The politics of unreasonable fear is nothing new in the United States. During the 20th century the great bogeyman was the communist subversive. Among the most notable instances of mass hysteria in the previous century were the so-called “Red Scares;” the first occurring in the late 1910s and early 1920s in the wake of Russia’s Bolshevik revolution, and the second in the early and mid-1950s, during the McCarthy era.
Journalists and politicians took advantage of the heightened paranoia during these times, as they did generally throughout much of the century, to sell newspapers, gain votes, or profit in other ways from the fear among their fellow citizens that society as they knew it was in grave danger. They could occasionally point to legitimate instances of espionage or subversion, such as the case of Alger Hiss or Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, to convince Americans that there were perhaps hundreds of thousands of communist, socialist and otherwise insidious subversives in the country. They were in the U.S. government, academia and particularly organized labor seeking to undermine and if possible destroy our way of life.
Modern critics may look back and scoff at previous generations’ penchant for seeing “commies in their soup,” knowing in retrospect that the number of truly dangerous subversives was never significant and that the republic was never in serious danger. Yet it seems Americans’ capacity to set reason aside in the name of unreasonable fear is as potent today as it ever was.
Today’s great bogeyman is not a communist subversive but a terrorist — particularly a “radical Islamic terrorist.” According to New America’s study “Terrorism in America Since 9/11,” jihadists have killed 94 people in 12 successful terror attacks in the United States over the past 15 years. That is an average of approximately six per year — a minuscule figure compared to nearly any other cause of death in this country. Yet since the age of terror truly began for America on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have been plunged in a state of prolonged and, it seems, unwarranted anxiety over the threat of Islamic terror.
Historically, the unreasonable fear of invisible enemies hiding in plain sight has caused Americans to look the other way while their founding principles were infringed upon or denied. Fear of communist subversion led to thousands of unjust persecutions under the auspices of the World War One era Espionage and Sedition Acts, effectively suspending the right of free speech for political enemies during the first Red Scare. The radical excesses of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee during the second Red Scare are further examples of how willing Americans can be to compromise their principles in the name of security.
The same process can be seen today in the fight against terror. Fear of unseen enemies plotting in our midst has induced many Americans to forget their nation’s cherished freedom of religion and tolerate a ban of Muslim refugees and immigrants on the sole basis of their religious beliefs.
The President of the United States has received rousing support in many quarters for his stated willingness to commit war crimes against civilians and combatants alike. Many call for the arming of students and teachers in public schools and universities for fear that a terrorist might show up at any given moment. All of this is done in the name of keeping Americans safe, yet it is likely to have the opposite effect. Such measures create more danger than they combat, and feed into an atmosphere of paranoia that has grown beyond the bounds of reason.
Just as we now look back at the unAmerican activities that previous generations condoned in the name of their unreasonable fear, so too perhaps will future Americans look back at us. Then again, if the pattern holds true, succeeding generations may have their own bogeymen to fear and their own principles to deny. Let us hope they will learn the lesson that we have not.
Bradley Galka, 414 Osage St., is a master’ s student in American history at Kansas State University . He is writing his master’ s thesis on fascism in the United States during the Depression era.
“... fear of invisible enemies hiding in plain sight has caused Americans to look the other way while their founding principles were infringed upon or denied.”