Our Frightening Relationship with Fear

| 3/12/2008 10:38:43 AM

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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. 

4/2/2008 12:57:38 AM

Which, I forgot to mention, is what I think this article and this exhibit are suggesting to us.

4/2/2008 12:39:16 AM

We might take a second to stop arguing about whether so and so was angry when they did/didn't perpetrate some violent act, protest, etc, and talk about the uses of fear. Who creates fear in the general public, what purpose does it serve, and who benefits from the continual paranoia that seems to be an innate part of human existence.

3/17/2008 9:43:18 PM

It would seem that before fear there is ignorance. The religious are obviously ignorant people and they have created the most fear in recorded hsitory which has led to the most conflict.... Pinko leftist are the same...

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