The Babel of Fear
Yesterday on one of the international pages I was working on at the Times I was asked to edit a wire story about the reaction of people in Virginia to an advertisement campaign in which small signs carrying Arabic script have been put on city buses and in colleges. The signs, in themselves, are pretty harmless and their content ranges from “paper or plastic [bag]?” to an Arabic version of the children’s rhyme “I’m a little teapot” to a version of “rock, paper, scissor.” Underneath the posters are messages reading: “ What do you think it said?” and, tellingly, “Misunderstanding can make anything scary.”
And misunderstanding it was, for no sooner had the buses begun circulating around town than calls started pouring in at local police stations and at the FBI. As it turns out, many concerned citizens were afraid that these were secret code or message used by terrorists to orchestrate their operations. Even when the callers were told that this was simply an ad campaign to raise awareness, some — including educated staff at the universities in which the ads had been posted — were still apprehensive, still feared that there might be a hidden message terrorists could use.
Unfortunately that story never appeared on my page, as it was sidelined by an evidently more newsworthy article about a study which revealed that, hum, more than nine out of 10 Americans had engaged in premarital sex.
The unpublished story is a sign of the times we’re in, however, and it tells of the dangers we face when confronted to ignorance. Every day in Taiwan I am confronted by signs that I cannot understand, but by no means do I see inherent danger in them: no plot by the Chinese Communist Party to take over Taiwan by force, no secret code used by criminal organizations used to coordinate their activities. The same with Korean: there is no message, between the lines, instructing operatives to obtain materials for Kim Jong-il so that he can build more atomic bombs. It is just what it is, a language that I do not fully understand. So why Arabic be any different?
For people who will be fortunate enough to read the entire article, their main worry will be that educated people are not impervious to this irrational fear of the unknown. Staffers at the universities, people with advanced degrees, reacted in panic and could hardly be disabused of their fear. From my own experience, however, this isn’t the greatest problem, or potential danger, we’re facing today. The gravest threat lies in the fact that people and organizations charged with “protecting” citizens from so-called terrorists are themselves incapable of the critical judgment that would dispel those fears — or put differently, those organizations, like the CIA, MI5 and CSIS in Canada, see patterns where none exist or react like regular citizens in thinking that even innocuous messages can still conceal hidden messages. Fear of the unknown — especially when it is an unknown that originates in the Middle East — has become institutionalized to such an extend that it has become part of the fabric of society. People sitting on an airplane that is about to take off will invariably react with alarm if the person sitting next to them is reading from the Koran; the same with Arab or Persian-looking individuals taking pictures of, or filming, or carrying tourism information on, public attractions, public transportation or government buildings (readers who have been following the Maher Arar story in Canada will soon hear more about other individuals who paid a heavy price for carrying the wrong kind of pamphlets, as new inquiries are likely to be launched by the Canadian government).
We now live in a society — in the West, that is — where absence of a reason for seeing something as threat is insufficient in and of itself to cancel one’s reaction of fear. Yes, the ad says “I’m a little teapot,” but what if it were secret code, a signal of some sort instructing Ahmed who works at the convenience store to detonate the ammonium nitrate he’s been hiding in his basement at the local Borders? Absence of evidence is no longer sufficient, for the architects of the “war on terror,” along with the thousands of minions who fill the halls of the intelligence agencies engaged in that war, have cultivated a climate of fear that transcends reason. Networks and hidden cells are out there, bent on the destruction of the West. In that climate, one’s critical thinking has been hacked by the responsibility — told us by political leaders — to be watchful, to keep an eye open for potential threats (if people were serious about potential threats, the FBI would be receiving thousands of phone calls every time citizens saw a gas-guzzling SUV passing by). During my time as an intelligence officer working in the center that dealt with threats to the security of Canada, I had my share of such flags being raised by the public: conversations overheard, the nature and content of which was lost on the concerned citizen by virtue of that conversation being carried out in a foreign language; suspicious-looking men seen driving a minivan from store to store; suspicious-looking men filming subways stations, airports, shopping malls, Canada’s Wonderland, Disney World, etc. Citizens thought they were fulfilling their responsibilities as citizens, and in certain circumstances we cannot blame them for doing so, as fear has been hammered into them by politicians and the media, and some them may not necessarily have very high levels of education, or may not have traveled much or been exposed to other cultures.
But when the intelligence and law-enforcement agencies fail to act as filters to what actually consists of a real potential threat and uncritically assumes that every threat — even the absence of one — is worthy of consideration, when every such threat is then communicated, in the form of trace requests, to allied agencies, then we can say that the system as a whole has failed. And it has.
It is easy to read an article such as the one I refer to above and laugh at the poor individuals who were scared by the Arabic version of “rock, paper, scissor.” But the truth is, many of the so-called specialists and experts who are paid with taxpayers’ money to deal with these matters fare no better, for they, too, have been subjected to and transformed by the climate of fear and making matters worse they work in institutions that actually encourage this uncritical view of reality, as it not only justifies their existence but furthermore ensures that by taking every threat seriously it they can avoid being not acting when the threat turned out to be real — a police euphemism for agencies covering their recently bloated asses. The examples of institutional failure at critical though within the intelligence community are rife and often provide a good laugh, but for obvious reasons I am not allowed to put them in writing.