It is an extraordinary thought that a federal election campaign in a country like Australia – remote, peaceful, tolerant (though decreasingly so), hospitable (though decreasingly so), safe, secure and prosperous – could be hijacked by hatred and fear.

Even more extraordinary is the possibility that an unpopular, divisive, high-taxing government could be returned with an increased majority, mainly because voters were freaked by their fear.

Fear is a complex emotion but it comes in two main forms. There’s “anticipatory fear”, where we perceive a threat, know what to do about it, and take the necessary evasive action. That happens when you see a dangerous situation looming on the road, or someone threatens you with violence, or you face a difficult challenge, such as an exam or a job interview. Anticipatory fear can usually be discharged quickly. We act, and we feel better.

Then there’s “inhibitory fear”, where the threat is too great, too amorphous or too appalling for us to know how to deal with it. Because there’s no way to discharge the fear through action, we are inhibited rather than energised. The term “paralysed by fear” is a good description of inhibitory fear at work.

The fear generated by terrorism is of that kind. It’s too huge and yet too vague a threat to be dealt with rationally. It comes from shadowy, uncertain sources. It has the potential to pop up in unexpected places and unpredictable ways.

So governments (including our own) try to manage it by reacting as if this is a conventional military threat to which they can respond in conventional military ways.

We’re supposed to be hunting Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind behind the attacks on the US, but, in effect, we have declared war on the Taliban in Afghanistan. We keep saying this is not like any other war, yet our leaders are approaching it as if it is precisely like any other war … right down to the disturbingly jolly television coverage of politicians joshing with the troops they are consigning to battle.

It’s no wonder we are afraid, and unfocused in our fear. We’re jumpy about everything because we can’t quite get a handle on what is going on, what will happen next, or even what should happen next. (If the ground forces capture bin Laden and his al Qaeda cronies, is that it? Do the troops arrest them, turn them over to “the authorities”, and then go home?)

It would be a tragedy for our democracy if the Australian electorate turned out to have been paralysed by fear at the very time when we were supposed to be pondering weighty questions about the character of our society and its future directions.

But it would also be a tragedy if we allowed the fear of terrorism – or even of refugees – to blind us to some other, more specific targets for equally legitimate fears. Let me offer you a few suggestions.

Be afraid of politicians who send us too easily to war.

Be afraid of those who, turning their backs on the entire history of our species, persist in the belief that killing each other solves anything.

Be afraid of those whose rhetoric is carefully designed to make it sound as if war is a noble thing and death in battle is glorious. The truth is very different: history says war is devastating for all concerned, and the suffering of those who are killed or maimed, on both sides, is just like any other suffering. Their blood is like your blood; the mud and rubble and excrement in which they writhe are as filthy as any other; their families grieve with the same intensity as any other bereaved family.

Be afraid of those who present a complex truth as if it is simple. Be afraid of a propaganda war against bin Laden and the Taliban untempered by any acknowledgment that the US had encouraged and empowered the Taliban in Afghanistan when Russia was the enemy. Be afraid of those who refuse, on the grounds of “patriotism”, to examine possible reasons for hostility to the US in certain parts of the world.

Be afraid of politicians prepared to exploit our baser instincts for political gain. Be afraid of the motives of a federal minister recklessly announcing Australia ranks third in the world as a terrorism target, as if our fears needed refuelling … and as if some terrorist had mailed him a hit-list.

Be afraid of anyone who tries to justify enmity in the name of religion.

Above all, be afraid of the corrosive and paralysing effect of fear itself. If we allow it to dull the clarity of our focus on the local issues facing us in this election campaign, that will be a huge victory for terrorism.

 

Hugh Mackay is an author and social researcher.

By Hugh Mackay

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