Political Prisoners

Still the Politics of Fear

By Mumia Abu-Jamal

We live, all of us, amidst what has become an almost permanent campaign. And the central theme is the politics driven by fear—fear of the “Other” (the immigrant), fear of each other, fear of the outside world, and fear of the future.

Few politicians have played the fear card with more deftness than President Bush. No matter what one may think of him today, it took considerable skill to convince folks to fight a country that had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11—to fight it, bomb it, occupy it, and then dare to try to remake it.

And while it’s certainly true to call it a disastrous policy, it’s also true that, in large part, he’s done it. This is not a statement of the rightness of it, but a simple averment of fact. When the ravenous chickens of revenge finally come home to roost, he’ll be out of the White House, and safely ensconced in some pricey think tank, his presidential library, or on the board of an oil company, counting his pile.

And there’s the payoff from the politics of fear—it works.

When you try to stoke the flames of fear, it catches on in the minds of many Americans. And why shouldn’t it? There’s a long history of just this tactic in American politics. As Russian writer, Svetlana Alexisvitch has noted, “We are turning into a civilization of fear. Because what is a disaster? A disaster is a high concentration of fear. The commodity that our civilization creates in the largest quantity is fear.”1

For the English and Spanish colonizers of this land, fear of the far more numerous Indians was a constant. That fear was met by a ubiquitous campaign of virtual genocide against red people that lasted for generations. When Indian populations were sufficiently reduced, and there were too few to efficiently labor as slaves, white colonies began the infamous transatlantic slave trade, which brought millions of Africans to these shores.

With this change of conditions came a change in the focus of the object of the politics of fear: Black people. Anyone who has studied southern politics from the 17th to the 20th centuries has seen masters of these politics at work.

Today, that same politics has considerable potency, as we utilize codes that disguise our meaning, while still tapping into the deep American well of fear. Post 9/11, we have seen most of that traditional fear transmuted into a dread of brown people (as in Arabs, and occasionally, Mexicans). Today, we are awash in political shorthand that sufficiently communicates loads in little more than a word: illegal immigration; borders; crime; and the phrase that has come to define our era (even as it has lost a good deal of its juice of late), the so-called “Global War on Terror.”

The corrosive politics of fear continues, as long as politicians ply that set of wares., December 23, 2007

1 Source: Pan America: A Journal for Writers and Readers. (N. Y., Pan American Center, 2006