Jewish World Review Dec. 17, 2001 / 2 Teves, 5762
"The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself."
The words of Franklin Roosevelt echo over the generations. Courageous, emboldening words -- fearless words -- they told an America that needed to hear it: If fear is our only enemy, then we don't have much of an enemy at all. If fear is all we have to worry about, then we will conquer it.
He was speaking not about a war, but about an economic depression. And his words were so stirring -- that 10-word declaration -- that those words are among the handful of most famous ever spoken by any American.
He could not have had this in mind.
He could not have been able to foresee his country in the year 2001.
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself?
Yes -- but that is more than enough.
In President Roosevelt's time, fear could be written off as a byproduct -- something that could be made irrelevant by Americans, if they tried hard enough.
Today, fear is no byproduct -- it is the primary item. It has been since the first day. Our president tells us straight out: We are engaged in a war -- a war against terror.
Fear itself is again our enemy -- but this time it is our main enemy. Evidently those who attacked us do not want our land, do not want our riches, do not want our buildings. What they want -- we think -- is our terror. Fear itself? That is their goal.
We are doing our best to tell ourselves that it isn't working -- that they haven't altered our way of life in the way they desire. But they have -- in small ways and large, fear itself has become part of the atmosphere, part of the air. That doesn't mean it will always be so -- and it doesn't mean we have to like it. But if President Roosevelt were alive today, even he would likely admit that there is no "only" about the new version of fear itself. The only thing we have to fear? If it's fear, that's plenty.
We are doing all the right things. Of course we tighten up our airports and public buildings -- we would be insane not to. Of course we agree to give up some of our freedom of movement, in an effort to keep things safe.
But the fear -- the fear itself -- is changing us. We would be foolish to argue otherwise. If any enemy were to come into our nation, occupy our cities, and institute their own rules, we would rebel to the death at some of the ones we've begun to institute against ourselves. Checkpoints? Mandatory photo ID cards? Electronic frisking? Full-time video surveillance? Police interrogations without the suspicion of a specific crime?
We all know why these measures have begun to edge their way into our daily lives -- and if we begin to forget, the taped footage from Sept. 11 is always there to remind us. But in our effort to combat those who would hurt us -- an effort that we are doing our best to formulate and learn as we go along -- we are paradoxically doing what we would never allow an enemy to do. We are voluntarily -- at least so far it has been voluntary -- taking away some of our own freedoms.
To point this out is not to unduly criticize. Unprecedented times sometimes call for unprecedented measures. But as all of us go through this, the least we can do is look our new reality squarely in the eye, and recognize what is happening.
The man in Atlanta who shut down Hartsfield International Airport because he ran toward a gate and bypassed a security station -- his transgression made headlines around the world, and it was easy to forget that just 30 years ago, what he did would have been no transgression at all: It wasn't until 1973 that there were security points in U.S. airports. Everyone went to the airport gates unchecked -- it was how you flew. And the 76-year-old man from Hong Kong who was jailed in Chicago -- the chef with the meat cleavers (some have said that they were really kitchen knives) in his suitcase?
Yes, he was in the wrong -- and who knows, it may turn out that he had something violent in mind. But it certainly may turn out otherwise. He had spent all night in the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare waiting for his flight to Hong Kong, after originally, in self-described confusion, having retrieved the bags at an earlier stop, where they had been checked through. Jailed at 76, not because he is necessarily a danger to anyone -- and not because we are necessarily a society that thinks he is.
But fear itself -- every aspect of it -- is the new currency of the land. Fear itself is an industry and a way of life. It comes in the
mail, it arrives out of the sky, it lurks behind concrete barricades. We have nothing to fear? Let us hope not. But if we do, fear
itself is turning out to be quite a potent adversary. Even FDR, one fears, would not be denigrating