The Politics of Emergency versus Public Time: Terrorism and the Culture of Fear

Henry A. Giroux

Five months after the horrific terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, President George Bush announced in his State of the Union Address on January 29, 2002 that the ‘war against terror is only just beginning’ and that if other governments exhibit timidity in the face of terror, America will act without them. Claiming that the security of the nation was his first priority, Bush not only proclaimed a war without end, but also suggested that the United States would act unilaterally throughout the world to enforce what he called ‘our responsibility to fight freedom’s fight.’ Appealing to what he described as a resurgent sense of unity and community in the country, Bush announced that American citizens were no longer willing to simply live their lives devoted to material pursuits and a ‘feel good’ attitude. According to Bush, in the aftermath of the events of September 11th America had been reborn with a renewed sense of patriotism, community, and public-spiritedness. Painting the United States as a beacon of civilization, Bush urged Americans to perform voluntary acts of public service, be alert for signs of potential terrorism at home, support massive increases in the military budget, endorse an energy policy that involves more drilling for oil, accept a huge tax cut for the rich and major corporations, and tolerate the suspensions of some basic civil liberties and freedoms, especially those granting more power to the police, FBI, CIA, and other security forces.

While Bush and his associates are quick to remind the American people that much has changed in the United States since September 11th, almost nothing has been said about what has not changed. I am referring to the aggressive attempts on the part of many liberal and conservative politicians to undermine those public spaces that encourage informed debate, promote a remorseless drive to privatization, and invoke patriotism as a cloak for carrying out a reactionary economic and political agenda on the domestic front while simultaneously cultivating an arrogant self-righteousness in foreign affairs in which the United States positions itself uncritically on the side of purity, goodness, and freedom while its opposition is equated with the forces of absolute evil.

As a wartime president Bush enjoys incredibly high popular ratings, but beneath the inflated ratings and the President’s call for unity there is a disturbing appeal to modes of community and patriotism, buttressed by moral absolutes in which the discourse of evil, terrorism, and security work to stifle dissent, empty democracy of any substance, and exile politics ‘to the space occupied by those discontented with the West, and dispossessed by it’ (Hesse & Sayyid, 2001: 3). Shamelessly pandering to the fever of emergency and the economy of fear, President Bush and his administrative cohorts are rewriting the rhetoric of community so as to remove it from the realm of politics and democracy. In doing so, Bush and his followers are not only concentrating their political power, they are also pushing through harsh policies and regressive measures that cut basic services and public assistance for the poor, offer school children more standardized testing but do not guarantee them decent health care and adequate food, sacrifice American democracy and individual autonomy for the promise of domestic security, and allocate resources and tax breaks to the rich through the airline bail out and retroactive tax cuts. Under the auspices of a belligerent nationalism and militarism, community is constructed ‘through shared fears rather than shared responsibilities’ and the strongest appeals to civic discourse are focused primarily on military defense, civil order, and domestic security (Anton, 2000: 29). Within the rhetoric and culture of shared fears, patriotism becomes synonymous with an uncritical acceptance of governmental authority and a discourse ‘that encourages ignorance as it overrides real politics, real history, and moral issues’ (Said, 2002: 5). The longing for community seems so desperate in the United States, steeped as it is in the ethic of neoliberalism with its utter disregard for public life, democratic public spheres, and moral responsibility, that in such ruthless times any invocation of community seems nourishing, even when the term is invoked to demand an ‘unconditional loyalty and treats everything short of such loyalty as an act of unforgivable treason’ (Bauman, 2001: 4). How can any notion of democratic community or critical citizenship be embraced through the rhetoric of a debased patriotism that is outraged by dissent in the streets? What notion of community allows Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, to wrap himself in the flag of patriotism and moral absolutism while excoriating those who are critical of Bush policies? He writes: ‘This nation is now at war. And in such an environment, domestic political dissent is immoral without a prior statement of national solidarity, a choosing of sides’ (Beinart, qtd in Lapham, 2002: 7). Charges of unpatriotic dissent are not restricted to either protesters in the streets or to those academics that incurred the wrath of Lynne Cheney’s American Council of Trustees and Alumni for not responding with due Americanist fervor to the terrorist attacks of September11th. It was also applied to Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, when he offered a mild critique of President Bush’s plan to launch what appears to be a never ending war against terrorism. Trent Lott, the Republican leader, responded with a crude rebuke, suggesting that Daschle had no right to criticize President Bush ‘while we are fighting our war on terrorism’ (Rich, 2002: A27). It appears that the leadership of the Republican Party along with its strong supporters have no qualms about dismissing critics by impugning their patriotism. Tom Davis of Virginia, the head of the G.O.P.’s House campaign committee, branded those who criticize Bush’s policies as ‘giving aid and comfort to our enemies’ (Rich, 2002: A27). The Family Research council went even further by running ads in South Dakota ‘likening Tom Daschle to Saddam Hussein because the Senate majority leader opposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’ (Rich, 2002: A27). Community in this instance demands not courage, dialogue, and responsibility but silence and complicity.

