I told a friend I would be writing an essay about fear. He cautioned me, counseled me: “Don’t say that our fears are groundless.” He had heard me express the widespread opinion that in allowing ourselves to be governed by fear, we may be forfeiting our freedom.
Of course our fears are not groundless. Who would deny the threat of nuclear and biological war on our shores? And there are militant factions within three major religions that seem intent on fulfilling some prophecy of a final war between good and evil, certain that they and not their enemies are the children of light. What greater danger can be imagined?
But just for that reason it seems to me necessary to live without fear—to the extent that we are able, of course. This does not mean we should not protect ourselves from real dangers. It means we must be vigilant against the counsels of fear.
What impressed me most forcefully in the pictures from Abu Ghraib was how fear was employed as an instrument of torture. Humiliation too—but those photographs were meant to terrify, because they could be used to shame the victims in their communities.
Why has the discussion of these outrages very nearly vanished from public discourse? Does our silence bespeak a tacit consent to their possible continuation? If so, what would be our motive? I believe it is fear—fear of an elusive, treacherous enemy, but also fear of seeing the depths to which we may go for the sake of an equally elusive security.
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