Thursday, June 07, 2007


From the ‘Cold War’ To The ‘War on Terror’ -- Why America Can’t Live Without Fear

Lacking other unifiers, does a pluralistic America require outside enemies to preserve domestic tranquility?
If true, if America has a unique need for external threats to tamp down domestic conflicts, then the challenges posed by radical Islamist "Terrorism" likely were and will continue to be exaggerated.
But the impulse to strike back may have been directed less by unwise and self-serving politicians than by a little understood internal menace. Lurking behind our reaction to Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda is an even more enigmatic criminal mastermind, the sinister Amygdala -- aka 'Corpus Amygdaloideum' -- the brain’s ‘fear’ center.

The Terror Triangle

Bin Laden------------------- Sheik Muhammad--- ---------------- Amygdala

Al Gore is doing more than indulging the current vogue for neuroscientific explanations for human stupidity when he demonized the Amygdala in his "The Assault On Reason". Illuminating the murky area where social biology meets brain neurology may be the way to begin to end the endless terror that seems a staple of American life.

Sometimes, most often in science, it's advised to start with the observables, the data, and work back to a theory. In politics and sociology the problem is agreeing on what’s observed. Take, for example, the loud, insistent debate on Immigration that has just these last weeks come to a head. Why, one wants to ask, was it so far below the radar after September 11th, 2001? First, was it below the radar?

Yes, absolutely. Certainly there was no end of concern voiced about America’s long, open borders after the attack on the World Trade Center. But the initial focus was, in fact, on our border with Canada due to its sizable Muslim communities and as a direct consequence of the foiled Millenium Plot (the plot to bomb LAX by an Algerian living in Canada named Ahmed Ressam who was caught New Year’s Eve 1999, trying to cross into the United States, an event that took on ominous significance in retrospect).

The 'guestimated' twelve-to-fourteen million immigrants presumed to be illegally in this country, however, did not all arrive the last six years. In fact, the boom was a phenomenon of the 1990’s, which saw a 57.4-percent increase in the foreign born population of these United States. The debate over this immigrant boom, largely Hispanic, predominantly Mexican, has, in fact, been framed not around security issues so much as in economic and social terms – as an ongoing threat to this country’s social welfare system, such as it is, its employment opportunities and its cultural integrity (e.g, initiatives to statutorily guarantee English as America's first language).

But it’s a fight Americans have been having for 400 years, since Jamestown; a debate about ‘legitimacy’, what it takes to become a citizen, what the rights, claims and legacy of those already here are over and against those who are newly arrived.

In a country peopled entirely by immigrants these issues come up with each successive wave, often provoking ugly racial and ethnic hostility, anti-Immigrant ‘nativists’ frequently fanning anxieties about the loyalty of 'foreign' arrivistes and stressing the concomitant security issues.

In that context, the current crisis represents a return to normalcy (one fairly free of outright racial nastiness) as a result of a waning anxiety about terror attacks, a refocusing once again on domestic politics. If we have come to feel that Al-qaeda and Muslim extremism are not the most proximate threat to our well-being, we have returned to the situation pre-9/11 where a divided county, turning back on itself, was faced with a potentially paralyzing deadlock. I am referring, of course, to the 2000 election. There, opposing parties of converging ideologies managed to divide the country into two equal parts, and left the prospect for an ongoing stalemate on all initiatives a virtual certainty.

9/11 changed all that. For a time. But the internal stalemate seems to have returned as fears have faded that the current 'War On Terror' will require constant vigilance and a unity of national purpose.


Is it unreasonable to suggest that the "marketplace" of a plural democracy naturally finds a bi-polar equilibrium, especially absent external threats? That with the fall of the Soviet Union and the morphing of China into state capitalism, the United States, bereft of enemies, was left to confront itself?

Isn’t it fair to characterize these post-Cold War years as paradoxically having seen ever-fiercer competition in the domestic political arena even as Democrats and Republicans have had less and less to fight over ideologically? Perhaps because what’s at stake in a world with America left as the lone superpower is a monopoly on its greatest aphrodisiac -- power.

Although fear is an innate response, objects of fear can be learned. Fear offers a defensive survival advantage, and is usually a response to a given stimulus. The immediate fear response, the "fright" reaction, however, has the body freeze up an instant allowing the brain to decide whether to flee or fight.

When we spot potential danger, it's the amygdala that reacts most dramatically, triggering the limbic system to pump adrenaline and other hormones into our bloodstream. Meanwhile, the hormones released center our attention on the threat -- adrenaline causes the eyes to dilate, blood to be pumped to the large muscle groups, the heart rate to increase.

This phenomenon is known as preparedness. However, the brain is so wired that nerve signals travel more readily from the amygdala to the upper regions, the reasoning portions of the brain, than from the upper regions back down. Setting off alarms is easier than shutting them off. This, in fact, may partly account for the enduring popularity of "cheap thrills" like scary movies and roller-coasters – they trigger a powerful primitive reaction, an arousal that continues to affect the body long after we recognize the threat isn’t real.

For American society, a culture whose greatest shared value is competition – where the status of every public issue represents the state of play of a host of competing forces -- the cohesive value of ongoing external threats may far outweigh the disadvantages of long-term exposure to stress. As a body politic, the United States may gain more from "international terrorism" in national unity than its cost in national treasure.

The preparedness that is a by-product of our fear, whether real or imagined, has likely dampened and preempted internal conflicts with the potential to do greater damage. Only in the wake of 9/11 were the major initiatives of the last decade realized.

No comments: