Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer
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The Politics of Fear

 

Bill Frayer 2010Franklin Roosevelt’s famous quote, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” is as true today as it was in 1941, perhaps more so. In the wake of the recent ISIS terrorist attacks, we seem to be on the brink of making the same error of overreaction we made after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Barbaric attacks by the so-called Islamic State have now reached outside of Iraq and Syria and are causing destruction, death, and terror in the West. And the politicians in the United States and, to some extent in Europe, are acting in a predictable fashion. 

The massive diasporas of Muslim immigrants combined with the terror attacks in Paris, Beirut, Kenya and the downing of the Russian airliner flying back from Egypt seems to be creating a perfect storm of intolerance. Angela Merkel of Germany, who has been accepting many Syrian refugees into her country, is growing increasingly unpopular and may lose her leadership post. Right-wing parties are growing in strength by fomenting fear and xenophobia throughout Europe. 

In the United States, Republican governors, presidential candidates and members of Congress are appealing to people’s fear of terrorism, conflating it with a fear of Muslims in general, to restrict or end any program to resettle Syrian refugees in the US. 

Of course, there is another reason for this grandstanding: fear sells well.  People usually vote based on emotions, not logic.  And fear is the mother of all emotional appeals.  If people are afraid, that feeling will often trump the most persuasive argument. 

I am sure all readers of this magazine can recall numerous conversations about your decision to live in, or even visit, Mexico.  Because of the sensationalized media reporting, many people are very fearful of coming to Mexico, even though such fear is largely unwarranted.   

Here’s the problem: fear leads to very bad decisions. Consider the internment of Japanese during World war II. Consider the unwillingness of much of the world to accept Jews in the years leading up to World War II. Consider the passage of the Patriot Act following 9/11, compromising so many of values of freedom and privacy the United States holds dear.  Consider the 2003 US invasion of Iraq which was sold under false pretenses based on unwarranted fear.  Arguably the environment created by the aftermath of that ill-conceived war has led directly to the formation of ISIS today. The irony is striking! 

In reality, both Western Europe, Canada, and the United States need young immigrants desperately. These countries all have aging populations with low birthrates. All are approaching a situation where there will be too few young people to support an aging population and complete the work that needs to be done to upgrade the infrastructure for future generations. 

Unfortunately, fear is difficult to counter.  Solid arguments pointing out that Muslim refugees are fleeing the same people we also fear usually fall on deaf ears. All it takes is one loud Donald Trump, Marie La Pen, or other demagogue to persuade voters not to take the chance. No matter how well-reasoned arguments are to the contrary, fear often wins out. 

Of course, one factor which counteracts fear is personal experience.  The more Muslims settle in the west, the more Christians, Jews, and humanists will get to know them.  When people come into regular contact with Muslim people, they will soon see that most are peaceful, devout people who want the same things we all do: peace, prosperity, and opportunity. 

But in the meantime, irrational arguments will prevail.

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