Fear, fear and even more fear

John O'Neill johnfergaloneill at eircom.net
Mon Jan 6 17:48:52 MST 2003

Fear, fear and even more fear

  CONNECT/Eddie Holt: Within weeks of the September 2001 attacks on the US,
Washington DC was paralysed by anthrax hysteria. Other cities worried too
but dread was most intense in the US capital. In line with this dread, the
deaths of two workers at a Washington postal facility, which processed an
anthrax-tainted letter addressed to US senator Tom Daschle, became world

The anthrax hysteria always appeared suspicious, although the trauma and
paranoia generated by the September 11th attacks made it unsurprising. After
all, panic was routinely amplified not merely by events which were
terrifying in themselves but also by self-serving media and political
interests. We know that terror sells and makes voters politically pliable.

It was, of course, a raw time; ideal for increasing fear in as many hearts
as possible. Mind you, when anthrax hysteria spread to such sensitive world
sites as Enniscorthy, Co Wexford and Castlepollard, Co Westmeath, even fear
became farce. At the time, sensible people sniggered at the idea of Osama
bin Laden posting anthrax to Enniscorthy but not everybody appreciated the

Anyway, 15 months later, scaremongering is neither effective nor funny. It
is depressing because it's impossible to know who or what to believe.
Warnings are either issued in good faith or are lies designed to control
people. Presumably both varieties (and hybrids of them) have been put in
circulation and have kept the world more psychologically depressed than

We should, of course, have known that governments and the media would
continue to frighten people. Since those anthrax days (which immediately
gave rise to accompanying fears about a scarcity of the antidote drug
Cipro), the list of dangers has grown steadily. You could buy a protective
sci-fi suit to open your mail but terrorists might still get you in any
number of ways.

Remember that we've had scare stories about "dirty bombs" (radioactive
without a massive explosion) welded to ships; a plot to blow-up San
Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge; sarin in the London Underground; British
cities to be quarantined; a September 11th anniversary scare (which at least
got Dick Cheney locked in a bunker somewhere); Saddam Hussein's diabolical
arsenal; smallpox and other biological attacks; a Christmas shopping scare
and many others.

The facts that there have not been any "dirty bombs" detonated in a Western
city; that the Golden Gate Bridge is fine; that nobody has released sarin on
the Tube; that Cheney's bunker routine was pretentious pantomime; that
Christmas has come and gone; that, unlike those of the US and Britain,
Saddam Hussein's alleged "weapons of mass destruction" are unproven and that
smallpox has not been unleashed on Europe or the US, suggest a
stage-managing of public fear.

Then again, who knows? Perhaps all these and dozens of other "warnings" were
perfectly valid. Indeed, maybe the very issuing of such warnings prevented
outrages taking place. But Bali excepted- and that vile massacre was
perpetrated with an old-fashioned car bomb - there has been nothing remotely
comparable to the events of September 2001.

It's as if the US administration and the British government have agreed that
a department or a ministry of fear is a necessary part of any "war against
terror". Certainly, scare stories can provide cheap political theatre and
keep war talk on the front pages and at the top of the news bulletins. But
"crying wolf", or even being seen to be "crying wolf", does not endear
politicians to voters.

The irony of all this paranoia is that governments just need to be right
once. Like the IRA, which taunted Maggie Thatcher that it needed only to be
"lucky once", governments issuing warnings can have their lousy records of
prediction forgotten if they ever get one demonstrably right. Such a
realisation, of course, allows us to cast suspicion on any government that
correctly forecasts an outrage.

And so it goes - paranoia thrives. We know that terrorists and governments
engage in dirty tricks and that they speak in white, grey and black
propaganda. What we don't know is who's doing it at any given time. So, we
process a "warning" or a "threat" by seeing how it accords with our own
version of reality, itself largely formed by earlier propagandas.

Amid the confusion, despondency and torpor produced by all the lies and
twisted truths, it looks as if the US and Britain are going to attack Iraq.
If it can be shown that Saddam Hussein has the nasty weapons he's accused of
having, Iraq will be hit. If it cannot be shown, then clearly he's a conman
and a liar and his country (and its people) deserves to be bombed.

That, at any rate, appears to be the prevailing "logic" in relation to Iraq.
It is of a part with the lies and twisted truths which provide a weekly dose
of fear, fear, fear and more fear from governments and corporate-controlled
media. The public gets so ground down with such a news agenda that
alternatives become unimaginable.

Meanwhile, people are kept fearful. With every passing "warning", we become
simultaneously more blasé and more conscious that the warners know we are
becoming more blasé. They might decide to issue a warning which will come to
pass, either by being allowed to come to pass or by being actively made to
come to pass. Who knows?

At the start of a new year, when thousands of individuals are grappling with
diets and detox regimes, the collective picture is more confused than it's
been for decades. It's true that few in the prevailing and less fraught
climate of opinion could be convinced that Osama bin Laden has a bad
attitude towards Enniscorthy. But when that represents progress, there's
still work to be done.

© The Irish Times

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