Pandemic and the Politics of Fear

What Saddam Hussein and the Democrats have in common.

The Democrats’ use of fear as a political weapon, and their scorched-earth policy for the country, remind me of my native Iraq and something Syrian dictator Bashar Asad said.

The classic textbook definition of politics is “who gets what, and how” -- the “who,” being any element of society -- an individual (private citizen or politician) or a group (political party, sector, interest, or class); the “what,” being the resources of the society (wealth and political power); and the “how,” being the means by which “the who” acquire “the what.” The “how” is the least-straightforward variable in the formula. An individual or group can appeal to people’s “better angels,” or they can tap into their baser instincts -- fear, being possibly the most basic. In Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” the two lowest rungs of the pyramid cover the essential physiological needs -- needs such as food, health, shelter, safety, and security. The primal fear of not having, or losing, one of these vital needs has always driven human behavior, and people seeking power have always tapped into those fears, making fear maybe the oldest and easiest trick in the political playbook: “The people on the other side of the hill are out to get us!,” “Those wild animals want to eat us!,” “and only I can protect you.” In politics, fear is used to create instability and insecurity, so people can’t function normally. Those exploiting fear will likely present the situation, and their solution for it, as driven not primarily by fear, but by positive intentions, “for the benefit of the people.” Many political scientists hold that McCarthyism was the last time that fear was used on a national scale; some make the case that McCarthyism was just one episode in the broader Cold War, with its “Soviet threat,” “Red Scare,” “Red Menace,” and “Yellow Peril.” Some observers maintain that the War on Terror and Operation Iraqi Freedom were more-recent uses of fear as a political weapon.

Iraq was known as “the republic of fear” -- Iraqis were so consumed with fear, it paralyzed them. Not only were Iraqis on guard for what they did and what they said (par for the course, in dictatorships), they even censored their thoughts -- the phrase taharri afkar al-nas (“probing people’s thoughts”) appeared in government documents. Iraqis feared that a neighbor, a colleague, a friend, a shopkeeper, or a wife might report on them (for a politically incorrect joke or a “wrong look”), which would lead to interrogation, torture, and worse -- for the person, and for his relatives, friends, and associates. By some estimates, one-quarter of Iraqis worked as government informants – to “incriminate” others, and to protect themselves. This state of affairs did not happen by chance -- a political party, to gain power and control, used a convenient scapegoat, to inject fear into the society.

After Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, Saddam’s Ba’ath Party held mass rallies, blaming Iraq’s Jewish “fifth column” for the humiliating defeat. It pressured the government into restricting and arresting Jewish citizens (who had been social pariahs, for 20 years), and, next summer, the party rode to power in a military coup. Within days, they raided the local offices of Coca Cola; weeks later, they returned the mutilated bodies of the franchise’s president and an ex-manager to their families. Over the next couple of months, with much fanfare, the government announced it had broken up a major Zionist spy ring and arrested a couple dozen conspirators, including Ford’s representative in the country.

In early December, Israel retaliated against Iraqi military positions in Jordan. The next day, a procession of 40,000 people carried the coffins of soldiers killed in the strike, through Baghdad, to the presidential palace, where the president proclaimed: “[W]e face treacherous movements by a rabble of fifth columnists and the new supporters of America and Israel…. With a fist of steel, we will mercilessly strike...the handmaidens of imperialism and Zionism.” The new government then noisily hunted down an “American-British spy ring” trying to topple the government -- the ring included 12 Jews. After hastily organized, and broadcast, show-trials and “confessions,” the authorities executed 14 Iraqis, including nine Jews (five of them, under-age students). What followed, the next day, became a defining moment for the regime. In the early hours of January 27, 1969, the government hanged the bodies of “the traitors” in the center of Baghdad, and invited people to “come and enjoy the feast.” Up to half a million people turned out for 24 hours of picnicking, music, dancing, and hitting, spitting at and throwing stones at the bodies. The president spoke, and his minister of guidance promised that this was “only the beginning…. Even if there are thousands,...the glorious squares of Iraq will be filled with the bodies of the traitors and spies.” The organized spectacle not only washed away the stain of shame (from losing the war) and quenched the thirst for revenge, it also served as a coming-out party for the new rulers. Lacking a broad base of support, the new regime presented itself as the protector of “the nation”; the public’s participation in the event helped to legitimize the party and bond it with the masses; while the event, itself, was a powerful display of brutality and barbarity -- all, using convenient and effective scapegoats.

The show continued. Over the next months and years, the government broke up one spy ring after another (and sometimes announced an explosion before the bomb went off). It displayed and broadcast the arrests, the heroic surveillance and infiltration of the spy networks, the plans of the plotters, their connections to Israel, Lebanon, Iran, or Iraqi Kurds, coded letters, lists of names of co-conspirators and the leaders of their future government, huge arsenals, piles of cash, confessions, denunciations by wives, spy trials, and hangings (although there was gradually less need to show everything). For a bigger “catch,” a Jew or two were thrown in, so the “suspects” could be charged with espionage and treason.

The government thus succeeded in injecting fear into the country’s body politic and society, and made fear the main force in the lives of Iraqis. The fear became pervasive and grew; more and more people were herded into the party’s tales and crimes, and were then sucked into the agencies of the state. With a near-monopoly on the media, the government consolidated control over the country, and was now free to do with people as it pleased.

