Who Will Be the Next Monster for Us to Fear?
On the death of Osama bin Laden, theologian Miroslav Volf expresses my sentiments when he writes:
We are right to feel a sense of relief that a major source of evil has been removed. But we should reflect also on the flip side of that relief: the nature of our fears. As the King hearings and state-level anti-Sharia bills indicate, many people in our nation find themselves under a spell of a "green scare" analogous to the red scare of the 1950s. But fear is a foolish counselor, and our war in Iraq--unnecessary, unjust and counterproductive--is evidence of this.
Fear is a foolish counselor, and it is also an addictive one. As the work of Rene Girard and others makes clear, our national anxieties love to vent themselves on some monster, real or imaginary. We can unite our party, if not our nation, around common aggression against shared fear - even if we can't unite them around a common vision around shared values. This trade in the currency of fear sets us up for a boom-bust cycle not unlike our economic cycle, and not unlike the vicious cycles of agony and ecstasy known by addicts.
Running a society on fear is a lot like running a society on debt. It runs just fine for a while, but the merciless crash at the end comes by surprise.
Fear-as-fuel causes a kind of social global warming, filling our social atmosphere with invisible toxins that subtly, silently, relentlessly change everything and make our society less humane and less habitable. Those who live by the sword, Jesus said, will die by it, and I imagine the same could be said for fear, because the sword - like the knife, bullet, gun, or bomb - is in the end an icon of fear, a fetish of intimidation intended to drive others into a fearful retreat or surrender.
Ironically, as we focus on some external monster to fear - either a ghostly, faceless one like communism, or an embodied one imaged by bin Laden - we are distracted from internal dangers which rightly deserve our fear.
For example, have we assessed over the last ten years the ways in which we have become more like the enemies we have fought? Torture, invasion, disregard of borders, imprisonment without trial, violation of international law, vigilantism ... we find ourselves repeatedly defending things we would quickly condemn in others. It's unpopular to say this, but mustn't it be said?
At what point do we Americans temper the celebration of our victories with concern about what we are becoming? At what point do we notice that for us the word "justice" is harder and harder to distinguish from "revenge?" As a nation that again and again proves its power and cleverness, do we think ourselves somehow immune from the dangers of over-reach, pride, self-deception?
I say none of this to minimize the respect owed to those who took great risks to end bin Laden's reign of terror, from President Obama in the White House to the Navy Seals on the ground. I say it, rather, to warn us of the danger of mirroring what we fear. It would be a tragedy for us, in having defeated our enemies, to have unwittingly become a similar kind of enemy to others ... to have defeated monsters by becoming one.