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2003: The Year of Fear

This year, more than perhaps any other that I can think of will be remembered for the final triumph of Americanism, writes Binay Kumar.

india Updated: Dec 27, 2003 21:27 IST

It would be a foolish endeavor to try and predict how future generations would judge 2003, the year we are soon about to bid adieu. But if one were to hazard a guess, this year, more than perhaps any other that I can think of will be remembered in the annals of history for the final triumph of Americanism - a feat that would never have been possible without the careful conditioning of American 'hearts and minds'.

The year began with growing international concern about the pro-war arguments posited in London and Washington, but there was little disquiet in the streets across America. Like many non-Americans I used to attribute this passive collusion to the all-pervasive strength of American ignorance. However, post-September 11, a more fundamental question arose: Why are they still so ignorant? After all, I cannot imagine a more startling shock for the 'average Joe'; startling enough, surely, to jolt him out of any self-induced coma? But so I thought, drawing conclusions based on my very non-American ignorance; Al-Qaeda may have been the first to strike at the heart of the American homeland, but it lagged behind in the assault on the minds of its citizens, and the first attack was more subtle than any terrorist might ever engineer.

Early scholars who studied propaganda called it a 'hypodermic needle approach' to communication, where the objective was to inject ideas into the minds of a target audience. Since propaganda is often employed when people are to be persuaded to do things against their best interests, it frequently seeks to bypass the rational brain and appeals instead to primitive emotions. For the Americans, the emotion of choice in 2003 was fear.

In January the Department of Homeland Security came into effect, with Tom Ridge at the helm. Its terror advisory system, which was advanced just this week, is played, played and replayed on American networks. The news channels employ sudden, loud noises and bright colors to create a startled response and to induce a feeling of fear - why? Clearly not because it is inherently appealing, for then we would have to conclude that terrorism is appealing since Osama Bin Laden kept us glued to our television sets on September 11. Rather, it is because fear holds our attention; Fear keeps us watching. And fear also makes us agree to things beyond reason.

America's pre-eminence in the world today derives in no small measure from its unrivalled position as the sparkling bastion of capitalism in the world. In 2003, as the PR analysts Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber noted fear became the commodity of choice. 'The trick…will be to redefine your pet issue or product as a matter of homeland security', PR Week wrote. 'If you can convince Congress that your company's widget will strengthen America's borders, or that funding your client's pet project will make America less dependent on foreign resources, you just might be able to get what you're looking for.'

People across America bought into the fear and Fox News, the hyper-nationalist, right-leaning outlet, overtook the traditional market leader, CNN, in the television ratings. In March, as the Iraqi coverage kicked off, Fox was leading with more than 5.1 million homes tuned in.

The fear revolution was also palpable elsewhere as sales of 'Urban Assault Luxury Vehicles' - big cars to the rest of us - continued ahead of others. Eminently useful for allaying delusional insecurities, these megalith-machines do little for passenger safety. Indeed, you are more likely to drive your way to heaven in a SUV; in his examination of the phenomenon, High and Mighty, published at the end of 2002, Keith Bradsher revealed that the occupant death rate per million SUVs is actually six per cent higher than the occupant death rate per million cars.

The biggest SUVs, which pose the greatest hazards to other motorists, have an eight per cent higher death rate for their occupants than minivans and larger midsize cars. This truly American phenomenon is perhaps best illustrated by the presence on suburban roads of the Hummer - an ugly-looking civilian version of the military Humvee, known officially as the M998 series vehicle which was engineered to answer the armed forces' need for superior mobility in a tactical field environment like the one presented in Iraq or Afghanistan; now you can drive one down to your local Wal-Mart, and, I suppose, feel safe from any approaching Taliban or Republican guard fighters across the broad walk!

India and China too have a role to play in this elaborate charade, for what started off as outsourcing of American jobs to the east is now characterized as the 'export' of American prosperity. This month, Business Week, in a cover lead proclaiming the 'Rise of India' noted that the ensuing technology boom is 'terrifying' for many Americans; that 'India's emergence is fast turning into the latest Rorschach test on globalization' and that the sub-continental scientists are 'shock troops in the final assault on good-paying jobs'. And Lou Dobbs, on CNN, and in his column in the New York Daily News, harps ad nauseum about the perils of 'selling' American jobs to cheap foreign labor.

One cannot but notice the monumental irony, and lament the shameless hypocrisy, of these statements emanating, as they are, from a society that appears almost missionary in its pursuit of free market ideals for all and one that constantly aspires to assert its leadership of the capitalist creed.

President Bush, an ardent devotee if there ever was one, demonstrated his allegiance with an altered foreign policy - no longer must we make do with mass produced burgers, for the White House wants to mass produce democracies now! This is meant to be the new hope for the Middle East: golden arches and grenades abound! The fear factory is now officially a multinational corporation, exporting dread and fright far and wide across the globe.

The litany of incoherent policy that has typified the politics of 2003 is perhaps only matched by the gleaming ignorance of those who engineered it all. When asked about the adversarial stance of the French to American foreign policy, President Bush, leader of the free world, pioneer of the shrink-wrapped freedom for all, expatiated upon the fundamental difference between the two societies - 'the French', he noted profoundly, 'don't even have a word for entrepreneur.' Who would want to argue with that?! Nobody - except that in retrospect, it all makes sense. In 2003 we had to fear everything, even the intelligence of our leaders.

Even today, on Christmas Eve, Americans can't relish pregnant stockings without worry; news just in: Mad Cow disease has finally arrived on the west coast. Following yesterday's heightened terror alert, an astute commentator's parenthesis, more than any other, sums the story of 2003 - they fear the end of fear itself.

Best wishes, dear readers, for another season of foreboding.

(An Immigrant's Diary appears every Thursday. The author is a resident of California in the US.)

First Published: Dec 27, 2003 21:27 IST