Gret Haller
Political Implications of Fear and Anxiety in Today's World
Contribution to the Scientific Symposium «Fear and Anxiety» with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at ETH-Zürich, 4. August 2005

In April of 2003, I went to Boston to take part in a discussion on the way Human Rights are dealt with in Europe and the United States of America. The Iraq war had just started and people were all worked up. An acquaintance of mine living in Boston sent me a quote and asked whether I knew whom he was quoting. It read as follows: «Of course the people don't want war. But after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. () Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to greater danger. This method works in any country.» As most people who were subjected to this knowledge test by my acquaintance, I assumed that this quote was referring to the then current situation in the USA where some resistance to the war was stirring. But my questioner informed me that the quote was older than 50 years, that it was a quote of the national socialist Hermann Göring. A US forensic psychologist at the Nuremberg trial is said to have addressed Göring in the course of an interview in the latter's cell stating that there was a difference between democracies and dictatorships. He said that in the United States of America, only Congress could resolve to declare war. Göring contradicted him with this very quote which is reproduced in the psychologist's diary published in 1947. (1) This may well be one of the tersest examples for the devastating ways in which the engendering of fear can be applied in politics and has been applied time and again, for sure.

To make it clear: I am not talking about fear and anxiety insofar they are necessary and helpful to protect our lives. I am talking about the politically generated fear that is not helpful at all for individuals. At present, it is primarily the fear of terrorist attacks that is being misappropriated politically. The need to combat terrorism is not called into question by this. But it has to be done by proper police and secret service methods and by efficient international cooperation. Even in democratic states, the freedom of the individual and Human Rights at large are being massively restricted under the heading of fighting terrorism. People in these democratic states would never accept such measures if the fear of terrorist attacks were not hammered into them day by day. Above all, they are being told that terrorism could not be fought without restricting their freedom and Human Rights, which is evidently not true. The concept of Human Rights has not been invented in favor of persons enjoying considerable social esteem. It was created precisely to the benefit of persons who were considered of ill moral repute, of whom it was not really clear whether they deserved to be considered as human beings: slaves, foreigners, representatives of other races, beggars, or criminals. At the present time it is therefore possible to set up a clear standard by means of which the implementation of the philosophy of Human Rights in a state can be measured. It is the handling of alleged terrorists, that is, those human beings of whose acts the population has been caused to feel the greatest fear. I thus take the liberty of making an almost cynical comment: Panic-mongering in politics does at least have the advantage of providing a reliable yardstick for assessing the implementation of Human Rights in a society. Human Rights have been implemented and accepted in a society to the degree to which they are irrevocably guaranteed, also for those persons of whom society is most afraid.

If freedom and Human Rights are restricted even in democratic states under the pretext of terrorism prevention, we should not be surprised to see non-democratic countries copy this method ever so willingly. Today, we are confronted with the fact that dictators designate all political activities they do not approve of as terrorism. Some democratic nations have shown them how freedom and Human Rights are to be invalidated with regard to those persons who they are afraid of. If dictators are now defining everything that does not submit to them unconditionally as terrorism, this is the logical consequence of what the democratically elected people in power have shown them. The mechanism taking place in those democratic states is nothing but a remoralization of Human Rights. The philosophy of Human Rights is based on the principle that there are no good and bad human beings. There can be no Human Rights without the strict separation of law and morals. As already mentioned, the concept of Human Rights was not invented to benefit the morally »good« person, but rather and precisely for the benefit of all others. The philosophy of Human Rights states that each human being has his / her dignity, simply because of his / her birth as a human being. Whenever there is a classification into good and bad people, it is always done in the intent to dispossess the bad people of their Human Rights. But by moralizing Human Rights, the idea of Human Rights as such becomes void, and they will no longer provide protection against Human Rights violations either to those who, in the fateful classification of good and bad, were assigned to the side of the good.

