It was a memorable bit of literary piracy: the money line in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address, “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself.”
Roosevelt’s version had a significant difference from the famous earlier versions of the same thought attributed to the 19th Century American Henry D. Thoreau and the 17th Century Englishman Francis Bacon: “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.” The difference is between the earlier philosophers’ abstraction of “fear,” and FDR’s present-day reality. “The only thing WE have to fear,” he said to a nation shell-shocked by the Great Depression, “is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Roosevelt focused on a particular moment of fear, with a particular product — paralysis, over-caution that might inhibit America’s recovery from the 1929 financial crash.
I think the great originator of the thought and the quotation put forth by Roosevelt and Thoreau and Bacon had a different product of fear in mind, the opposite of paralysis; violent, ill-judged actions or reactions to the infliction of fear.
“The thing I fear most is fear.” wrote the 16th Century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. Why? Because, Montaigne wrote, “There is no passion so contagious as that of fear.” The crazy things fear can make one person do, can stampede a million.
Which brings us from Franklin Roosevelt’s famous first words as president to Dwight Eisenhower’s famous last words, in his Presidential Farewell Address. “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
The only necessary update to Eisenhower’s warning is that his “military-industrial complex” has embraced some new technologies and some new branding and is today’s National Security Industry. Today, national security responsibilities and profiteering are shared by the military, and intelligence services and the private industries that service them, and the communications distributors and collectors who are effectively the surveillance industry.
But the new national security sector is very like the old military-industrial model, in that its “potential” for “misplaced power” depends on on selling one crucial product: fear.
In his powerful new book Reign of Terror, national security journalist Spencer Ackerman portrays a world shadowed by fear, and an America, not so much paralyzed as amped-up with anger and frustration driven by fear to irrational physical and emotional violence. The book’s subtitle spells that out: “How the 9/11 era destabilized America and produced Trump.”
For nearly the entire War on Terror, Spencer Ackerman has been a national-security correspondent for outlets like The New Republic, WIRED, The Guardian and currently The Daily Beast. His new book is Reign of Terror. He has reported from the frontlines of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. He shared in the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism for Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks to The Guardian, a series of stories that also yielded him other awards, including the Scripps Howard Foundation’s 2014 Roy W. Howard Award for Public Service Reporting and the 2013 IRE medal for investigative reporting. Ackerman’s WIRED series on Islamophobic counterterrorism training at the FBI won the 2012 online National Magazine Award for reporting.