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Our Frightening Relationship with Fear

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In this era of pervasive fear, it's important to remember that U.S. history is littered with violent acts of terrorism 

by Morgan Winters 

Quantrill's RaidersWe live in an almost constant state of fear. As Americans, as global citizens, as a species—it seems like the end is just around the corner. Whether Armageddon is the result of a vengeful deity, the degradation of our planet, or a few extremists with the hook-up on nuclear warheads, things are looking pretty bleak. But all hope is not lost. A group of level-headed folks at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., want us to know that we’re not completely screwed. Or at least not any more screwed than we’ve been for the last 230-odd years. While they don’t weigh in on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse or the melting of the polar icecaps, they’ve shown, pretty convincingly, in the museum’s first traveling exhibit, The Enemy Within, that terrorism is no bigger a threat today than it was in those dark days when the Redcoats razed Washington.

The Enemy Within, which opened at the Spy Museum in 2004 and has been making the rounds since 2005, is at the Minnesota History Center through May 4. The exhibit recounts the violent and tumultuous events within the United States that have most threatened the nation over the course of its history, beginning with the American Revolution and working chronologically toward September 11, 2001. Between these two defining moments, the exhibit explores the many forms terrorism has taken, from right wing militias and hate groups to government-sponsored violence against protesters.

Each section of the exhibit concludes with a Gallup polling kiosk where visitors can respond to questions regarding potential threats to domestic security and how they think the government should handle them. These questions are paired with data from historic Gallup polls that asked similar questions. For example, visitors are asked whether they think the government should have the authority to deport or indefinitely detain people suspected of supporting groups hostile to the United States. Forty-six percent of visitors strongly believed the government should have such authority; 18 percent strongly disagreed; and the rest fell somewhere in the middle. But when Gallup asked an almost identical question in 2002, when images of 9/11 were still flashing constantly across our television screens, 77 percent were in favor of doing away with that constitutional guarantor of justice, habeas corpus.

KKK rallyIt is these questions and their responses, more than all the exhibit’s historical displays and archives, that give the most insight into our nation’s relationship with its violent past. While the instances of terror chronicled throughout the exhibit are important chapters in history, their true relevance is in the way they have preyed upon our sense of security, shaping our culture by affecting our collective perception of the way the world is. It is telling that, as the hysteria surrounding a terrorist attack fades, so too does the vigor in which American citizens call for heightened security at the expense of their personal freedoms. 

The insidious fear of another attack poisons us. And it is often this very fear that leads to the terrorist brand of violence we wish to guard against. Fear is not only a reaction to terrorism; it is also often a cause. Mohamed Atta and company may have been more angry and unhinged by religious zealotry than afraid when they carried out the World Trade Center attacks, but historically, the catalyst for terrorism in America has often been fear. The anarchists of the 1920s, fearful about the lack of jobs and incidents of police brutality, lashed out with violence of their own. The Japanese internment camps of World War II, examples of the government terrorizing its own people, were a response to a nearly forgotten spree of violence by a Japanese pilot and his Japanese-American conspirator on the Hawaiian island of Niihau. These instances of terrorism didn’t just inspire fear; they were inspired by fear.

Today, we see troubling signs of similar fears that might erupt in violence. Peter Earnest, director of the Spy Museum and a 35-year veteran of the CIA, looks to our shared border with Mexico as perhaps the next battleground in the war on terror at home. He’s not talking about jihadists slipping undetected over the border into the United States. Earnest sees the anti-immigrant hysteria plaguing the southwest border states as having violent undertones. The formation of militia groups like the Minute Men is directly in line with violent movements of the past. He says he fears a potential “tipping point,” where anti-immigrant sentiment will escalate from merely political expression to violent, terroristic acts against immigrants. In this scenario, it is fear—of fabled lost jobs and leprosy-bearing émigrés—that will ultimately set these events in motion. 

FBI NoticeThe image of an invading army within our borders is so obscure it is almost unimaginable. But ominously ticking packages, gun-toting reactionaries, and fiery airliners barreling into buildings—these are the things of our nightmares. Whether it’s the visceral, heart-palpitating horror that comes with death; the slow, creeping dread of imminent financial disaster; or the more abstract, everyday worry caused by opening the daily newspaper, we are never completely free from it. 

When we’re not actively scared in one way or another, we’re doing what we do best to forget our fears: shopping, watching television, shopping for televisions. And that’s because there is plenty to fear. But our fears are no greater than those humankind has carried throughout history. With a little historic perspective, our fear looks like the natural, insignificant birthright of a species that can reasonably understand the inevitabilities of life but do little to change them. The Enemy Within doesn’t try to offer answers to conquering these fears. Rather, it shines a light on the boogiemen, often inflated by politicians and the media, in our closets and under our beds. Whether seeing them makes life more or less scary is just a matter of perspective. 

Outside the Minnesota History Center, the streets of downtown St. Paul are quiet and nearly empty. The city seems too tranquil to be threatening. But from the sides of buildings and the crossbeams of streetlights, security cameras gaze down upon the sparse traffic. Maybe this system of cameras will be used to catch a murderer or stop a major terrorist attack on the empty metropolis. But more than likely, they’ll only be used to catch the tagger who spray-painted the display window at Macy’s, or to check out the busty brunette in the low-cut top hustling to a lunch meeting. That this type of public surveillance infringes on privacy is beside the point—it is undoubtedly a symptom of our fear, a hollow assurance that, so long as somebody is watching, nothing can go wrong.

Images of Quantrill’s Raiders, c. 1860, (top) and KKK March on Washington, D.C., 1925, (bottom) courtesy of the International Spy Museum. Image of FBI Warning Poster, 1943, (middle) courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.