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Authoritarian America



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As I argued in my book, “Freaking Out,” there was a cultural shift  in the United States after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11,  2001. For the first time in history, the great majority of Americans were worried about being  harmed by terrorists.

Terrorism was a new kind of trouble, an ambient horror, a plausible danger that spurred visceral reactions in some and rationalized concerns in others. 

This thesis bears out in numerous polls and academic studies. For instance, the Gallup organization has asked Americans to name “the most important problem facing the United States” since 1939. Before 9/11, terrorism never made the list. After 9/11, terrorism never left it.

From a culture of fear, the age of authoritarian culture was born. With it came the interminable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the long-term surge in defense spending, the PATRIOT Act, the increase in security measures everywhere, the tightening of immigration policies, the militarization of local law enforcement, the demonization of Islam, extraordinary rendition [interrogating suspects in places with less strict regulations], the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib, the unending detention of terrorism suspects at Gitmo, government-sponsored torture and assassinations, the drone war, the thousands of dead American soldiers and tens of thousands of civilian casualties.

This normalized state of fear persists 15 years later, only now the perceived threat to American values has transcended Arab and Muslim citizens to include any persons of color or differing ideologies. Nationalist attitudes and xenophobia are no longer subtle expressions tucked beneath the public surface. 

We’ve seen a presidential nominee advocate for the building of a wall, an ultimate signifier for separating “us” and “them.” The list goes on for this candidate who has prejudicially targeted and stereotyped specific groups of people. 

And when athletes sit during the national anthem as a means to protest civil injustice, it is seen by many as an insult to the U.S. flag, which is symbolically linked to our military and government. Those protestors are unpatriotic and not one of “us.” 

I cannot help but wonder if these reactions to non-conformity are amplified because of our post-9/11 culture.

There is some debate among scholars about the psychological mechanism that links people’s worries about terrorism to authoritarian sentiments, such as negative attitudes toward immigrants or support for military actions.

But there is little doubt that the perceived threat of terrorism is playing a meaningful role in the way millions of Americans make sense of today’s most pressing social issues.

To make wise decisions on these matters, our politicians first need to reassure the public and chip away at the culture of fear that undergirds authoritarian sentiment.

Although modern society has devised numerous clever ways to inform us about looming perils, it has not created an infrastructure to quell our inflated fears, promote careful cognition and convert anxiety into prudent action.

We need politicians who are willing to risk their popularity and put the terrorist threat in perspective. We need officials to clarify the threat by comparing it to other dangers we face in everyday life and by reiterating the simple fact that the number of terrorist attacks has declined since the 1970s and especially in the years after 9/11.

We’ll also need an army of courageous opinion leaders, professional naysayers, journalists, comedians, parents, educators and voters to support leaders who can discourage black-and-white thinking about terrorist groups, tame exaggerated estimates of the risk, situate the danger in historical context and promote a culture of calm.

Only an army of critical thinkers can shield us from the fears that make us feel unsafe or uncomfortable. 

Joshua Woods signature

Joshua Woods is an associate professor of sociology. His research focuses on the social and psychological responses to terrorism and other perceived threats. He studies the social construction of terrorism, as well as the political rhetoric and media coverage associated with it.