In July 1973, the government executed the head of the secret police, Nadhim Kzar, for a failed coup plot. Next month, something unheard-of started happening -- a serial killer began hacking up entire families in their homes. For half a year, the entire country trembled in fear, as news and rumors spread of this (literally) bloodthirsty killer – “Abu Tubar” (the hatchet guy). While the government imposed curfews and broadcast advice and warnings, panic-stricken families combined households; cut down trees and bushes; kept the lights on; set up alarms, guards, and guard dogs; and kept all-night vigils on rooftops. In the spring, police captured Abu Tubar (who had long been friendly with police, including associates of Kzar). The state broadcast his confessions and the grizzly details of his deeds, and, two years later, it executed him and his five accomplices. By that time, public participation in the political life of the country was almost extinguished, and people were so frightened, and so sure that the regime controlled everything, they were certain that the government had intentionally unleashed the serial mass-murderer to occupy and panic the population (Iraqis still believe that, now). In any case, the populace was thoroughly cowed.

The fear followed Iraqis around the world. My father escaped Iraq, in 1970, and the rest of the family joined him, one year later, in Cleveland. In the ‘80s, when my three siblings and I were going to college, our parents gave us strict instructions that if we heard an Iraqi accent anywhere nearby, we were to immediately cross the street. The fear was, that the Iraqi (abroad, on a government scholarship) would say something to provoke a reaction from us — a “wrong word” or an askance look (in Iraqi, it’s called “stealing your tongue”) -- and the student would then report the reaction to his superiors (part of the scholarship), which would be used against our relatives inside the country.

When fear consumes a person, he loses hope, perspective, a sense of proportion, and the ability to think clearly. When fear overcomes a people, it can sink a society -- people become mistrustful, atomized, and debilitated; individuality, privacy, and reality get degraded; and a society’s cohesion, self-confidence, and ability to evaluate events are ripped to shreds. In Iraq, civil society was completely wiped out, and its people became mere putty, to be manipulated by those wielding power (in great part, through fear). The goal, for rulers, is for people to be afraid -- to be very afraid -- scared out of their wits, fearing the worst, so that just one word -- like “spike,” “unprecedented,” “deadly,” ”alarming,” “boo” -- will immediately send them into a panic. The governor of New York “gave the game away” in an April press conference, when a reporter asked him about people protesting that they wanted to work (to feed their families), and that the cure was worse than the illness. The governor, slowly and emphatically enunciating each word, said: “The illness is death. What is worse than death?!” I suspect that the governor’s handlers then added a few more-subtle notes to his hymnal.

Most Americans might think, “It can’t happen, here!” -- and, indeed, it might be true that fear comes easier to people weaned on the stick more than on the carrot -- but fear is universal -- not only a natural emotion and primal motivator, but necessary for survival and to escape harm and danger -- which is why it is so easy to exploit (child’s play, in politics). You only need a scapegoat and a symbol, to mask your true intentions, and to blind people to those intentions and reality -- any scapegoat or symbol will do, so long as they work. In Iraq, it was Jews, imperialism, and Coca Cola; here, it’s Donald Trump, a contagion, and a mask.

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In America, today, fear has led to conditions that have not only wrought economic and social devastation (essentially, killing life), but are destroying, ending, shortening, and lessening the lives of just about everybody. The breadth and depth of the devastation are staggering. The “lockdown” caused 50 million people to lose their jobs, which increases mortality rates (hurting, most of all, those, living paycheck-to-paycheck); it has ruined millions of businesses, forever; it has crushed the hopes, prospects, lives, and livelihoods of most of the country; it is retarding children’s education, with far worse consequences to come; and it has increased drug abuse, child abuse, and domestic abuse (much of it, now going unreported) -- all of which will drive who-knows-how-many into despair and suicide in the months and years to come. In addition, weakened immunities, delayed and curtailed access to medical care (including for cancer, heart disease, and other acute ailments), and the fear of going to the hospital have worsened people’s health, and put at risk, shortened, and ended the lives of far more people than this virus will -- all, for a normal risk in life (with a survival rate of more than 99.9% for people under 65), a risk that has been distorted, perverted, and sensationalized, entirely for political purposes.

The leaders and strategists of the Democratic Party are fully aware of the staggering costs and consequences to the country, but they have made the calculation that it is a price worth paying (by others), for them to gain power. As the last president’s chief of staff said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” (although it appears that it isn’t even necessary to have an actual crisis, and that any situation can be made into a crisis). The Democrats’ readiness to inflict damage on people reminds me of what Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz said after Iraq struck the U.S.S. Stark in 1987, killing 37 Americans. When asked why Iraq had hit the American ship, Aziz answered, “If you want somebody to do something, you hurt them.”

The Democrats’ willingness to see the country destroyed, and sacrifice the lives of millions, reminds me of a couple of other quotes from Araby. (About a dictator who destroys everything, Arabs say, “He burns the green and the parched.”) So, for example, in 1991, when Saddam killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, to suppress a rebellion, a member of his inner circle said, It doesn’t matter if there are half a million Iraqis left, as long as they’re loyal to us. Thirteen years later, Syrian dictator Bashar Asad summoned Lebanon’s prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, to Damascus, and informed him that he had decided that Lebanon’s constitution should be amended, so that the presidential term of his “representative” in Lebanon could be extended. Asad then warned Hariri that if he and his allies stood in his way, “I’ll break Lebanon over your heads!” In other words, Asad is saying, If you don’t do what I want, I’ll destroy the country, and kill you and your friends. What Democrats are saying is, To do what we want, we’ll destroy the country. After his meeting with Asad, a shaken Hariri returned to Lebanon, and resigned his post. Six months later, a truck-bomb blew up Hariri’s motorcade, killing 22 people.

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Politics, it’s often said, is a dirty game, but this may be the dirtiest, most evil game ever played in the United States.

Ayad Rahim is a bookseller and former journalist.

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