Yesterday in a press conference, President Bush mentioned the possibility of, oh, "World War III" in passing:
"I've told people that, if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
You can watch him say it here.
That's a good example of what could be called raising the stakes.
It's also a good example of the politics of fear, which we have seen a lot of since 9/11.
But hey. I'm a parent, I know fear. As a dad, I now live in a state of constant fear that some harm will come to one of my children.
My wife and I have an expression: "Little heart attacks every day." We say it to each other after we catch our breath and recover from one of the many near-accidents which occur in our home every day.
You see your child trip on the stairs, and his face just misses the end of that black iron, ornamental, oddly pointed piece at the end of the railing as he falls. Another child has a strange coughing fit in the middle of the night, which sounds like a horse munching on hay, and then is gone as fast as it started. Your doctor notices a slight heart murmur in your child during a routine check-up, and in the moments before he pronounces it "innocent" (wonderful word!) you have actually died, lived an eternity in some insufferably hot and sulphur-smelling place in which you adamantly don't belive, and then come back.
We know fear.
One time I was telling a friend about my dread that my children will, sometime, get injured. I was saying that I feel I should prepare now in some way, since the overwhelming onslaught of adrenaline and heartache which would hit me, if I got a call saying that... that... (my voice building to a fevered intensity here) my child had broken his leg in three places, might be too much!
My friend started laughing. I looked at him blankly. I asked why he was laughing.
He said, "I can see you're worried. I've never actually heard of a leg breaking in three places at school or anywhere else. I would be worried too!"
Oh I can imagine specifics, let me tell you. And I do.
So what you got, Bush?
Fear? World War III? What's that to me? What's that to any parent?
But the other thing a parent knows is that you can't get too hung up on your fear. You have to let your child take risks (within reason), wander off to play, investigate new things. In short you have to let your most loved little ones find their own way in the world. And it starts early.
Sometimes I have to remind myself to back away when I'm standing too close and commenting on every little step they take on a play structure. "How about sitting down on the bench and just watching?" I have to remind myself. And so I sit, and they're fine. Maybe some sand gets in someone's eye. Maybe someone is too scared to go down the slide and gets shoved out of the way by another kid. Big deal. They learn how to wipe the sand out or get out of the way faster.
So there is a balance. Fear plays a role in motivating us to protect and moniter our kids. But we also need to resist our fear. Resist our urge to control.
And this is the insight that perhaps our experience as parents tells us about the Bush administration's use of the politics of fear. It is motivated partly by an urge to control. (It is not only motivated by an urge to protect. And it is not only a cynical election strategy either. Though it is both of these too.)
The politics of fear's deeper motivation, I think, is the urge to control, albeit presented in the form of a humble concern for the safety and simple well-being of others.
Since at least his time in the Nixon administration as chief of staff, Cheney (along with his pal Rumsfeld, who was then Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity) have sought to expand the power of the Executive Branch. They watched in despair as Congress dismantled the levers and knobs which they and others had manipulated in Nixon's White House. They determined to do something about it.
This urge to expand the power of the Exectutive Branch took wing, during the Reagan and Bush years, in a a catchy legal theory called "The Theory of the Unitary Executive." During George W. Bush's years in the White House we have seen its effect: signing statements, expanded Executive privilege, a general disregard for consultations with Congress, the frequent use of interim appointments, and of course a shrugging off of concerns about the politicization of hiring practices at the Justice Department under Alberto Gonzales.
Is it a coincidence that this attempt to expand the power of the Executive, this urge to control, has occurred at the same time that we have witnessed the use of the politics of fear? Smoking guns as "mushroom clouds," equations of domestic dissent with "emboldening" the enemy, casual talk of "World War III" -- all of this is directly connected with the urge to control.
And what lies behind this urge to control?
As parents, we know. It is to avoid messiness, the unexpected, accidents of all kinds. When you ask yourself what is at the bottom of it, I think you will agree.
Take a moment, if you will. Really ask yourself. What is it that lurks behind your own occasional, manageable, but never completely absent urge to control the lives of your children, your urge (which you overcome every day, and will overcome every day for the rest of your life) to have them always in your arms, home-schooled, safe from the influences and dangers of the world?
What really is there, I think, behind this urge, is a flat-out terror of disease and decay and injury and... death.
It goes deep down to our amygdala, that little part of our brain that we share with animals and reptiles alike.
Picture a lizard sitting on a rock. A shadow moves over it. It's eyes send an signal to the visual part of the brain, and then that part send a signal -- ping -- to the amygdala. The amygdala sends a strong signal back: Must. Get. Control. Now! And the lizard is off and running. That's about the whole of what's going on in America these days.
So perhaps what we really need to say to Bush and Cheney in their final 15 months in office is this: How about sitting on the bench for a while?
Do your preparation, bring lunch, check for mean kids, keep an eye out for sharp objects, and then just watch. We're fine. It's sunny out.
After a while, you might even find yourself smiling, Mr. Cheney.