I now would like to stay with the term of moralization but use it to speak of a totally different area of fear. In Europe, en equation is currently gradually gaining in importance; although it is not mathematically accurate, it is all the more disastrous. It says: «poor = lazy = morally reprehensible,» and it is never openly stated, but spreads almost like a weed with subterranean roots in the human consciousness. I cannot and will not assess to what degree this equation is also valid in Asia and Africa. I refer only to Europe and the United States of America, and in this context, Richard Rorty made an interesting numerical comparison in an interview. He said: »A short while ago, there was an international poll taken on the topic whether the poor are poor because they are lazy or because society has put them at a disadvantage. Approximately 25 percent of Europeans were of the opinion that the poor are lazy, whereas 64 percent of Americans felt that way. Among those 64 percent, there are evidently many individuals who work for ludicrously low wages but refuse to see themselves as poor. For if you have a job you are not lazy and, conversely, anyone who does not manage to have one must be lazy.« (2) The value attitude with said equation moves from the United States to Europe. I mention it here because it has a lot to do with the feelings of fear and anxiety that are being generated with a downright political intent. Not in Europe but in the United States, the above-mentioned equation »poor = lazy = morally reprehensible« goes hand in hand with a sister equation that says more or less: »rich = hard-working = good = pleasing to God = chosen«. But this equation has rarely been stated explicitly; it is somehow unconsciously or semi-consciously present. Rudolf Affemann, a German who lived in the United States for many years, describes the situation quite graphically: »In America, the winner acquires a radiant halo. Even minor successes are appreciated. The non-winner already smells a little bit like a loser. True losers hold a bad hand in the USA. Unlike in Europe, they cannot count on the solidarity of society.« (3) In the context of my topic here, it is unimportant that these value attitudes are based on religion in the end ­ at least not at first sight. What is of importance, however, is the moralization of people's behavior in the economic sector. Moral pressure to be economically performing or to move up on the social ladder whenever possible is exerted on purpose. Parallel to this, the fear of becoming a failure and falling through the mesh of the social network is spreading among individuals. In a system of moralized economic relationships, this fear of human beings is quite intentional; it is meant to make people work more assiduously and thus morally superior. This mechanism is not only to be observed among unskilled workers who are directly affected by the increasing, structural unemployment or who are otherwise living on the fringes of society. This mechanism is equally present among persons with a higher education. When a top quality college education is dependent on the contributions of the students, which they can only make at the price of theirown long-term indebtedness, this is nothing but a life-long, moral regimentation. Moreover, the equation »poor = lazy = morally reprehensible« is all the more successful and effective the deeper it can be stored in the unconscious layers of general opinions. When «that's the way it is» and nobody questions the «why» anymore, the equation has achieved its purpose.

The engendering of fear and the moral suppression of the individual are unfortunately a very important part of so-called «western» cultures. Therefore in these cultures it is much more difficult to free from this phenomenon individually. It is also ­ not only but also ­ a political matter. And politics is a public matter, based on discussions between the individuals. It therefore makes sense to also look for public ways of overcoming fear. I see a first approach, to begin with, in identifying the mechanisms generating fear. And in so far the political fear-generation is concerned this process is best illustrated by the fairy-tale of the emperor's new clothes, as told by Hans Christian Andersen. Two swindlers tell the emperor that they are going to make very beautiful clothes for him, which have the special property that all stupid and incapable people are unable to see them. The emperor is not only infatuated with beautiful clothes but understandably wants to find out which of his ministers are stupid or incapable. None of his ministers wants to appear to be stupid or incapable, and all of them praise the emperor's new clothes. Even all his subjects praise the beauty of those clothes until a small child states the truth, namely that the emperor is not wearing any clothes at all. The two swindlers merely pretended to dress the emperor in new clothes, and since he himself did not want to appear to be stupid or incapable, he in turn pretended that he was seeing his new clothes.

Now, if we transpose this beautiful metaphor to the two examples mentioned above, things get a bit more complex. And yet, the metaphor is to the point. When the child says: «But the emperor has nothing on at all,» in the context of the threat of terrorism, this means a cool, rational assessment of the facts. Is it really necessary to curtail the freedom of individuals in such a way to effectively fight terrorist acts? The way British courts are dealing with this question is a positive example of such rationality. With their Act of habeas corpus, the British have, indeed, the longest standing tradition of freedom rights, at least in the so cold «Western world» . And with regard to the Human Rights of persons suspected of terrorism, the translation of the statement «but the emperor has nothing on at all» simply means «No!» The ban on torture is absolute; it is valid for and applies to each person, because there can be no good or bad persons in this context. This affirmation is not emotional, nor is it based on pity with the suspect. It is based on the simpleinsight that the dignity of the human being is expressed in each and every person, independent of where this person hails from and what he / she has done so far. And the affirmation is also highly rational insofar as it is based on a clear insight: If the person under suspicion of terrorism is exposed to torture, it may take very little for me to suffer the same fate, depending on circumstances. By affirming that the ban on torture must have absolute validity, I always also stand up for my own human dignity; it is inseparable from the dignity of all other human beings.

And what does the statement «the emperor has nothing on at all» mean with regard to the moralizing in the business world? It goes without saying that all of us have to organize our livelihood in one way or another. But even when we investigate matters rationally as to how this is best possible and in a way that harmonizes as much as possible with our personalities, we may reject the moral component ­ at least for ourselves. Who can order me which status symbols are to be important for me? Who can order me to spend at least one quarter of my life energy on coming to terms with the appropriate lifestyle? And ­ more importantly ­ who can order me to use half the time not taken up by making a living to comparing prices, so as to find the cheapest variant of making a phone call? «The emperor has nothing on at all» also applies in this instance. A lot of things are a matter of third party determination or autonomy. Very often, fear is a phenomenon caused by third party determination. But if we face, and deal with, the political implications of fear, the issue goes beyond the mere personal liberation from fear. To identify fear-engendering mechanisms is one side of the coin. The other side ­ which brings us forward ­ has to do with formulating these aspects publicly from time to time, for politics is a public matter.

1) Gustave M.Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary, New York 1947 pp. 278-279

2) du ­ Zeitschrift für Kultur, No. 750, October 2004, p. 97

3) Rudolf Affemann, Doppelgesicht USA. Studien und Erfahrungen eines Deutschen in Amerika. Leonberg 2004, p. 24.