Classic J. Neil: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself …”
Published September 19, 2001 — a week after the 9/11 attacks — in The Sierra Times
A lot of people whose only exposure to history is from sound bytes are familiar with the phrase “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and they know that these words were spoken by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They probably think FDR originated this statement in one of his speeches during World War Two. But he said it during his first inaugural address on Saturday, March 4, 1933, six years before the beginning of World War II and over eight years before the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into that war. The cause of the fear FDR was referring to was the economic depression America was in when he took office. Roosevelt was warning America not to let the economy be paralyzed by their fears. As a libertarian I may disagree with his solution, but FDR’s warning was valid.
It struck me that President George W. Bush has told us that America is now in a war against Terrorism. What is terrorism if not the goal of producing a paralyzing fear?
And nowhere has fear been more effective in creating paralysis than in the American airline industry.
On the day of the attack, when terrorists seized and caused the destruction of four American passenger jetliners and successfully used three of them as weapons of mass destruction, the FAA grounded all American aviation. Airports were shut down. Flights into the United States were sent back or diverted to Canada. Foreign airlines were told not to attempt to land in the United States.
It was several days before there was another commercial flight. By that time, one financially troubled American airline company, Midway, had already declared bankruptcy. Americans who couldn’t travel in their own cars were using any other means of transportation possible to avoid flying: trains, buses, rental cars, limousines, taxicabs.
And no wonder! New airport security regulations have made even a flight without a terrorist a nightmare. At Los Angeles International Airport it is now forbidden for private automobiles to pick up or drop off passengers at a terminal. The Skycaps are now jobless since all baggage must go through additional inspections. The electronic ticketing that had become so popular and had simplified boarding procedures is now as cumbersome as the old paper ticketing.
The average wait at a ticket counter before one may even proceed to one’s flight is averaging between two and three hours for domestic flights and up to six hours for international flights. Then one must proceed through security checkpoints where the possibility of a full body cavity search is possible if one is found to be carrying a forgotten nail file or a plastic letter opener. Carry-on baggage is being eliminated from many flights, requiring that upon arrival one must go through the incredible hassles of retrieving one’s bags from the carousels, with even more time delays and all the well-known problems of lost, stolen, and damaged bags worse than ever.
Virtually no one contemplating these facts is choosing to travel for pleasure, and many businesses are instituting new policies reducing or eliminating the necessity of their employees flying on company business. Some corporations have even instituted a policy that exempts any employee who chooses from flying on company business, period.
Only a week after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, all the commercial American airline companies are within weeks of declaring bankruptcy themselves. They have cut back on scheduled flights by 20 percent already, and have begun layoffs of airline employees that may top 100,000 jobs eliminated within days.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D, Missouri) has called for Americans to save the airlines by boarding planes again. He is, in essence, suggesting that Americans suck it up and forget their fears of terrorist attacks in order to save the American airline industry.
But it is not the fear of the American people that is destroying the American airline companies. We have learned about the heroic passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, disarmed by longstanding Federal Aviation Administration policy but having heard what other hijacked airliners were being used for, making an unarmed attack on the only person who knew how to fly the plane — the pilot-hijacker who had already murdered the United flight crew — in order to prevent the passenger jetliner they were on from being crashed into buildings and murdering thousands of their countrymen.
Nowadays there is an agreement between the terrorists who capture jetliners to use them as weapons of mass destruction, and those who are calling for sealing airline pilots into their cockpits no matter what happens in the passenger compartment. That agreement between the terrorists and the counter-terrorists is that the passengers, the reason for the existence of the jetliner itself, are as expendable as dumping jet fuel. The metal is now more important than the flesh.
It is not only at airports where “fear itself” is going to paralyze us. We already fear, and will fear more, taking our loved ones to concerts, sporting events, high-rise buildings, theme parks, government buildings, and many other places that are tempting targets for terrorist reprisals, once the armed forces of the United States engage the enemy overseas. We fear that public gatherings could turn deadly from terrorists with bombs or strategically placed machine guns. We fear that the enemy is already among us with horrific weapons of mass destruction including biological agents, chemical weapons, or even nuclear bombs.
President Bush was correct when he told us we must get back to work.
Congressman Gephardt is right when he tells us to suck it up.
But it is not the fear of the American people that is the threat to our economic and community life. It is the fear of our policy makers, including Congressman Gephardt, that is the main problem.
We all remember the grade-school teacher who, hit by a spitball while writing on the blackboard, punished the whole class because she didn’t know whom the perpetrator was. Our leaders are acting like that teacher.
Because there are a few — very few — terrorists among us, and our government’s investigators doesn’t know who they all are, our policy makers are punishing all of us. They are treating all of us like terrorists. Our leaders are terrified of the American people and in their fear it is they who are paralyzing our national life and our economy.
It’s time we told them they have to trust us again.
If anyone needs to suck it up, it’s them.
For years I have spoken about the necessity of restoring the Second Amendment to its intended purpose of regarding the armed citizen as an asset, rather than a liability, in the struggle against crime and terrorism. During peacetime my words have largely succeeded in rousing only the choir. I am hoping that now we are at war against an enemy within us, my words will have impact among those of my countrymen who have thought them unwise.
Americans with guns can prevent many, but of course not all, of the scenarios by which terrorists can damage us further. It can prevent the terrorist taking over of subway cars, trains, and buses. It can provide an effective means of stopping the machine gunning of crowds before mass casualties occur. It can prevent a truck stop, or a tanker truck carrying flammable liquids or hazardous materials, from being turned into an enemy asset. It might prevent the takeover of tollbooths at a bridge or a tunnel.
And yes, as I have said repeatedly this past week, letting airline passengers with badges, and licenses to carry concealed firearms, on board with their guns, checked only for the proper ammunition that will not cause critical damage to airliner control surfaces, can make sure that the next time passengers need to take on hijackers, they might be able to avoid having to crash the plane in order to save those still on the ground. They might be able to land safely themselves and get medical help for the casualties.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
President Bush, his cabinet, our governors and mayors, our legislators and city councils, and the ladies and gentlemen who serve in our civil services: we are your countrymen. If you can’t stop being afraid of us, if you can’t trust us with a gun when our enemies can take over a critical asset with a box cutter, then how can you ever expect us to stop being afraid and return our country to normality?
Note, March 8, 2010:
I wrote this a week after 9/11, before there was even a Department of Homeland Security.
Obviously airline security is even more invasive and no more effective.
Obviously the airlines are still in trouble.
Obviously nobody listened to me.
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