In a speech defending his detainee plan this week, President Barack Obama brandished his now-famous Spock-like wisdom by claiming that "our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight" after 9/11.
Whether you agree with the president's account of the nation's post-9/11 policy or not, you still might ask yourself two questions.
First off: Is it always wrong to make decisions based on fear?
Having been in New York on 9/11, I would contend that fear was not only a logical reaction to what was happening but also an unavoidable one. As John Podhoretz of Commentary magazine recently noted: "Fear was an entirely responsible response to September 11. Indeed, it was, in some ways, the only responsible response."
There is a spacious gulf between fearing reality and illogical fear. If a man pulls a gun in a crowd, you run for dear life. It is a decision of inadvertent wisdom, driven by nothing more than trepidation and self-preservation.
"Fear," the philosopher Hannah Arendt observed, "is an emotion indispensable for survival." Fear heightens our awareness and impels us to act on threats and danger -- for example, some may contend, the murder of 3,000 civilians in the middle of our nation's financial capital by terrorists.
Still, admitting that fear can drive you to smart decisions doesn't mean that the Bush administration's subsequent use of fear led to prudent policy. That is up for a separate debate. Obama's framing of the issue, however, was hypocritical.
Which brings me to the second query: What president (doesn't couple policy and fear? Obama, after all, has been as masterful as anyone in using dread to ram through ideologically driven legislation and silencing political opposition.
During the "debate" over the government's "stimulus" plan, the president claimed that the consequences of not passing his plan would mean the "recession might linger for years. Our economy will lose 5 million more jobs. Unemployment will approach double digits. Our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse."
To contend that the country that survived the Great Depression, two world wars, the Civil War and the social upheavals of the past century could not reverse a recession without an immense government bailout is farcical. (Moreover, almost nothing the president's economists predicted has come to fruition; the opposite has, as we still are approaching double-digit unemployment and sinking deeper despite the passage of the "stimulus" plan.)
How many times did proponents of the "recovery" package -- or other recent spending plans -- dispatch the bromide "something needs to be done" or claim that choosing "inaction" was tantamount to national suicide? Those aren't exactly arguments drenched in reason -- panic, maybe.
But the most common brand of public policy that relies on scary talk is environmental. We need not catalog the endless end-of-days scenarios that environmentalists have been laying on us for more than three decades to understand how intrinsically they rely on fear.
Let's just point to admired professional alarmist James Hansen, who made the panic-stricken assertion recently that "President Obama's administration is the last chance to avoid flooded cities, species extinction and climate catastrophe."
Thus, logic tells us, to oppose egregious CAFE standards, cap and trade nationalizing of energy, or any plan the Obama administration supports in the area of the environment is akin to being a nihilist hellbent on destroying planet Earth.
Talk about decision-making "based upon fear rather than foresight."
Surely, at the time of 9/11, the fear of terrorism was at least as tangible and real as any long-term environmental consequence.
Of course, reasonable -- and highly unreasonable -- people can disagree on these issues. But let's not pretend either party is innocent when it comes to using fear to get its way.