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George Bush's Paranoia War

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When the president of the United States behaves in ways that redouble the population's fears, his behavior is a psychological issue. When the White House uses advertising specialists to instill in our minds terrifying visual images of mushroom clouds above American cities, American psychologists should be concerned, to say the least. When our chief executive dwells yet again on "death and destruction" in a speech he makes as we observe the sixth anniversary of our national trauma--and tells us that if we hinder his war policy, our enemies will "come here to kill us"--it's time for professionals who know about the effects of psychological trauma to speak up. As such a professional, I invite any person of reasonably sound mental health to engage in this brief and illuminating fantasy:

Imagine for a moment that somehow the American presidency falls to you, instead of to George Bush, and that, for reasons known only to you and your conscience, you accept the position. Not long after you move into the Oval Office, the United States is hit by a disastrous terrorist attack. Counterterrorism measures that should have been attended to long ago must now be designed at emergency speed--protective systems for the skies, the ports, the nation's nuclear facilities, its food supplies--but you can see that, just now, your stricken countrymen are scarcely able to think at all. Their physical and psychological landscapes have been disfigured by inscrutable "others" from a distant part of the world, and they are deeply traumatized and subclinically paranoid. The resonance of their fear is almost palpable. In this uniquely vulnerable state of mind, three hundred million people turn to you en masse, and, prepared to trust your answer implicitly--to cling to it, even--they ask you the following question: What should we do now?

I believe that, as you looked out on millions of your countrymen lost in fear and grief, you would experience an overwhelming desire to help them. You would earnestly want to bring them some comfort and peace, so they could protect themselves, heal, and rebuild. And--exiting this little fantasy exercise and returning to the reality of the last six years--perhaps, like me, you've been repeatedly saddened to witness that not everyone in such a rare and influential position experiences a desire to assist his own nation in recovery and real self-protection.

That some of our leaders didn't display this sort of heartfelt reaction has been understandably difficult for Americans to acknowledge out loud. As playwright and McCarthy victim Arthur Miller wrote, "Few of us can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the state has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable." But, if we curb our wish to forget a painful truth, we can recall that the rise of insanely self-interested fear politicians is a phenomenon as ancient as the existence of hierarchical society itself. The heartless cultivation of fear has been used politically at least since the first century BC, when the Sicarii and the Zealots committed public assassinations to terrorize the Romans in ancient Palestine. We saw it in Joseph McCarthy's reign of paranoia over the US in the 1950s, and we're seeing it again now.

Extreme fear is a first-rate weapon, neuropsychologically speaking. Unlike ordinary experiences, which are organized in the cerebral cortex, traumatic experiences stay "stuck" in the limbic system, an emotional, evolutionarily older area of the brain. As our lives go along, these chaotic memories can be triggered in us by reminders of the traumatic event, even in new situations that are far less dangerous. Triggering this neurological "switch" causes us to react fearfully--as if the trauma were happening all over again-- and temporarily derails our ability to think and act rationally in the present.

A disaster-made glitch in the brain makes us unusually vulnerable to influence, and herein lies a convenience for ambitious authoritarians. In The Paranoia Switch , I coin the expression limbic war to refer to the activities of a fear monger who increases his political power by repeatedly triggering traumatic memories in the brains of individuals who have lived through a group calamity. A politician doesn't have to know anything about the neuropsychology of trauma to conduct such a limbic war. It's like sex, in the sense that you don't need to understand biology to participate.

Is our president a scaremonger? Is George Bush waging a limbic war against us? Is he truly cold enough to be using the fear generated on September 11, 2001, as a kind of renewable resource to maintain his political power and further his own agenda? To help answer this question, I'd like to post a summary of the list I provide in The Paranoia Switch--ten behaviors observable historically in leaders who have used fear to keep people in line:

1) Unsurprisingly, leaders who use fear as their primary political strategy speak repeatedly of dangerous people and frightening situations. They address other topics too, and may even use humor. But somewhere within virtually every communication, there will be several references to danger, and to just how frightened people must not forget to be.

2) Fear politicians frequently offer descriptions of catastrophic events that might happen in the future, and of other such events that would have happened had the plans not been thwarted.

3) Such leaders are prone to accuse those who disagree with them of being disloyal to the group and/or naive.

4) Fear brokers tend to look, act, and speak like the people found in their constituencies, sometimes almost in caricature. The fear broker's self-presentation tends to be that of an adequately educated person, but not a worldly or intellectual one. If from a region where the people speak with an accent, such a leader is likely to nurture this characteristic in himself.

5) Fear mongers often behave like archetypal parents. A fear-mongering leader may imply that, though the people are his brave charges, they cannot be expected to be so courageous and strong as he, and therefore, they must always rely on him. He demands to be trusted, and promises that he will never abandon them or give up on his goals.

6) Leaders who practice fear politics tend to admonish people over "moral" issues, and use shame to exert control. As a typical example, a sexuality-related topic (an issue around marriage, childbearing choices, homosexuality, etc.) will be introduced into a popular discussion that had nothing to do with sexuality, and then notes of shame or sin will be blended into the altered debate. These actions on the part of the leader may temporarily distract people from their original concerns.

7) In a seeming contradiction, fear brokers praise the group for being moral and heroic. A scare-mongering leader tends to speak of how much more God-fearing, principled, selfless, and admirable the people of his nation are than all the other peoples of the world.

8) Fear-mongering leaders project personal infallibility. When asked the direct question, "Do you feel you made a mistake?" the answer is always no, regardless of how conspicuous the mistake.

9) Such leaders tend to be secretive, and to be certain that other people, too, are keeping dangerous secrets. Scare-tactic politicians are often obsessed with gathering information about their countrymen, though much of this information may be objectively meaningless.

10) Whatever their tongue, fear leaders use language that pulls for primitive emotions: words and concepts (in the group's language) such as vengeance , cowardice, and good versus evil. In addition, fear politicians are associated with a skewed pronoun usage, specifically the frequent use of the third person plural-- they--as in declarations of what they are doing to us. In contrast, moral leaders tend to employ the first person plural-- we--as in references to what we (the people) can do to help ourselves.

This, in abridged form, is the book's list of ten behavioral characteristics of political fear mongers. Where George Bush is concerned, doing the math is not hard. (I don't know what you came up with, but I counted ten out of ten.) It is my hope, as a trauma psychologist and as a citizen, that we will choose a very different kind of leader in 2008, one who will not engage in an emotional war against us, and who is wise enough not to imagine that our worst fears are his best friends.