American popular culture and terrorism hold one belief in common: that it is useful to make people afraid.
It is obvious that terrorists believe in the power of fear. This is in their name. But, to see how deeply the idea runs in American popular culture, we have to examine it more closely. First, we notice that in most American television and movie dramas, the hero strives to instill fear in the villains. Movie heroes never succeed by negotiating reasonable terms with the villains.
Tee shirts say, “Be afraid. Be very afraid,” and bumper stickers, “Fear me, right wing conspirator.”
High school football coaches tell their players to make the other team afraid of them under the theory that an fearful opponent will be an ineffective opponent.
This idea carries over into American’s perceptions of international relations. In conversations with other Americans, it is common to hear Rambo wannabes refer to themselves as “the world’s only superpower”; having “the most powerful military in the world”; and able to “destroy anyone we want, anytime, anywhere”. They are likely to say explicitly that other countries better do what they are told or America will wipe them off the face of the Earth.
Few Americans ever talk about having the most effective diplomatic corps in the world or being happy to negotiate peaceful and mutually beneficial agreements with other countries. The American government engages in diplomacy constantly, but the average American doesn’t want to hear about it. He wants to see news stories about America’s enemies running away from American troops in terror.
The idea that “it is better to be feared than loved” was made explicit by Machiavelli in The Prince. His logic was that love is fickle and cannot be trusted but a man who fears you will remain fearful in all circumstances.
Unfortunately, Machiavelli’s simplistic logic was not based on an understanding of how people actually behave.
When you are afraid of someone, your first response is not obedience. Your first response is to destroy the object of your fear. Obeying a monster will most often damage you because monsters do not have your best interests at heart. On the other hand, destroying the monster will permanently and completely free you and those around you from danger. Because of that, you will go to considerable lengths to destroy a monster, even taking the risk of being destroyed yourself.
If you are unable to destroy the monster, then your best alternative is not obedience, but flight. If you can get away from the monster, then you will have an opportunity to marshal your forces and destroy it if you encounter it again.
Only if the first two options are impossible, only if you are cornered and face overwhelming force, will you obey the monster. And, even then, you will only obey for as long as necessary. No matter what you promise or what you do, as soon as you have an opportunity to fight back, you will revert to your primary impulse and try to destroy the monster.
Trying to govern through fear is a dangerous strategy. Even if you can do it in the short term, it never creates loyalty and always fails in the end. Kingdoms were replaced by democracies as soon as people acquired adequate weapons. Dictators are usually overthrown sooner rather than later. Fascist states that bragged they would last for a thousand years were defeated after a decade or two.
Terrorism has been even less successful. Never in history has a terrorist campaign achieved its stated goals. A century of terrorism has done nothing but harden England’s hold on Northern Ireland at the same time that nonviolent action freed India and South Africa. In the face of wave after wave of Palestinian suicide bombing campaigns, Israel becomes stronger all the time. After 9/11 Bin Laden said explicitly that he did it in order to drive the American military out of the Middle East. Look how well that worked.
The same is true of military campaigns which attempt to demoralize the enemy through fear. In World War II, the blitz was intended to break England’s will to fight. Pearl Harbor was intended to drive America away from a Pacific front. A massive American military presence was intended to show the North Vietnamese that resistance was futile. Every time, the action had the opposite effect. Superior military power can physically crush an opponent but, as long as the enemy thinks that he has a chance to win, however slim, he will keep fighting against you.
We brag that Americans don’t capitulate to our enemies when faced with danger. “These colors – the red white and blue – don’t run.” We stand and fight. Why do we think that other people will bow down to us if we threaten them? In our propaganda, we always depict the enemy as craven, but propaganda is not reality. When we make our enemies fearful, even enemies who are much smaller than us like North Vietnam and the Taliban, we make them stronger and more determined to resist us.
Sometimes we make them so strong that they defeat us.
In our fantasies, diplomats might not be as exciting as soldiers, but in the real world, we win more concessions when we make people our friends than when we make them our enemies.