Why Do We Fear the Things We Do: Maybe the Wrong Question (Updated)

The New York Times reports this morning:

In the 14 years since Al Qaeda carried out attacks on New York and the Pentagon, extremists have regularly executed smaller lethal assaults in the United States, explaining their motives in online manifestoes or social media rants.

But the breakdown of extremist ideologies behind those attacks may come as a surprise. Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims…

If such numbers are new to the public, they are familiar to police officers. A survey to be published this week asked 382 police and sheriff’s departments nationwide to rank the three biggest threats from violent extremism in their jurisdiction. About 74 percent listed antigovernment violence, while 39 percent listed “Al Qaeda-inspired” violence, according to the researchers, Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina and David Schanzer of Duke University.

“Law enforcement agencies around the country have told us the threat from Muslim extremists is not as great as the threat from right-wing extremists,” said Dr. Kurzman, whose study is to be published by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security and the Police Executive Research Forum.

John G. Horgan, who studies terrorism at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said the mismatch between public perceptions and actual cases has become steadily more obvious to scholars.

“There’s an acceptance now of the idea that the threat from jihadi terrorism in the United States has been overblown,” Dr. Horgan said. “And there’s a belief that the threat of right-wing, antigovernment violence has been underestimated.”

Counting terrorism cases is a notoriously subjective enterprise, relying on shifting definitions and judgment calls.


Some killings by non-Muslims that most experts would categorize as terrorism have drawn only fleeting news media coverage, never jelling in the public memory. But to revisit some of the episodes is to wonder why.

Wonder why indeed. In the 1990s, I pondered a version of that very question: Why do we fear the things we do? I came to realize that it’s the wrong question. It assumes that people’s fears drive government action and the culture industries rather than the other way around. That view, I also came to realize, is one of relatively recent vintage. It occludes an older view—rooted in Aristotle and Hobbes—that I thought worth resurrecting. The result was my dissertation and my first book, Fear: The History of a Political Idea. Since then, and along the way, I’ve written a few pieces on the topic. This one in Jacobin may be the most comprehensive. As I write there:

Once we agree to submit to the sovereign, he becomes the decider of our fears:  he determines whether or not we have reason to be afraid, and he determines what must be done to protect us from the objects of our fear….

When the government takes measures for the sake of security, it is not simply translating the people’s fear of danger into a repressive act of state.  Instead, the government makes a choice:  to focus on some threats and not others, and to take certain actions (but not others) to counter those threats.

Update (9:35 am)

On that reference above to the culture industries: I just remembered this morsel from a recent post on the Charleston murders by Jeb Lund in Rolling Stone:

Mercifully, even some mainstream outlets seem willing to use the term “domestic terrorist.” Five years ago we might not have been so lucky. Back then, Newsweek absurdly convened an in-house discussion to decide who is a “terrorist” and emerged with “people in caves,” while whites were accorded terms like “separatist.” This, despite the fact that the event that inspired the discussion was a white man flying a plane into a building he hated, which you’d think would be a slam-dunk post-9/11 definition of the term.

If you follow Lund’s links you get this from Glenn Greenwald:

Aside from the suffocating denseness of their discussion — most of them ramble on about who is and is not a “Terrorist” for three straight days without even attempting to define what that term means — just look at how blatantly tribalistic and propagnadistic they are about its usage.  Many of them all but say outright that it can apply only to Muslims but never non-Muslim Americans.  The whole thing has to be read to be believed — and what’s most amazing is that they published it because they obviously though it was some sort of probing, intelligent discussion which would enlighten the public — but let’s just examine a few of the contributions.  First, here’s the question posed to the group by Newsweek Editor Devin Gordon:

We’ve been having a discussion over here about the aversion so far to calling the Austin Tax Wacko a terrorist – or as the Wall St Journal called him “the tax protester.” And I’m wondering if anyone has read yet – or would tackle themselves – a thorough comparison between our ho-hum reaction to a guy who successfully crashed a plane into a government building versus the media’s full-throated insanity over the underpants bomber, who didn’t hurt anyone but himself.

This is the first answer, from Managing Editor Kathy Jones:

Did the label terrorist ever successfully stick to McVeigh? Or the Unabomber? Or any of the IRS bombers in our violence list?

Here is my handy guide:

Lone wolfish American attacker who sees gov’t as threat to personal freedom: bomber, tax protester, survivalist, separatist

Group of Americans bombing/kidnapping to protest U.S. policies on war/poverty/personal freedom/ – radical left-wing movement, right-wing separatists

All foreign groups or foreign individuals bombing/shooting to protest American gov’t: terrorists.

So according to Newsweek‘s Managing Editor, only a foreigner who “protests the American government” can be a Terrorist.  Americans cannot be.  Indeed, according to her, “all foreign individuals bombing/shooting to protest American government” are “Terrorists,” which presumaby includes Muslims who fight against American armies invading their countries (which is how the U.S. Government uses the term, too).  Meanwhile, Leftist Americans who engage in violence are “radicals,” while those on the Right who do so are merely “protesters, survivalists, and separatists.”  Only anti-American foreigners can be Terrorists.  That’s really what she said.  Then we have this, from reporter Jeneen Interlandi:

I agree with Kathy. Right or wrong, we definitely reserve the label “terrorist” for foreign attackers. Even the anthrax guy (not that we ever found him) wasn’t consistently referred to as terrorist.

