Not wanting to appear out of touch with the terrorist community, President Dubya punched the national terror-o-meter up from “Fear of God” to “Duck and Cover” nearly two weeks ago. Yes, it’s time to renovate those dusty old fallout shelters, because the terrorists are here, and they’ve got four kilos of anthrax with your office building’s name on them. They’ve got dirty bombs by the dozen, slated for arrival – any second now – at your apartment complex, place of worship, child’s school and nearest national monument.
Hey, friend, you’re looking a little peaked. Don’t worry; there’s nothing you can do to help except place blind, unwavering faith in the president. And report any sightings of bipedal swarthy and/or bearded men to the local authorities, just to be on the safe side. And put that gas mask away; you look ridiculous. You need to get out of the house. Buy a car. Go to Disneyworld. Invest in the stock market, for God’s sake; that’ll show ’em. In the meantime, your progressive and even-handed government is going to blow a small crater in the Middle East. For freedom, that is. And safety and love. Really.
The problem with this apparently imminent military strike is not that Saddam Hussein isn’t an evil dictator or at the very least a sneaky brute; it’s not that terrorism isn’t terrifying or that there aren’t plenty of terrorists around. He is, it is and there are. The problem is that the television news media are devouring the Bush administration’s every word, pausing only to let out the occasional satisfied belch. I don’t care how good they think his reasons for war are; the way they’ve dismissed the opposition entirely, attempted to scare U.S. citizens into silent submission and set the linguistic stage for war deeply upsets me.
The networks have been regurgitating presidential metaphors ever since Bush the Lesser declared war on terror. Not “terrorism” or “terrorists,” but terror itself. I laughed when I first heard Bush say it because I thought it was a mistake, a TelePrompter typo or a typical Dubya-style grammatical blunder. Isn’t that cute? He forgot the suffix. Ha, ha. Idiot. But as the months went by and no one bothered to correct him, it became increasingly clear that declaring war on a concept, a powerful emotion, was exactly what Bush intended to do. Keep the public on edge, convinced that the United States is teetering on the edge of chaos and the only way to make the world safe again is to fight this abstraction to the death (of militants and civilians alike).
Striking terror into the hearts of citizens is a sinister, cowardly and sadly effective political strategy. That’s why I’m so excited to see that all these verbal scare tactics are finally coming back to haunt the Bush administration and its media subsidiaries. A few Washingtonians start hoarding duct tape and bedsheets, and like magic, Homeland Security (gag) Secretary Tom Ridge speaks out, prompting the following CNN.com headline: “Ridge: No need to panic over terror alert.” I jump out of my chair and point triumphantly at the monitor. No need to panic over terror alert? Ha! Fear campaign working a little too well, is it? Stumbling all over your own rhetoric, eh? Before long, the American public is going to realize that no government can prevent terrorism any more than it can prevent rape or murder, and then you’ll really be in trouble.
Certain subversive members of the media have already caught on. During one prominent network’s 17-second coverage of last month’s D.C. protest, a bold young reporter tried to suggest that the protesters might not be a bunch of nose-picking, anti-American hippie-wannabes with no understanding of world affairs, that perhaps they had spent a good deal of time weighing the pros and cons of war and decided they wanted no part of it. The anchor – apparently not so interested in healthy debate – cut off the reporter as though she were attempting to say “fuck” or “the president is wrong” on live feed. He panicked, changed the subject (“Hmm, er, yes, very interesting report, thank you (nervous chuckle). Ahem. And now, some three-year-old footage of WTO protestors getting tear-gassed in Seattle”) and cut to commercial. What a shame.
The word “terror” used to mean “fright,” “alarm” and “horror.” I don’t know how Tom Ridge and the rest of the gang would re-define it if they could, but for now, I wish they’d realize that creating more of something is not a very good way to rid the earth of it.
Henretty can be reached at email@example.com.