Some politicians seek office by attempting to inspire voters. Others use another tactic. They know that there is nothing as effective as fear for paralyzing the brains of the public. And they depend on that fact to stay in power or to defend their record once they leave it.
George W. Bush used fear to get reelected after an achievement-free first term. The war in Afghanistan did not provide a big enough flag to wrap himself in. So it was on to Iraq in order to eliminate weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. Enough of the voters were reluctant to change the commander in chief with such major combat operations underway that the reelection mission was accomplished.
This showed that using the "war on terror" as a political strategy was so effective that it should really be called the war of terror. And Republicans are waging it once again. Having exhausted their intellectual capital on tax cuts for the rich and failed attempts to let the financial services industry loot Social Security, they are desperately needed an issue that resonated with the voters.
The return of the politics of fear comes not a moment too soon for a political party that seems more a minority and more extreme every passing day. A recent Gallup poll found Republicans lost substantial support during Bush's two terms in office in all but one of the 26 demographic groups surveyed. The only group where they did not decline was regular churchgoers and even there they only held steady.
That correlates well with another poll by the Pew Research Center. It found the more a person goes to religious services, the more likely he or she is to believe the use of torture can often, or at least sometimes, be justified. 54 percent of those who go weekly think that. 51 percent that go monthly and only 42 percent that seldom attend church do. So it should be little surprise that Republicans are such staunch defenders of torture given the bedrock of their support base accepts its use as an article of faith.
Leading the charge in favor of torture has been former Vice President Cheney and his daughter Liz. For a time she was the second ranking official in Middle Eastern bureau of the State Department, a position that is usually held by a career diplomat with decades of experience in the region. She had no relevant qualifications for the job but did do one important bit of public service. When she was born she enabled her father to avoid the draft when they had ended student deferments during the Vietnam War.
While at State she was in charge of promoting democracy in the Middle East. She obviously did a heck of a job. Now she has turned into a television talking head providing insights into the thinking of terrorists and explaining how they constitute a threat to the very existence of the nation.
Two arguments often employed by father and daughter alike are that torture works and has saved lives. They claim there are intelligence reports that prove their point and that if these reports were declassified by the Obama administration then everyone would agree.
Anyone who has had a security clearance for more than half an hour knows the difference between an intelligence report and absolute fact. If one wanted to prove that the moon is made of green cheese, an intelligence report could be found in the files to support it. Or an agent could very quickly be produced who claimed that to be true.
The CIA under George 'Slam-Dunk' Tenet could never figure out what the terrorists were thinking but never failed to understand what Bush and Cheney were. And Tenet never failed to tell them what they wanted to hear. So if these reports provided such conclusive proof, why did Cheney not release them when he was running the government? The CIA by the way claims it can't release them now. Why? Because someone else has already asked and that request has to be fought out in court first.
As for the argument that the use of torture saved lives, the Cheneys never mention the lives it has cost. It has been the best recruiting tool available to the terrorists and many have gone to Iraq to fight as a result. Some analysts believe that has cost the lives of thousands of American servicemen and women. That does not matter to Cheney, who never wore a uniform, or to Bush who did only when he needed dental work done.
Republicans in Congress nonetheless echo these arguments and have seized on a new fear issue with great gusto. They warn that if the prison at Guantanamo is closed it will result in terrorists somehow being released in America. They have even argued that if the detainees are kept in U.S. jails, no one will be safe because no prison will be able to hold them.
If there is one thing Americans can be proud of it is that we are number one – in prisons. We have more people in prison by far than any other country in the world in absolute as well as relative terms. About 2.3 million people are behind bars in the United States – more than one in every 100 adults. So even if everyone at Guantanamo were transferred to a U.S. prison it would amount to an increase of less than one hundredth of one percent in the total number incarcerated in this country.
And what if some of them were released? A study by the Pentagon that has been leaked to the press, but not made public, claims that one in seven of those released have returned to the battlefield. One possible reason the report is still officially under wraps is that when such a report has been made public in the past, it took researchers little time to discredit it. There is reason to believe, for instance, that the Pentagon has defined returning to the battlefield to include writing an opinion article for a newspaper.
It is also worth pointing out that a couple of studies have shown that of the violent offenders released from prison in the U.S., some 60 percent are arrested again within three years for committing new crimes. So if it is safety we seek, let's not release anyone ever.
Fear has many uses besides in the debate on how to handle prisoners. Thanks to the gun nuts in Congress it will soon be legal to take assault rifles and concealed weapons into national parks. Presumably this will allow those who worry that Smokey the Bear might go on a rampage a rampage to defend themselves. Maybe they worry about Smokey because he is dark and swarthy. As Willie Horton demonstrated, fear is more effective when a subliminal appeal to bigotry is thrown in. That may explain why it is easier to arouse public hysteria about a handful of supposed terrorists than it is about a couple million criminals.
The politics of fear are popular because they are powerful. In the collective trauma following 9/11, America acted like a nation of sheep lead by a collection of liars, fools and cowards. The leadership has since changed but those who used fear so effectively in the past have not gone away and at this point they seem to again be carrying the day.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs. His most recent book is "Why American Foreign Policy Fails: Unsafe at Home and Despised Abroad."
McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.