Like most powerful public statements, this one Franklin D. Roosevelt uttered during his first inaugural in 1932 was substantially on target. The nation was in the midst of a terrible depression. Soup lines had replaced hope. But Roosevelt’s buoyant spirit kept the nation from complete despair. While I was only 2, I recall stories from that year of my father and grandfather picking up lumps of coal at the rail yards, then selling them by the can full in our neighborhood. Throughout the land, fear stalked most households like a hungry beast.
While today there is room for optimism, there seems to be plenty around to keep us fearful. Electronic “chatter” from the remote nation of Yemen is enough to close embassies all over the Near East and leave us feeling threatened. A global war against terror, with no promise that it can or will end, is fear-inducing enough. A trip through any airport reminds us that we are one shoe or one pair of jockey shorts away from being attacked. So we shuffle stocking-footed through airport security lines.
Many believe that our enemy is Islam. After all, weren’t Osama and those who crashed airplanes into the twin towers Muslims? And isn’t Al-Qaeda a real threat? Muslim fundamentalism and its call for jihad poses a constant danger. What terrorist lurks in the nearest mosque?
Nevertheless, a hard look might tell us that Islam itself is not the enemy. Islamic fundamentalism is. Religious fundamentalisms of all sorts historically have been responsible for massive grief, bloodshed and terror. Christian fundamentalism produced the inquisition, the Salem witch trials, apartheid in South Africa and the perpetuation of slavery in the United States. And there is little hope for peace between Israel and Palestine as long as Israel must contend with its ultra–orthodox religionists supported by America’s Christian fundamentalists.
One must seriously wonder if our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have really made us and our world any safer. Perhaps they have been massive factories for the manufacture of enemies. There is ample evidence that the use of America’s drone aircraft has generated anti-American hatred with every strike. A well-targeted raid may have wiped out a couple of terrorists, but recruited a dozen more.
While many of us have been steady in our support of President Obama, we find distressing his continuation of policies that have produced a fearful world and a distrust of the United States. The result is the piling up of fear upon fear.
There are those who believe that the best way to overcome fear is the escalation of military power so that no one dares threaten us. So we have bases in more than 100 countries, and we spend more on “defense” than the next 17 nations put together. But with each strengthening of our iron fist we seem less secure, and the more fearful we become the more threatened are our personal freedoms. Fear without freedom is a bad bargain. The Federalist, James Madison, said it well: “Perhaps it is a universal truth, that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger, real or imagined, from abroad.”
People anywhere in the world with no power are managing to control the most powerful nation in history by keeping us afraid. Maybe FDR was right!