Reporter Dan Stone takes that a step further:

Yep, comes down to ID. This guy was a regular guy-next-door Joe Schmo. Terrorists have beards in live in caves. He was also an American, so targeting the IRS seems more a political statement — albeit a crazy one — whereas Abdulmutallab was an attack on our freedom. Kind of the idea that an American can talk smack about America, but when it comes from someone foreign, we rally together.

One might think he was being ironic or merely describing how Americans (but notNewsweek) foolishly thinks, but he described the views of his fellow reporters and editors perfectly, and virtually nobody in the discussion took that as anything other than accurate and serious.  Reporter Eve Conant goes so far as to provide the justification — or at least the mitigation — for what Stack did as opposed to those dirty people with beards in caves:

Isn’t the ho-hum reaction in part the simple psychology behind the fact that a) no one likes the IRS and b) he’s an American (so closest he might get is “domestic terrorist” in terms of labels) who doesn’t hate Americans but hates an institution. The act is horrible, but somehow the motivation is perceived as less offensive. As one conservative at the CPAC conference told me, Stack simply “made a poor life choice.” There’s no way anyone would say that about the underwear bomber.

Three rather obvious points to note. First, these are media decisions about how to characterize events; they make no references to how the public thinks. Second, the decisions don’t reflect an unmediated anxiety on the part of the media, pure affect without thought. The decisions are in fact reflective: these journalists have thought through (perhaps not well) their positions. Third, those positions are freighted with moral valences (“the motivation is perceived as less offensive”) and ideological biases. When we talk about the politics of fear, that is in part what we are talking about.


  1. Stephen Zielinski June 24, 2015 at 10:06 am | #

    Back in 2008, some reactionaries armed themselves to attend Obama rallies. The intent clearly was to make public their presence and thus to intimidate Obama supporters. Yet, neither the media nor the police choose to target these terrorist acts for special treatment. I recall watching television reports and concluding that these reports considered the armed reactionaries they depicted to be mere political opponents of the Obama candidacy. They were not considered contemporary Brownshirts.

    The Occupy movement, on the other hand, was a target of the police and of private assassination plots! The corporate media colluded with the state when the latter moved to suppress this movement.

    Of course, the Occupy movement was unarmed. Nor were its participants potential recruits for the Democratic Party. The movement could never march into the political mainstream. But the armed reactionaries were a fringe component of ‘normal’ American politics!

    We are meant to fear the gun….

  2. Stephen Zielinski June 24, 2015 at 10:17 am | #

    Re: Corey’s update

    I’d expect the corporate media to characterize violent leftists was terrorists. The left in the United States is wholly non-violent, and has been for decades.

  3. Geoffrey Skoll June 24, 2015 at 10:33 am | #

    Of course the New York Times confuses and obfuscates when it cannot completely misrepresent. It uses sources that are at best unaccountable as in this case New America that they only identify as a “Washington research center.” I would question whether any so-called radical Muslims have killed anybody in the United States since 9/11, as acts of terror. The Fort Hood shooting, for instance, seems more like an incident by a deranged individual, and there have been many of those just since the start of the 2oth century.

    What skews the discourse and thinking is the relationship between terrorism and fear. I have struggled with this for some time. In my forthcoming book “Globalization of American Fear Culture: The Empire in the Twenty-First Century” (Palgrave) I give the following account.

    There has been no theory of terrorism (Skoll 2008). Partly this is due to lack of ontological agreement. It is a concept that lacks a definition. The problem has been that it has too many definitions. There are almost as many definitions as there are scholars and functionaries who write about it (Schmid and Jongman 1985). Since 9/11, and maybe since the Reagan presidential campaign in 1980, terrorism has become a new kind of thing.
    Therefore I offer the following definition and explanation for Terrorism. Terrorism in the twenty-first century is an ideological vehicle for the production of fear as a commodity. The ideological apparatuses of the empire manufacture the terrorism mythology by creating terror events. The terrorism industry uses reversal and decontextualization to make its product. It employs techniques of repetition, imagery, and condensation.

    I believe this put things right side up.

  4. Mushin June 24, 2015 at 3:07 pm | #

    Corey appreciate this inquiry and dialog.

