Confronting our fears so we can confront the empire
By Robert Jensen
Published in Outlook India · March, 2003
I am finally ready to admit what for months I have kept hidden: I am terrified.
I am more scared than I have ever been in my adult life. For weeks now I have felt a new kind of free-floating terror at what has been unfolding, as the Bush administration has made it clear that nothing would derail its mad rush to war.
Until now, I have not spoken of it. In organizing meetings or talks to community groups or rally speeches, I held back. The task was to build the antiwar movement, and I worried that talking too much about my fear might undermine that. People need to feel empowered, hopeful, I told myself; we should be talking about the potential of the movement.
That hasn’t changed. We have to continue to build the movement, which has enormous potential over the long-term to turn this society away from war and profit, toward peace and the needs of people. We cannot abandon our commitment to the people of the world, the work of education and organizing that we all must do if we are to make good on that commitment.
But I no longer think we can build such a movement by suppressing or keeping quiet about this fear we feel. In the past few weeks I have seen this fear so clearly in the eyes of my friends, heard it in the nervous comments of strangers, and been surprised by it in the unease with which even many supporters of the war talked.
I knew it when this past weekend my father — a conservative, Republican small-town businessman and World War II-era veteran — tried to convince me that Bush wouldn’t really start a war, that he was bluffing, just being cagey. Even my father was scared of the plans of the man he voted for.
I think people all over the world whose capacity to feel has not been occluded by power or hate are feeling something like this. It is not a fear of terrorists or weapons of mass destruction or even necessarily of this particular war, as frightening as all those things may be. I believe it is a fear of something more difficult to pin down, a fear of the forces that will be unleashed when the United States defies the world and launches a war that — while couched in talk of protecting people from threats — is so obviously about projecting U.S. power to achieve a kind of world domination that was never possible before.
Bush and his advisers proudly announce that they have cast aside any commitment to collective security, real diplomacy, and international law. Will the United Nations survive? Will there be anything left of an international system when Bush and his gang are finished? Will there be any hope for the peaceful settlement of disputes? Of course none of these concepts has ever been fully implemented, and we all know that the international institutions have flaws. But will anyone feel safer in a world in which the law comes only from the blade of the American sword, permanently drawn?
This fear I feel is not just of power-run-amok but of an empire with the most destructive military capacity that has ever existed — an empire with thermobaric bombs and cruise missiles, cluster bombs and nuclear “bunker busters.” No matter how hard the government works to try to keep us from seeing the results of those weapons — and no matter how much the news media cooperate in that project — we understand how many civilians could die under the onslaught of these horrific weapons. They can censor the pictures, but not our imaginations.
This fear I feel is not just of the unchecked power of the United States but of the fact that Bush and his advisers seem to think they understand their own power and can control it. It is the arrogance of virtually unlimited power married to lifelong privilege. It is hubris, and in a nuclear world there is no sin that is potentially more deadly.
This is the fear that I feel, that I think so many of us feel. The Bush administration wants us to be afraid, but remain quiet about it. Our power will come not from denying the fear but in confronting, and overcoming, it. So, we must speak of it, not to scare others but to bring us closer together. Our only hope against the fear is in each other, in our organizing, in our resistance. And if we can confront our fears, we can confront this empire.
If you feel this fear and aren’t sure that, in the face of it, you can remain involved — or get involved for the first time — in the antiwar movement, all I can say is, “Where else will you go?” If we retreat into our private spaces, thinking we can hide, we will find out quickly that this fear will follow us everywhere.
Our only way out is together, in public, facing not only our fears but the fears that others will project onto us, and inviting them to join us. It will be painful. It will carry with it certain risks. But it is the only way we can hang onto our own humanity.
I am scared, and I need help. We all do. Let us pledge not to let each other down — for our own sake, and for the sake of the world.