were killed in a single attack inside a US military base at Fort Hood, Texas in November 2009.

The numbers of Americans killed outside their borders due to terrorist attacks is somewhat higher, but still remains small. According to the State Department, 16 Americans lost their lives as a result of terrorism related violence around the world in 2013.

In short, Americans have more to fear from slipping in the shower or falling down the stairs than they do of terrorist-inspired violence. They definitely have more to fear from random handgun-related violence in their neighborhoods, which has lead to nearly 1,000,000 fatalities and injuries since 9/11 in the United States. Yet many people resist even rudimentary steps to control access to guns at home while enthusiastically supporting America’s trigger-happy foreign policy around the world.

How do we explain the incongruence and disconnects between the American public’s perceptions and these realities? Political and military leaders are part of the problem.

Instead of reassuring the public about the threat of terrorism relative to other dangers, political leaders have actively played upon public fears by continually asserting the imminent dangers of new and more dangerous attacks.

One result has been the establishment of the national security surveillance state by the generation of Vietnam War protesters that once took to the streets to protest the overreach of the state in the 1960s and 70s. Even the postal service recently disclosed that it had received 50,000 requests from the government to read people’s mail during 2013 in national-security related surveillance. Not to mention the intercepted phone calls and emails, to say nothing of those who are being watched in other countries. The public has greeted this development with little more than a yawn.

Of course, even as political leaders from both sides of the aisle mercilessly exploit people’s fears, the fact is that they are mirroring general public attitudes and perceptions. The slide of the American public into fear and loathing post-9/11 has paralleled the state’s political descent into anarchy at home. Republican religious zealots and conservative ideologues have brought their version of the Taliban home to the United States, just as our armies sought in vain to drive the group away from major Afghan cities in America’s longest war.

Therein lies the strategic consequences of the 9/11 attacks that went far beyond Osama Bin Laden’s wildest dreams when he and his lieutenants concocted the idea of flying airplanes into buildings. It’s the gift that just keeps on giving to Islamic extremists as America spies on its citizens at home and careens around the world blasting away at real and imagined enemies in a vain attempt to bomb them into submission. Unfortunately, the latest crusader army that has been taking shape since the end of the Bush administration only confirms the extremists’ vision of a Western-led war against Islam.

The atmosphere of fear and loathing at home in the United States will only gather momentum with the Republican-led Congress, and the squeamish, defeatist democrats meekly following along. Republican candidates around the country cloaked their winning message in the fear and loathing parlance for which the party has become known for in the post-9/11 era. And it’s not entirely clear what the Republicans are hoping for any more—other than aiding the wealthiest among us and enhancing fortress America to keep out immigrants.

What does this mean for the Middle East? It means that America’s fruitless bombing campaign will continue for the foreseeable future—a slippery slope of commitment that will inevitably involve additional ground troops in the region. America’s quarter century of war in Iraq isn’t ending any time soon.

Another casualty of this campaign may be the failure to reach an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program—if a weakened and chastened Obama administration retreats in the face of the Republican (and Israeli) pressure. Meanwhile, a new intifada in the simmering occupied territories would serve as icing on the proverbial cake of America’s failed endeavors that litter the Middle East like shattered glass.

Hunter S. Thompson would have had a field day in today’s world. His drug-infused delirium, which led to his famous novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was his only release from the madness surrounding him—but what about us? Unfortunately, it’s Osama bin Laden who has so far had the last laugh from his watery grave in this plot—and the joke is on us.

Photo: Hunter S. Thompson with his IBM Selectric Typewriter. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.



  1. Hmmmmm! I’ll have to give you the benefit of the doubt on this Mike. It’s been fun talking with you, but perhaps we should go about our day with our heads held high, O.K.

  2. George Gerbner, who headed the Annenberg School for Communication for 25 years, wrote: “Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postures. … They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities.”

    And creating fear is what various governments have done in order to wage wars and keep the populace suppressed. According to Amnesty International Report 2007, its annual assessment of human rights worldwide was: “Through short sighted, fear-mongering and divisive policies, governments are undermining the rule of law and human rights, feeding racism and xenophobia, dividing communities, intensifying inequalities and sowing the seeds for more violence and conflict.” Sadly, this is a good description of our societies, especially in the United States.

  3. I don’t think the USA is any more culpable than anyone else, you just happen to be more powerful. But like all the rest, you do tend to fool yourselves into thinking that you occupy the moral high ground, even when dealing with ancient cultures that were civilized when most of us were still scratching an existence from the dust.
    Many of those who you treat as inferiors, see America as corrupt and lacking in values. You regard the pursuit of great wealth as a worthwhile ambition, while ignoring the plight of your own poor. Political power is only made possible for those who are sponsored by the wealthy. You are unable to prevent your armaments industry from being the instrument of thousands of unnecessary deaths at home, let alone abroad. Gratuitous violence is glorified in movies and computer games. Sex is a commodity. You send prisoners abroad for torture and spy on your own citizens, as well as foreigners. You carry out barbaric judicial capital punishments.
    Putting things right at home should come first. Then perhaps, others would be more willing to take lessons on how to live.

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