Have We Learned Anything from the Bush Years?

Fear makes people stupid.

It makes us unable to think straight. And it makes us give up our power to tough-talking authoritarians.

War Is Stupid

And since the “war on terror” is now being expanded to Yemen, it is worth remembering that experts state that the “war on terror” has been counterproductive for keeping us safe. For example, a leading advisor to the U.S. military, the hawkish Rand Corporation, released a study in 2008 called “How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida“.

The report confirms what experts have been saying for years: the war on terror is actually weakening national security (see this, this and this).

As a press release about the study states:

“Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism.”

And see this.

Indeed, while the 9-11 Commission made numerous recommendations on how to prevent future terrorist attacks — many of them simple and inexpensive to implement — the Bush administration failed to do so (and see this and this). Moreover, the Bush administration and its allies actively blocked efforts to do so.

The Department of Homeland Security, instead of protecting vulnerable targets and concentrating on keeping actual bad guys out of our country, instead randomly made up lists which included kangaroo centers, petting zoos and ice cream parlors as high-priority terrorist threats. And the Bush administration refused to fill important positions at DHS so that our security could be protected.

Things haven’t improved much – at least in some areas – since Obama has taken office.

Torture Is Stupid

And, purportedly, some are again pushing torture in response to the underwear bomber.

As president-elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Roy Eidelson, points out – most Americans supported the use of torture because they were deceived into thinking that it works and was a necessary tool in a life-or-death war on terror.

In fact, overwhelming evidence and the opinion of the top experts in the field prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that:

  • Torture does NOT work to produce intelligence or prevent terrorist attacks
  • Torture HARMS national security
  • Most of those tortured were INNOCENT

(For religious people, you could thus say that torture is evil, as it inflicts harm for no beneficial purpose. For Christians, fear also goes against the basic teachings of Jesus).

The Repeal of Constitutional Rights Is Stupid

Finally, the Bush administration claimed that we needed spying on Americans, the loss of basic constitutional rights, and more presidential power because of 9/11. In truth:

  • Cheney advocated strengthening the powers of the White House to the point of monarchy before 9/11

Incidentally, both the Iraq war – which we now know was wholly unnecessary (see this and this) – and the Afghanistan war were planned before 9/11 as well.

Have We Learned Anything?

Remember the words of one of America’s founding fathers and one of the fathers of philosophy:

Those who would trade safety for freedom deserve neither.
Ben Franklin

Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.
Aristotle

As Ryan Sager points out:

Terrorism is not now, and has never been, an existential threat to the United States. As we’ve discussed, the threat of dying in a terrorist attack is far smaller than the threat of being hit by lightning. No one’s arguing we shouldn’t be vigilant against terrorism — and airline security in particular is a farce, a problem that must be solved, and (frustratingly enough) a problem that can be solved. As is the problem we seem to have of keeping people — even people who’ve been flagged by their own families — on the proper watch lists. But these are law-enforcement problems and intelligence problems. They are not a war.

The war is in our minds, between being scared of our shadows and keeping the true threat in perspective. It’s not easy of course — I’m a New Yorker, every day I get on a subway that could be bombed, that rumbles under what used to be the World Trade Center. But is there any true solution other than to keep a stiff upper lip?

Fear is a powerful weapon — and there’s no reason the American president should act as a force multiplier for Al Qaeda.

And as professor Scott Atran notes:

To terrorize and destabilize, terrorists need publicity and our complicity. With publicity, even failed terrorist acts succeed in terrorizing; without publicity, terrorism would fade away … By amplifying and connecting relatively sporadic terrorist acts into a generalized “war,” the somewhat marginal phenomenon of terrorism has become a primary preoccupation of our government and people. This transformation puts the lie to the constant refrain by our same leaders that “terrorists will gain nothing.”

Have we learned anything from the revelations that the Bush administration lied us into the need for a war in Iraq, lied about the need for torture, lied about the reason for spying, loss of constitutional rights, and an overwhelmingly powerful executive branch?

Have we learned anything from the discovery that unnecessary war, torture and panic over sporadic terrorist attacks create more terrorism and reduce national security?

Or will our fear of the underwear bomber and other terrorist acts scare us into stupidity again, as it did so many people during the Bush years?

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