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The Logic of Fear

Matthew Ryan The paranoia accompanying war’s mediated rhetoric erodes our sense of belonging

It is not quite a syllogism: ‘rogue states’ have weapons of mass destruction, terrorist organisations want weapons of mass destruction, Australia must now help disarm Saddam Hussein’s regime. My old philosophy tutor would not approve of John Howard’s argument; there seems to be something other than logic at work here. In his speech for the National Press Club, delivered from the security of the Great Hall in Parliament House, the Prime Minister set out his now familiar position on why his Cabinet has sent troops into a never-mentioned ‘war’ in Iraq and disregarded both the United Nations (a nest of self-interested spoilers) and the apparent will of the Australian populace (misguided do-gooders hoodwinked by rent-a-crowd lefties, probably lead by faceless and fashionable elites). A connecting term seems to be missing from Howard’s argument. The link between the Al Qaida and Iraq remains associative, hinging on a mutual support for Palestinian suicide bombers. This is then transposed to an implied material support, the possible supply of biological, chemical or radiological weapons to Al Qaida by Iraq. Echoing Washington’s pre-emption policy, the Prime Minister maintains that we have to act on implication and possibility because to do otherwise is to simply await disastrous proof of our fears in the form of a ‘Pearl Harbour situation’. We will not be presented with the much-promised smoking gun.

So we are now at war against a regime rather than a nation. As George Bush claimed in his address, the target is the group of ‘lawless men’ who rule Iraq — a distinction that John Howard also pushed in his speech. While Bush attempted to buy legitimacy for this qualification with pledges of aid and reconstruction, John Howard justified his war with the promise of liberation from the brutality of the regime. Saddam Hussein’s state is obviously a deadly burden on the Iraqi people but to attempt to act on this distinction amidst the ‘overwhelming force’ of US fire-power is to turn a dire situation into disaster. The fine qualification between people and state relies on the ‘smartness’ of military technology and a rigorous regulation of targeting in the battlefield. As we saw in the last Gulf War, neither of these can really be assured. The promise of liberation will mean nothing to those Iraqis whose loved ones are taken by waves of missiles and bombs.

To press home his justification for ‘military action’ (‘disarmament’, ‘force’, ‘armed conflict’ … call it anything but war) Howard presented some horrifying examples of torture. He wanted to reclaim the humanitarian argument from those who, in his words, had ‘climbed the moral ramparts’ in their opposition to the war. This was an attempt to make the needs of the Iraqi people viscerally apparent, to avoid any clinical distancing through language, to bring their plight close to us. But does this war not require that we keep these people at a distance? Our experience of what is done in our name is certainly mediated by information and broadcast technologies, enforcing their own formal packaging of the event; not to mention the filtering of reports from journalists ’embedded’ in military units. Even for some of the combatants the technology of war can allow a separation of action from result. The immediate bodily consequences of war, like news of the war, can be filtered through a computer or television screen. Through the same process we learn of Australia’s commitment to a ‘first strike’ from the disembodied image of the Prime Minister speaking within a secure room or via his voice made reedy in a downloaded sound-file. These mechanisms hold the bodily fact of war from us. We are left with only the suspicion of war, finding its way into our lives via the annoyance of petrol prices having climbed to over a dollar a litre.

As many commentators have noted, John Howard’s humanitarian argument is even less convincing when one recalls how he won the last election. His newfound compassion for the people of Iraq — ‘There is no chance of normalcy in a nation where torture and rape and genocide and killing are standard practice’ — was conspicuously absent from his view of those onboard the Tampa. In this contradiction, the Prime Minister shows that to justify his war all the distancing effects must be kept in place. These separations allow a politically safe recourse to the suffering of distant others while they make politically useful the ruthless control and hiding from view the suffering of more proximate others. In this we see Howard’s paranoid form of nationalism as the force that has displaced logic in his justifications. It explains the apparent contradiction of his past exploitation of populist xenophobia against his recent and deeply unpopular falling-in behind George Bush. Paranoid nationalism constructs the nation primarily as controlled territory, emphasising the border at the cost of community. The nation becomes a grouping bound by fear. In such an understanding of the nation, the views of the populace can only be heard when they speak the language of the borderland: exclusion, fear, control. When the people speak of community — inclusion, hope, cooperation — there is incomprehension on the part of the paranoid nationalist. The dominance of this paranoid discourse within the government can be seen in the complete absence of dissent within the coalition. But the evidence of massive anti-war rallies signals that the culture of fear has not displaced hope as the bond of community.

If such popular resistance to the idea of belonging-through-fear is to survive, then we must oppose the war not only as an act of violence against the Iraqi people but also counter its potential as a hook on which one might hang identity within our own society. John Howard proclaims, ‘Australia is a western nation. Nothing can, will or should alter that fact. As such, in this new world, we are a terrorist target’. For the paranoid nationalist we can, at last, know who we are again. After the discomforting ride of the last few decades through multiculturalism and reconciliation we can now define ourselves against a shadowy, yet omnipresent, other. In this framework even globalisation, the neoliberal circle that Howard’s conservativism had some trouble squaring, is recast as the realm of terrorism with repeated references to ‘borderless terror’. So the generalisation of the activity of the border, surveillance and control, into every corner of social life becomes less an act of protection of ‘who we are’ and more its very enactment. We are not securing our ‘way of life’; security becomes our way of life.

The immediate risk of this war is devastation for the Iraqi people. More generally, it signals a cultural shift that, through the manipulation of the distancing effects of technology, could lead the world into constant conflict and Australia into a radical diminishment of what it means to belong here.