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Experts call venting opinions a response to vulnerability
By JONATHAN CURIEL
San Francisco Chronicle

 

August 12, 2006
Saturday AM


Within hours of the news that authorities had disrupted an alleged plot to blow up U.S.-bound commercial airlines, liberal bloggers and commentators attacked the announcement, saying it was part of a plan to derail the political momentum of Democratic candidates such as Connecticut's Ned Lamont.

"It's only a matter of time before this latest 'assault on our freedoms' turns out to be a big fat hoax like EVERY SINGLE OTHER major terror alert there has been," wrote one critic at thinkprogress.org. "I give it a month."

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At the other end of the political spectrum, conservative bloggers and commentators also went on the attack. At idiotfreeamerica.net, a writer said he was "taking the opportunity to offer a heartfelt 'screw you' to all the apologists, liberals, naysayers and crybabies in this country who want to think it's all our fault. (Terrorism is) here, it's not going away until we stomp on the serpent's head, and maybe you'll change your tune when it's your kid at ground zero."

On the left and the right, finger-pointing, pontificating and conspiracy-theorizing reached a fever pitch Thursday. Experts offered several explanations, but an underlying theme was that such rhetoric offers Americans a way to channel the profound sense of loss of control represented by another terror threat on U.S. targets - or even U.S. soil.

The lack of attacks in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, has actually increased some people's mistrust of the Bush administration, and Thursday's events gave them an opportunity to vent their frustration, said Mark Fenster, a University of Florida law professor and author of "Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture."

Some conspiracy theorists believe the U.S. government was at least complicit in the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Fenster said.

"The fact we haven't had an attack since 9/11 might in and of itself strangely enough add credence to (their) conspiracy theories," he said. "If you think that 9/11 was not about terrorism but about something else, the fact that it's been five years since then demonstrates that it's not about terrorism - that it was merely a one-off effort by the Bush administration to accomplish certain goals."

A terrorist attack "seems as if it's more controlled and controllable if it's only happened once in the last five years," Fenster said.

Some liberal conspiracy theorists believed the Bush administration used terrorist warnings in 2004 to scare people into voting against Democratic contender John Kerry. On Tuesday, the anti-war Lamont scored a major victory in Connecticut's Democratic Senate primary against incumbent Joe Lieberman, who supports Bush's campaign in Iraq.

Last week, Ohio University and the Scripps Howard News Service published a poll that showed 36 percent of Americans think the U.S. government wanted the Sept. 11 attacks to happen so it could instigate a war in the Middle East.

The war against the Taliban, begun in the months after the attacks, gave Americans a sense of retribution for Sept. 11, but the war in Iraq, the subsequent unsteadiness in Afghanistan, and the stream of terrorist actions in Indonesia and elsewhere have erased Americans' sense of control, said Troy Zimmer, a professor of sociology at California State University Fullerton who has done research on society and terrorism. Thursday's news only fuels many Americans' vulnerabilities, Zimmer said.

"Americans used to feel comfortable being in America - the Nazis couldn't get us, the Japanese couldn't get us, the commies couldn't get us - so when the Trade Center happened, it legitimized our worst fears: We're not safe," Zimmer said. "The irony is that you're more likely to get killed on a freeway than by a terrorist. But it doesn't have that drama or that sense of overwhelming tragedy that strikes out of nowhere and affects so many people. They want to feel safe and comfortable.

"It's like what Joseph Goebbels used to say: 'The easiest lie to tell is the one that people want to believe,' " Zimmer continued. "And that includes lying to ourselves. When there were no repeated attacks, we began to feel safe again, but then - boom - (the alleged new plot) happens and it throws off your illusion that you really are safe."

Steps by U.S. authorities to increase security at airports won't have a serious impact on Americans' sense of security, Zimmer said. "No matter what the government does, it's going to wreak havoc with the public's psyche," he said. "It's a catch-22. If the government doesn't take the precautions, it's like they're not doing enough. If they do take extreme precautions, it's like, 'My God - it must be more dangerous than I knew.' It doesn't deal with what's really bothering people, which is, 'I'm at risk.' "

 

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