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How America’s fears are letting the terrorists win

Fear defeats the very goals for which we are fighting.


Matthew Rozsa

Internet Culture

Forget about the terrorists. At his rate it seems like we’re determined through our own fear to allow the terrorists to win.

Allow me to explain.

Let’s start with the rash of school closings that have occurred over terrorist threats. The first (and without question most patently absurd) was the “clock boy” incident from earlier this year, when a 14-year-old Muslim boy in Texas was suspended and held by police for building an elaborate clock that one teacher believed was a bomb. Then, in the aftermath of the ISIS attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the city of Los Angeles shut down all of its schools after receiving an email that administrators believed constituted a credible terrorist threat.

Around the same time, New York City’s schools also received a terrorist threat, although they refused to close on the grounds that it seemed (correctly, it turned out) to be a hoax. Finally, a school district in New Hampshire closed on Monday because of a threat that its administrators also feared might lead to a terrorist attack.

While a certain degree of caution is obviously justified in the post-9/11 era–to say nothing of our current ISIS-plagued time–the problem with such excessive responses is that they empower the Islamic terrorists we wish to fight. After all, by definition, a terrorist’s greatest weapon is the psychological grip they hold over the society they hope to coerce into fulfilling their political agenda.

When anyone can simply build a clock or threaten an entire school district and receive national news coverage, it reveals that the terrorists’ panic-mongering tactics have successfully changed how we view ourselves. Even worse, when those threats are able to have real-world consequence, it demonstrates that any individual or group willing to scare thousands as a way of drawing attention to itself can do so successfully.

Unfortunately, the damage caused by our fear of terrorism isn’t limited to real and imagined threats. In a Virginia county last week, a high school geography teacher instructed her class to practice Arabic calligraphy… and was treated with such a hostile and threatening response from many parents in the area that the school district was, you guessed it, pressured into closing. While one might think the parents would feel embarrassed at having caused the same type of public safety measure normally reserved for the terrorists themselves, many conservatives are already denouncing her and defending the parents who threatened her. Not only does this violate the teacher’s basic civil liberties, but it teaches the students in that area to implicitly associate the entire religion of Islam with fear and violence.

When anyone can simply build a clock or threaten an entire school district and receive national news coverage, it reveals that the terrorists’ panic-mongering tactics have successfully changed how we view ourselves.  

Of course, this isn’t to say that our civil liberties haven’t also been jeopardized by the culture of fear. As Edward Snowden exposed two years ago, the National Security Agency began conducting warrantless (and thus illegal) spying on ordinary American citizens in the name of protecting us from terrorism starting shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Before Snowden’s whistleblowing, Americans already had the PATRIOT Act, which was passed after 9/11 to fight terrorism by (according to the American Civil Liberties Union) “ expanding the authority to monitor phone and email communications, collect bank and credit reporting records, and track the activity of innocent Americans on the Internet.” In the process, it acclimated Americans to the assumption that infringements on their liberty which they previously would have never permitted could somehow be rendered acceptable in the face of a sufficiently ominous external threat.

To understand the tragic flaw in this thinking, it’s important to realize that our Constitution wasn’t created by the naïve. Our founding fathers may not have imagined the technological advances that would enable modern terrorism, but they certainly understood that hostile powers from outside a democratic society could theoretically convince its members to forfeit their own freedoms.  

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Benjamin Franklin famously observed.

While the context of Franklin’s statement is very different from the milieu of early-21st century anti-terrorism politics, it’s hard to imagine that either he or his counterparts would have wanted federal surveillance of ordinary citizens to become a status quo. Their belief in the primacy of individual liberty was one of the cornerstones of the ideology that built the American republic–and when terrorists are able to effectively compromise it, they have indeed scored an impressive victory over our nation’s values.

Finally, it’s worthwhile to examine GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s recent proposal to ban Muslim immigration. Despite the wave of criticism that it triggered, Trump’s policy actually has a considerable amount of support, with 50 percent of voters backing it when Trump’s name is attached and 55 percent doing so when it isn’t. For better or worse, this type of xenophobia is hardly new to the United States; groups from Germans to the Japanese have experienced immigration quotas and persecution during periods when their nations of origin were at war with our country. At the same time, the various social justice movements that have emerged over the past few decades had presumably put this type of knee-jerk prejudice to rest. When the menace of Islamic terrorism is able to spark a regression in our pluralistic ethos, this too is a major victory for the bad guys we’re supposed to fight.

Ironically enough, the best way to combat all of this fear-mongering is with the tool that keeps getting shut down–namely, education. 

Ironically enough, the best way to combat all of this fear-mongering is with the tool that keeps getting shut down–namely, education.

It is through education that our children can learn to view Islam as a complicated religion with over a billion followers, and that while some of them do indeed wish us harm, the vast majority are ordinary people like ourselves. Similarly, it is through education that we can understand that danger has always lurked around the corner in free societies, and that while complacency is foolish because it imperils our physical security, curbing our freedoms and drastically altering our lifestyles to accommodate fear defeats the very goals for which we are fighting. So long as we keep these two lessons in mind, we can continue to strive toward a safer America without destroying America itself.

Of course, for that to happen, we’ll first need the courage to actually keep our schools open. 

Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University and a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, and MSNBC.

Illustration by Max Fleishman 

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