My friend was speaking of a well-known Israeli peace activist who, at the start of the bombing, had come out publicly in support of the war in Lebanon. “He has trouble maintaining a big view,” she said, “when he’s in fear of his life.”
No kidding. So do we all. In fact, it’s hard-wired into our brains. The amygdalae stand on guard for danger; when activated by fear, they pump out the epinephrine: On guard! Fight or flight!
For people who feel their lives to be in immediate danger, controlling these impulses requires tremendous self-command, wisdom, and a heart large enough even to hold their opponents’ pain alongside their own. These conditions are seldom met, which is why we hope for intelligent, compassionate and shrewd diplomacy: we look for people outside the immediate fray to step in and bring the combatants under control. When this doesn’t happen, conflict reproduces itself, as in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur or other regions where for reasons cynical or desperate, the world has watched as blood spills and spills and spills.
The link between fear and bellicosity is so strong, the power-mad rely on it to generate support for their dangerous projects. During much of the war in Iraq, the polls told us that President Bush so succeeded in terrorizing American citizens that majorities believed the outright falsehood that Iraq attacked the Twin Towers, casting the war as self-defense. Even today, President Bush continues to get mileage from 9/11, pumping out fear to justify inflicting more pain.
When the fear response is overstimulated repeatedly, the brain normalizes it. Everyone has seen a returning veteran who jumps whenever a door slams or a car backfires. Our fears overtake us, becoming our expectations, feeding on themselves to spawn more of the same.
What I have been marveling at lately is the extent to which this practice has been decentralized. Far from the battlefields, everywhere I look, people are terrorizing themselves: tuning into the news every waking hour, internalizing the practiced tropes corporate newsreaders deploy to construct their preferred realities, becoming addicted to the play-by-play, with rules set by unnamed officials and their spin doctors.
I try to imagine what it would have been like a couple of centuries ago, when dispatches arrived by telegraph, before we learned how to pump out the repetitive, coercive processed imagery of war which is now our steady diet. Terrible things happened, people killed and died, homes and schools were destroyed–the consequences of war are timelessly horrific. Were the people far from battle more able to pray for peace, to roll bandages and assemble food packages, to conceive solutions when their minds were not buzzing with the hundredth repetition of the same terrifying “news”?
I am limiting my consumption of prepackaged terror to a level which seems not to impair my functioning, which seems not to send fear-chemicals coursing through my brain 24/7. When I pull back from the perpetual fear-mongering, I am able to give more attention to those who may actually be able to shed some light.
This past week, two overviews have captured my attention. While the authors of these views may not share my precise politics, neither is an ideologue and both are acute observers. Refreshingly, both have turned their attention to incisive description of what is manifesting, which seems more needed now than tendentious polemics.
In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, NYU law professor Noah Feldman published “Ballots and Bullets,” an extremely interesting description of the strategic thinking (i.e., hoping and guessing) behind Israel’s actions. It highlights the Bush administration policy of “democratization through destabilization” (or as Orwell put it, “war is peace”). It is sobering to recognize that by pursuing its strategy of “creative destabilization”–violent regime change followed by pressure for elections–the U.S. has transformed insurgent militias into legitimate electoral powers, inviting people to give their votes to whomever promises to smite their enemies. The prime impact for our own country of this policy? The U.S. has become more hated than at any time in history.
This is not some distant, foreign aberration. Voters’ proclivity to choose the most belligerent candidate in a time of fear is why George Bush was re-elected in 2004. We have to live with the consequences for two more years. Feldman’s account points to something Americans can do in the meantime, which is to draw attention to “creative destabilization” as a failed foreign policy, promote Congressional opposition, and work to elect candidates who eschew the bankrupt idea of preemptive war as a path to democracy.
Yesterday on Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed Christopher Dickey, Paris bureau chief and Middle East regional editor for Newsweek. What remains with me most are his straightforward recounting of the strategic thinking (i.e., hoping and guessing) that has Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, treat the people of Lebanon as disposable collateral, and his heartbrokenness over the way Israel, unchecked, is now following the United States in squandering the goodwill which could be its best defense. As an overview of the conflict from one who has been watching for a long time, Dickey’s is well worth hearing.
Here in the U.S., we are lucky to have a choice which is not so readily available to those on the bleeding edge of war: giving our attention to whatever empowers our creativity rather than frightens us. If you’ve been mainlining CNN, I hope you will take a break from scaring yourself and join me in focusing our intentions on getting our own government to begin acting like a citizen of the world rather than its biggest fearmonger.