Paradise Lost Paranoia Has Undermined US Democracy
Part 2: Need for Enemies, at Home and Abroad
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the United States experienced a relatively relaxed decade, until hijacked jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center and destroyed parts of the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. The men at the controls were belligerent Islamists, whose ideas also formed an antithesis to American society.
They were foes of a liberal and individualistic way of life, and they yearned for a paradise where credit cards would be worthless. They were also the first to severely wound the United States in its own "homeland." They were the ideal enemy for the next wave of paranoia. The hour of the Carrie Mathisons of the intelligence world had arrived.
While far from all democracies are paranoid, virtually all dictatorships are. For dictators, paranoia helps shape and preserve their autocratic systems. Autocrats need an enemy -- always an internal enemy and sometimes an external one, too -- to legitimize violence and coercion, and to generate allegiance.
The Nazis are unparalleled in this art of hysterical governance. Their declared internal enemies were Jews, Communists, Social Democrats, the Sinti and the Roma, homosexuals and anyone who told jokes about Adolf Hitler. The external enemies were all the countries that Germany attacked, which was a large number, as well as the overseas democracies, especially the United States. For the Chinese party dictatorship, dissidents are the internal enemies, often people who express their criticism with a paintbrush, pen or laptop. Although China lacks an external enemy, it does have an aversion to Japan.
The United States cannot be compared with Nazi Germany or with China. Unfortunately, however, a paranoid democracy tends to use tools that are beneath a democracy, the tools of a dictatorship, and they include as much surveillance as possible.
US No Longer a Model of Democracy
Information is the most valuable thing in a paranoid world. Those who feel threatened want to know as much as possible about potential threats, so as to be able to control their fears and prepare preventive attacks. Even in the days of covered wagons, alertness was an important protection against attack. Before Sept. 11, the intelligence agencies were asleep at the wheel and overlooked many of the clues the attackers left behind during their preparations. One of the reasons agent Carrie Mathison is traumatized is that she let her guard down once, and she is determined not to let it happen again, even if it means breaking the law.
Now the intelligence services have developed a giant information procurement machine, which is also useful in industrial espionage. To ensure that nothing escapes their notice, they violate the privacy of millions and millions of people and alienate allied nations and their politicians.
Another form of paranoid information procurement is torture, used by American intelligence agencies to gain information about terrorists. Torture is the negation of democracy, freedom and human rights. If a democratic country allows itself to sink to the level of torture, it must already be extremely hysterical and anxious.
It isn't as if nuclear bombs were at issue. The aim of some of today's intelligence methods is to prevent attacks that could be very painful for America, but in truth do not threaten the American founding myths and are not capable of extinguishing the American paradise. Only the Americans themselves can do that. The fear aspect of freedom is destructive to freedom, because it allows the need for security to get out of hand.
While paranoia legitimizes a dictatorship, it can achieve the opposite effect in a democracy. The United States is no longer a model of liberal democracy. That much has been made clear in light of mass surveillance, torture, the extralegal detention camp at Guantanamo and an isolationist ideology that leads to author Ilija Trojanow being denied entry to the country, presumably because of his criticism of American policy.
Other nations also have their fears, but they lack the power to turn the world upside down. Power and paranoia are a dangerous mix.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Paranoia Has Undermined US Democracy
- Part 2: Need for Enemies, at Home and Abroad