Fear Factor

March 10, 2002

by John K. Bates

On NBC’s terrible show Fear Factor, various contestants of limited intelligence are paraded about in an effort to see how much they will prostitute themselves in order to win money. Week after week, millions sit glued to the television, waiting to see how low Americans will go in order to win a few bucks. All the while, these same people think to themselves they would never, ever, stoop to such levels to get some dough.

Seeing how the country is progressing with the so-called “war on terror,” however, makes Your Humble Columnist wonder. Maybe we aren’t willing to eat worms or have a glass box with rats placed on our heads in order to score some bread. But we sure seem willing to buy into whatever fear the media and government give us, in the hope that we will be safe. Day after day, week after week, Our Benevolent Conservative Federal issues us alerts and warnings designed to make us worry. And the media dutifully follows, convinced that scare tactics sell copy.

There are two recent cases in point:

Last week, word came out that nine of the September 11 hijackers had been flagged by the security systems in place at the time. There were two angles presented with this story. The first was that security failed massively on September 11. The second stated that whatever security is in place now and in the future is susceptible to similar failure. There is no way, so it is said, to make flying 100% safe. Because the federal government cannot completely protect us, we should be constantly afraid of the next terror threat. Some day, some way, it will certainly happen again.

It is interesting that the hijackers flagged on September 11 clearly complied with the federal government standards in place at the time. For those who have forgotten, those standards were designed to prevent a bombing similar to the supposed TWA bombing in 1996. (And for those who have further forgotten, after this event Congress and President Clinton enacted legislation to protect us all. These included the silly questions asked when people check in, as if someone is really going to say, “Oh yes, someone named Mohammed gave me this package to carry on the plane today.”) Note how these regulations never went away even though it was later determined that Flight 800 was not bombed and in fact there was never an actual threat of any plane being bombed. Facts never matter to those who would protect us from phantom threats. And as with most things concerning the federal government, power gained can never, ever be lost. These regulations endure to this day, a testament to silly rules and failed regulations.

Regardless, these regulations did work in the sense that they slowed the Saudis who committed acts of terror. But they were just slowed and not stopped. Why? Because the federal guidelines said they should not be. Despite what the media and the government say about that day, the “private” security in place at the time did not fail. Rather, it was the guidelines - not the fact that the Postal Service wasn’t running security - that allowed the perpetrators to get on the plane. Private security did not fail, the federal government failed. And lest anyone think that new guidelines will help, consider there is an element of truth to what the fear-mongers say. For it does not matter what the government does or pretends to do - there is no way to completely eliminate risk. Searching cars, hassling travelers, and fondling cowboy boots will not stop a determined terrorist. The measures needed to prevent another September 11 have already been implemented and there is no further danger of someone commandeering another airplane. But if someone wants to blow up a plane, and is truly determined to do so, they will do it. Period. No government rules or regulations will prevent this. Harsh as it seems, flying inherently involves risk. There is no way to completely eliminate that risk. In that sense, the fear-mongers are indeed correct.

But being correct does not mean that spreading fear is the right policy, and here is where the second story plays in. Our Benevolent Conservative Attorney General this week declared that he is tired that some Americans (including Your Humble Columnist) are getting fed up with the so-called “terror alerts” that the government continues to issue every now and then. The threat to our security is so great, Mr. Ashcroft believes, that “Americans should not expect any relief, possibly for their lifetimes, from a series of high alerts against ongoing threats of terrorism.” For the rest of our lives, we must deal with the fact that we could all be annihilated tomorrow.

Goodness. It’s interesting that at the same time Mr. Ashcroft was telling us we should prepare to spend the rest of our lives cowering under our desks, his Department of Justice was admitting that “there is no hard evidence that Usama bin Ladenís terrorist network possesses a nuclear device” and that “there is no conclusive evidence that bin Ladenís forces have obtained the capacity to launch a nuclear offensive.” Never mind that the attacks of last year were simply a follow-up to the attacks of 1993, when bin Laden’s henchmen rented an apartment across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center in order to watch them collapse. And forget that the entire reason we are in Afghanistan is to crush the al Qaeda organization so that they can never launch a similar attack. We are to be afraid - be very afraid - in order for us to understand that it is the federal government, and only the federal government, that can save us from the dire threats of terror. Without such angels as Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Bush, we apparently would all be dead by now. And without continued fear and diligence, we will surely meet a terrible demise.

Such silly fear spreading is not new. Does anyone remember how in 1999 Bill Clinton claimed that the Oklahoma City tornado was so bad it made him want to find a way for the federal government to eliminate tornadoes? Conservatives roundly - and properly - blasted him for pandering to people’s fears. Imagine if Janet Reno had made the same comments as Mr. Ashcroft. Conservatives from Rush Limbaugh on down would be berating her for spreading fear and elevating the importance of the federal government. And they would be bemoaning how stupid the American people were for believing that only the Benevolent Federal Government could take care of them.

Yet conservatives give Mr. Ashcroft a pass for making statements that are in reality far worse than the tornado comments. To say we should be afraid for the rest of our lives is irresponsible and alarmist. Worst, it justifies continued and limitless expansion of the same federal government conservatives are supposed to loathe. If we are to live our lives in fear, it naturally follows that we should trust in the government to alleviate that fear. That, in essence, is what the liberal media and the “conservative” Mr. Ashcroft are saying.

There have been no further terrorist acts in six months. The Olympics went smoothly. Just as in 1993, this was an isolated incident. Tragic as it was, the only difference is that this time it worked. It will be years before they try anything again, and if President Bush does what he has promised to do, it will never happen again. For Mr. Ashcroft to attempt to get the American people to be afraid their entire lives is irresponsible. It is asinine. And this columnist would personally rather stick his head in a glass box with a rat than follow the advice of the United States Attorney General. Fear Factor may be a silly television show. Mr. Ashcroft’s “fear factory” is far, far worse.


John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on CheyenneNetwork.com.

Send the author an E mail at Bates@ConservativeTruth.org.

For more of John's articles, visit his archives.

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