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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

Past Issue
1 October 2001

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 2, No. 40

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Pandering to Fear

FDR said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Perhaps he should have added a warning about those who encourage fear and make it worse.

by Jerome F. Winzig

In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, three full years into the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Today we are in the grip of fear that our government, news media, and some corporations are encouraging.

The government is doing its part. An entire airport was evacuated this weekend because an airline employee took her family through an employee entrance; it seems they were late for their flight and wanted to evade long lines. Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. is still shut down, stopping 150 flights every day; however, none of the hijackings originated or had destinations there. National Guard troops are being called out throughout the country to patrol our airports, but their presence is less likely to intimidate would-be terrorists than it is to create a climate of intimidation for the rest of us.

The news media is doing its part. The Minneapolis Star Tribune describes how sales of guns and gas masks are up in a Minneapolis gun shop. The reporter neglects to point out the shop in question operates out of a former small service garage, and does not reveal the newspaper is fond of going to the proprietor for gun quotes because he likes the publicity and is only too willing to oblige with provocative phrases. Every network and television station seems to have come up with its own slogan and logo for this "new war."

Some corporations are doing their part as well. Even though the airlines are receiving billions of dollars in aid, they have laid off hundreds of thousands of employees, cut back on services, and eliminated all in-flight meals (except for first-class passengers) without reducing ticket prices across the board. While fare reductions on some routes have received much publicity, fares on many other routes remain exactly the same as they were before September 11.

In this current climate we need to remember that a healthy degree of skepticism is an essential ingredient for democracy to thrive. While citizens need to trust their government, they also need to remember that government by its very nature tends to overreach itself. America's founding fathers knew this. They were skeptical of the king's government and its policies on taxation, military affairs, immigration restrictions, and limits on civil liberties.

There is a real danger that government will overreach itself in this current climate. Congress has already passed a $40 billion emergency measure to fund reconstruction and strengthen the military. They have also passed a $15 billion bailout package for the airline industry. Many in Congress say they voted for this measure even though they thought it provided the airlines with too much aid. But instead of voting against the measure, they say we should appropriate additional billions for other industries and for laid-off employees in these industries.

No one doubts that the people of New York City and Washington, D.C. need assistance. But when billions of dollars are handed out in extreme haste, without regard for prudent safeguards on how it is spent, it is likely that some of the hands receiving those billions will not be deserving hands.

The horrendous events of September 11 have changed America in fundamental ways. But if we stifle our economy and hamper commerce, the resulting recession will hurt the poor in our country and around the world. If we impose new laws that restrict our liberties, the loss of freedom will undermine our democracy. If we are too liberal with government handouts, we will enrich those who are adept at getting rich from the government, and we will not help those who really need the aid. If we go to war against countries like Afghanistan, we will punish people who are already downtrodden. In so doing, we will bring comfort to those who organized the attacks of September 11, for they will have succeeded.

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