It has been insinuated by some advocates of our invasion of Iraq that we had to act first and fast, lest we witness an atomic mushroom in our land. In mantra-like chants, we have been reminded over and over that we are fighting the terrorists in Falluja so we do not have to fight them in our own streets. That’s pre-emption theory. And it is enough to scare you, especially if you think about what could happen if every nation and sect started operating on the very principle we grasp as our prerogative. In fact, it’s enough to make you paranoid.
It seems that since the Berlin Wall fell, this nation has been ill at ease without an enemy. Even at the time of the demise of the Soviet Union, one could read comments that the Commies were faking their own dissolution, just to catch us off guard. The darkest suspicions we harbored against an Evil Empire that, we were assured, would never peaceably change soon turned inward.
Rivalries among political parties have always provided examples of vitriol and anger, but the last decade of the 20th century and these first four years of the 21st seem to be marked by hardened suspicion and conspiracy mongering. Public accusations made about Clarence Thomas, Bill and Hillary Clinton and the prosecutor Kenneth Starr should have appeared, to any refined taste, astounding in their meanness and paranoia. But nuance and refinement seem not to be highly valued in our public discourse. We live in a time of vast right-wing and left-wing conspiracies. Anyone who watches Fox News or listens to Rush Limbaugh knows that liberals control the media. Anyone who reads The Nation or has seen Fahrenheit 9/11 knows that the media are in the iron-fisted grip of the far right.
With the mysterious prominence of two quite moderately talented politicians vying to be president during the next four years, the base for either party is so radically divided from the other, we are inescapably fated to four more years of paranoia. Each candidate, whether by his own words or the insinuation of his minions, deems the other unfit for office. Their true believers cannot find anything of redeeming value in the opponent. Everything is a trick or a ruse. Nothing is to be believed. Liesabout service in the National Guard, about Purple Hearts, about Swift boats, about being AWOLare everywhere and covered up.
A sure confirmation of the paranoia diagnosis will be seen if it happens. Just imagine the response of the two parties if we are subjected to internal terrorism during the next month.
The Republicans will say, See, we have been warning you and you didn’t believe us. They will not dare entertain any question whether our own belligerence might have made such an attack more likely.
The Democrats will say, This is what the Bush administration has brought upon us with its misguided policy. They will not admit that they have chastised the president for taking steps to make a terrorist attack less likely. (Just imagine their outrage if on Sept. 10, 2001, we had arrested 19 Muslims without any conclusive evidence that they would hijack airliners or if, on Sept. 11, our fighter planes had brought down four passenger planes.)
Both parties will insist that voting for the opposition is giving in to the terrorists. If we vote for Kerry, we will be going the cowardly Spanish route, appeasing the enemy by electing a president who will be softer on terrorism. If we vote for Bush, we will be playing into the terrorist’s plans to intensify the clash of civilizations, supposedly the very thing the extremists want.
This is a line of argument, if it can even be called argumentation, that feeds paranoia. It is complemented by the question, Cui bono?to whose advantage?a phrase Cicero attributed to the Roman conspirator Cassius. This question can serve to suggest both that the incumbent president wanted a homeland attack on us to enhance his own power, and that Al Qaeda wanted us to invade Iraq as a means to weaken our resolve and recruit new terrorists. It can be used to justify any position, since, like paranoia, every bit of evidence can be used to support one’s fixation.
It will help the Democrats. It will help the Republicans. Electing a Democrat will cause it again. Electing a Republican will cause it again. And so it goes. Instead of an election based upon serious discussion of the economic, military and cultural challenges we face, instead of a serious examination of the ways a looming war with Islam might be averted, we will have an election won by fear, wherein all suspicions will be confirmed.
Indeed there really are enemies out there. Some are murderous thugs and zealots. But the greatest gift we can give them, no matter who wins the election, is our paranoia. We have to prepare for an infinity of disasters. They need to prepare for one lucky strike. And we will never stop blaming each other.