“Terror is theater,” New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote on Monday. “Burning skyscrapers, severed heads: The terrorist takes movie images of unbearable lightness and gives them weight enough to embed themselves in the psyche.” Over the weekend, ISIS, the newest terror kid on the block, posted another one of its beheading videos to the Internet, marking the third hostage to die in the organization’s effort to send chills down the spine of the Western World.
And, once again, it worked.
Ask any American right now about the top issue facing the country, and his answer is likely not to be a still-struggling economy, a healthcare system crumbling under ObamaCare, a flood of illegal immigrants at the border and the unprecedented Executive action granting them amnesty, or any number of serious, domestic issues yet-to-be-solved by Congress or the President. Instead, most Americans would suggest the biggest, most direct problem facing the nation is a terror organization as to which our national intelligence agencies remain divided on what threat, if any, it poses to American interests outside of the region currently under its control in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, with each online video, or mysterious “note” left along a border fence, Americans predictably are succumbing to this “terror theater,” especially as ISIS gains traction in a ratings-hungry Mainstream Media. The effects of this fear mongering are already noticeable; a recent Pew poll found that 62 percent of Americans are “very concerned” about the rise of Islamic extremism in the Middle East. While that might not surprise given recent events, what is alarming is the shift of the population back to a post-9/11 mindset that government can, and should, do “whatever it takes” to protect the nation, regardless of constitutionality or actual effectiveness.
Thanks to the revelations last year by Edward Snowden, we know where this type of “Nanny State” mindset will lead. For years, privacy watchdogs suspected exactly what Snowden revealed: the U.S. government is actively collecting, analyzing, and storing the digital communications of hundreds of millions of U.S. citizens, with virtually no court oversight or suspicion of wrong doing on the part of these citizens. We now know also that the CIA has been illegally hacking into the computers of the U.S. Senate committee tasked with the oversight of intelligence agencies.
To top it all off, when questioned about these clear violations of the Constitution, the top brass of America’s intelligence communities perjured themselves in front of Congress.
As a result of these revelations, for a brief moment there seemed to be a real opportunity to win back some of the freedom lost during the post-9/11 terror hysteria, when fear enabled the creation of today’s surveillance Leviathan. Headlines detailing the extent to which the federal government shredded the Constitution in pursuit of “terrorists” led to what Pew described as the “first time in nearly a decade . . . that more [people] expressed concern over civil liberties than protection against terrorism.”
Sadly, in the end, all President Obama and the Congress had to do was wait for the headlines to shift to the next emergency du jour, and their shenanigans would once again fade from the public’s radar.
As I wrote last week, fear is a powerful tool, and one used often by the government following 9/11 to diminish individual liberty in exchange for the promise of security. Clearly, the more government officials fan the flames of terror hysteria, the more willing Americans became to surrender their freedom for this illusion, as the recent Pew poll demonstrates, and makes us less reluctant to put a stop to the unconstitutional behavior of our government.
In a 2003 interview, General Tommy Franks described his top concern for America not as being an act of terrorism, but a “massive casualty-producing event somewhere in the western world . . . that causes our population to question our own Constitution and to begin to militarize our country in order to avoid a repeat of another mass-casualty-producing event.” A decade later, we see it does not take an event as devastating as a mass-casualty attack to shake our understanding that protecting liberty, not achieving “security,” is the real responsibility of government.
Global terrorism may be a modern problem, but our Founding Fathers warned about the desire to trade freedom for security. They also knew that freedom, once relinquished, is rarely, if ever, returned to the people.
This is precisely why civil liberties deserve a consistent and high level of concern by the citizenry. Our basic freedoms are not commodities that can be pawned, or loaned, whenever the real world out there rears its ugly head and we need a little extra “security.”
How America responds to ISIS is not just a test of the President, but of America as well. We should, and will – if the proper mix of special ops actions and targeted military training and equipment is put in place -- defeat ISIS; but in allowing the irrational fear of terrorism to penetrate our imagination and once again grant the government a blank check of power, we will ultimately defeat ourselves.