The Politics of Fear

Jun 2006

The teachings of the Buddha contain much practical wisdom. In one place he spoke about the guidelines for making a good decision; we ought to be clear that our choice is not guided by the unskilful qualities of greed, anger, delusion or fear. This means that those who seek to sway public policy using these lower instincts are acting unethically.

We seem to be living through a period where the public discourse is dominated by fear. There was a time, not so long ago, when politicians and commentators would seek to move public opinion by a vision of a better, more just, future. Now, they mostly seek to scare us with images of all the terrible things that could happen if we don't agree to surrender our civil liberties, or act aggressively enough in the international arena.

The surrender of liberty and privacy for security has always been a bad bargain; in the end we are left with neither. Who would have imagined a few short years ago that the public in democratic countries would meekly accept detention without trial, surveillance without due process and even torture? And yet so fearful have we become that there is scarcely a murmur.

The latest scare is the arrest of the alleged terrorist cell in Toronto. We should be scrupulous to remember that it is, at this time, just that; alleged. Let us not forget that there have been several false alarms, so-called terror cells busted both here and in the United States which have proven in the end to be nothing of the sort. There used to be a quaint principle that a person was innocent until proven guilty.

While nothing is proven as yet, and the sensible course would be to wait until it is, already there are calls to toughen various laws. And then there is the international "war on terror" in which Canada participates with troops in Afghanistan. We know that both the Harper and Bush governments would like to see Canada's role increased.

The Buddha also taught that the antidote to fear is compassion. "Hatred is never overcome by hatred, hatred is overcome by love, this is a law eternal." This may be seen as weakness by the proponents of a "tough" policy, at home and abroad. But the opposite is true. Nothing takes more courage than remaining true to principles of compassion and shared humanity in times of violence and threats of violence.

Decisions made on the basis of fear are not only unskilful, but cowardly. The fearful mind seeks a way out through violent destruction, which in the end does nothing but perpetuate a cycle of fear, violence and counter-violence.

We ought to begin breaking the cycle by considering carefully our actions in the wider world. The American intervention in Iraq, whatever its intention, has manifestly not worked to secure freedom from fear and violence either in Iraq or the world at large. Instead, that unhappy country has spiralled down into chaos and bloodshed. Perhaps worse, the war is dragging America itself into a moral abyss. Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, Haditha - each new atrocity degrades the moral tone further. Let this disastrously failed policy serve as a warning when we consider our role in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

In the long run, we would better secure ourselves and others freedom from fear by seeking ways to non-violently further social justice, mutual respect and a sense of shared humanity. There are no easy answers, or more accurately, the easy answers turn out to be no answers at all. We should certainly be on our guard against being manipulated through fear.

[printer]Printer Friendly Version
(will open in new browser window)