    This post is intersecting my reviewing today of Humberto Maturana’s 1988 “REALITY: THE SEARCH FOR OBJECTIVITY OR THE QUEST FOR A COMPELLING ARGUMENT.” The explanations offered were coherent in 1988 and today appear to be most relevant for both philosopher’s and scientist’s in becoming responsible stewards in designing a future world together. Government is a transcendental representational assumption in the swept along drift of human history. Today we are experiencing a regressive fundamentalism in right wing political economics with a progressive assortment of leftist edge policing the power in a assortment of dysfunctional fragmented groups seeking power. Both legitimize the existence of the other in mutual negation and there is no co-ontogenic structural appreciative discourse. It’s all basic meaningless bullsh$t making the entire world fall into resentment, resignation and despair. Until we wake up to the fact of living our lives that the words we utter create reality in a linguistic universe of consensual coordinations with others called our familial, societies and governing institutional discourses, as we the people. We will continue to create blind, deaf and dumb human suffering in ontological arguments over the question of what is reality? Government, Terrorism, Politics, Science, Religion, Economics and Education are taken for granted swept along Cartesian historic institutional discourses in a drift of our mistaken observer errors of reality. Its impossible to tell fact from fiction in Cartesian dualism notion of separation via all the transcendental mythological ontological authoritative guru’s explanations. We can definitely do better than this integrating philosophy, science and spirituality in a systems view of living life.

    What do you think of this philosophical assertion in biological cognitive science?

  5. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant June 25, 2015 at 10:17 am | #

    On October 10, 2014 at 6:15 pm, I responded to a commenter on Corey’s post titled “Violence Against Women and the Politics of Fear” [posted 10/7/2015]. I hope I am not committing any kind of breach of comments section etiquette by re-entering that comment here. I do so because I believe the point I considered then is even more relevant now, because I agree with Corey on the matter of Fear when he suggests that the wrong questions are being asked. Spoiler alert: I don’t think that is an accident, and I do think we can know why.

    With apologies to others’ patience (and to Corey’s tolerance), here it is:

    “I’m still not sure quite what your point is here.”

    Let me help you.

    Corey’s post is considering two forms of violence against innocent persons, domestic violence and political terrorism, and the social responses attending thereto. For each a case can be made that a species of political, social, and economic mobilization may be needed to organize actions to obtain the physical protection of such persons. That some mobilizations are considered and deployed and others are not is revealing as regards the existence of the political interests and of the social relations that are themselves organized and historically reproduced to pursue and sustain such interests.

    The diversion from the matter at hand by the strategic use of a deliberate category error by citing certain types and sources of bodily injury (bad diets, car accidents) when the discussion surrounds willfully acted violence (terrorism and domestic violence) is itself suspect in that it uses physical harm to confuse the categories referenced such that their collective marker is physical harm. Thus, it serves to obscure the reality that some types of physical harm are quite, and quite knowably, distinct from others. Is it really so hard to distinguish the nature of the violence of a car accident from the nature of the violence of rape or battery?

    What of this: “In this case it is to encourage women to believe that they are very likely to be killed by a spouse or partner.” I daresay that such encouragement is likely to seem reasonable if the safety of women is to take a back seat to the effort of getting them feel a little less nervous around persons of intimate (presumably romantic/sexual) familiarity. That passage reads more like a concern that access to women (or securing their cooperation in interpersonal relationships, again presumably romantic/sexual) will become increasingly difficult for heterosexual men if women – and anyone who cared about them – had to look out for women’s physical safety.

    I have read Corey’s book “Fear: The History of A Political Idea” when it first came out in hardback (I bought the hardback edition) and it is not immediately available to me ready at hand – but it is quite marked up due to my slow and close reading of it. Maybe he addresses it there (its been a while, so forgive my forgetfulness) but I will note here that another factor to consider is that what will dominate political interests’ attention in mobilizing political fear is hinted at in existing social relations at the moment such mobilization obtains.

    The refusal to protect African Americans from official (or even criminal) violence or the female portion of America from domestic/gender-based violence is reflective of the fissures pre-existing in American social relations. These populations can’t get protection because their vulnerability is hard-woven into our social fabric, so one cannot mobilize political fear of violence against THEM to ensure THEIR protection. Indeed, to do so is to invite the mobilization of the political fear that society is falling apart and that further mobilizations to continue the vulnerability of certain populations (and not others) will be deployed. To some (who may amongst themselves sustain diametrically opposed worldviews) the vulnerability of these populations to violence is what defines America. To some, it is this vulnerability to violence which must be protected and it will not do to officially mobilize any change that may disincline such violence.

    Hence, my only quibble with Randall Kennedy takes the form of my claim that anti-Black violence IS actually quite remarkable. This is because that violence is a structural feature of American social relations. This is what accounts for its historic persistence, and what accounts for reactionary projects to blunt any efforts at its melioration.

    Ultimately, anti-terrorism is not deployed to protect Americans from terroristic violence since such terrorism is a feature of the lives of many members of certain demographic constituencies within America: women, persons of color, LGBTQ, the poor. Real and/or manufactured political fear entirely notwithstanding, the truth is that anti-terrorism, in fact, DOES NOT EXIST IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The wars conducted abroad and the abrogation of rights at home, each undertaken in the name of anti-terrorism, indeed more than prove the point. The role of political fear is not, therefore, to mobilize for public safety. Its real purpose is the reproduction of social relations and the protection and advancement of certain entrenched socio-economic and political interests.

    In spite of governments’ official claims (and their media amplifications) and in terms of their actual current and historical policy practice, there is no such thing as “anti-terrorism”. Again: the mobilization of political fear entirely notwithstanding, its deployment strategically serves an entirely different purpose than anti-terrorism.

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