Eric Hobsbawm has observed that ‘never was the word “community” used more indiscriminately and emptily than in the decades when communities in the sociological sense became hard to find in real life’ (Hobsbawm, 1994: 428). Maybe it is the absence of viable communities organized around democratic values and basic freedoms that accounts for the way in which the language of community has currently ‘degraded into the currency of propaganda’ (Lapham, 2002: 8). How else can one explain the outrage exhibited by the dominant media against anyone who seems to question, among other things, the United States support of friendly dictatorships, including Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, the PATRIOT Act with its suppression of civil liberties, or even suggest the need for a serious discussion about how United States foreign policy contributes to the poverty, despair, and hopelessness throughout the world that offers terrorist nihilism the opportunity ‘to thrive in the rich soil of exclusion and victimhood’ (George, 2002: 12). Actual democratic communities are completely at odds with a smug self-righteousness that refuses to make a distinction between explaining events and justifying them. As Judith Butler points out: ‘… to ask how certain political and social actions come into being, such as the recent terrorist attack on the U. S., and even to identify a set of causes, is not the same as locating the source of the responsibility for those actions, or indeed, paralyzing our capacity to make ethical judgements on what is right or wrong…. but it does ask the U.S. to assume a different kind of responsibility for producing more egalitarian global conditions for equality, sovereignty, and the egalitarian redistribution of resources’ (Butler, 2002: 8, 16). Such questions do not suggest that the United States is responsible for the acts of terrorism that took place on September 11th. On the contrary, they perform the obligatory work of politics by attempting to situate individual acts of responsibility within those broader set of conditions that give rise to individual acts of terrorism, while simultaneously asking how the United States can intervene more productively in global politics to produce conditions that undercut rather than reinforce the breeding grounds for such terrorism. At the same time such questions suggest that the exercise of massive power cannot be removed from the exercise of politics and ethics, and that such a recognition demands a measure of accountability and responsibility for the consequences of our actions as one of the most powerful countries in the world. As Jerome Binde observes, ‘Being able to act also means being able to answer for our actions, to be responsible’ (Binde, 2000: 57).

The rhetoric of terrorism is important not only because it operates on many registers to both inflict human misery and call into question the delicate balance of freedom and security crucial to any democratic society, but also because it carries with it an enormous sense of urgency that often redefines community against its most democratic possibilities and realized forms. Rising from the ashes of impoverishment and religious fundamentalism, terrorism, at its worst, evokes a culture of fear, unquestioning loyalty, and a narrow definition of security from those who treat it as a pathology rather than as a politics. In part, this is evident in Bush’s ‘war against terrorism’, which, fuelled by calls for public sacrifice, appears to exhausts itself in a discourse of moral absolutes and public acts of denunciation. This all-embracing policy of anti-terrorism depoliticizes politics by always locating it outside of the realm of power and strips community of democratic values by defining it almost exclusively through attempts to stamp out what Michael Leeden, a former counter-terror expert in the Reagan Administration, calls ‘corrupt habits of mind that are still lingering around, somewhere’ (Leeden, qtd in Valentine, 2001). The militarizing of community and the perpetuation of a harsh culture of fear and insecurity not only leads to both the narrowing of community and the ongoing appeal to jingoistic forms of patriotism in order to divert the public from addressing a number of pressing domestic and foreign issues, it also results in the increasing suppression of dissent and what Anthony Lewis has rightly identified as the growing escalation of concentrated, unaccountable political power that threatens the very foundation of democracy in the United States (Lewis, 2002: A27).

At the core of Bush’s notion of community and hyper-patriotism is a notion of temporality that detaches itself from a sense of public deliberation, critical citizenship, and civic engagement. Jerome Binde refers to this view of temporality as ’emergency time’ and describes it as a ‘world governed by short-term efficacy’, which under the imperatives of utter necessity and pragmatism, eschews long term appraisals, and gives precedence to the ‘logic of “just in time” at the expense of any forward-looking deliberation’ (Binde, 2000: 52). According to Binde, emergency time opens the way for what he calls ‘the tyranny of emergency.’ He explains:

Emergency is a direct means of response which leaves no time for either analysis, forecasting, or prevention. It is an immediate protective reflex rather than a sober quest for long-term solutions. It neglects the fact that situations have to be put in perspective and that future events need to be anticipated. Devising any durable response to human problem… requires looking at a situation from a distance and thinking in terms of the future.

(Binde, 2000: 52)

Lacking any reference to democratic collective aims, the appeal to emergency time both shrinks the horizon of meanings and removes the application of governmental power from the fields of ethical and political responsibility. Emergency time defines community against its democratic possibilities, detaching it from those conditions that prepare citizens to deliberate collectively about the future and the role they must play in creating and shaping the conditions for them to have some say in how it might unfold. Under such conditions, cynical reason replaces reasoned debate with the one way gaze of power and popular resistance to the ‘war’ is dismissed as ‘a demagoguery of the streets, while dictators are offered up to us as responsible representatives of their countries’ (Hesse and Sayyid, 2001: 3). But emergency time in the context of Bush’s ‘war against terrorism’ also rejects the radical secularism at the heart of a substantive democracy in favor of a religious vocabulary. The metaphysics of religious discourse dispenses with the task of critically engaging and translating the elaborate web of historical, social, and political factors that underscore and give meaning to the broader explanations for terrorism. Instead, the complexity of politics dissolves into the language of ‘crusades’, ‘infidels’, ‘goodness’ and ‘evil’. Under such conditions, as Steven Lukes and Nadia Urbinati point out: ‘A rhetoric of emergency has arisen in which a Manichean impulse is given free range, in which “our” (American? Western?) values are seen as threatened by an enemy that is seen as the incarnation of evil and variously identified as “fundamentalist” and “Islamist” as embodied in Al-Quaida and personified by Osama bin Laden’ (Lukes & Urbinati, 2001: 1).

It is the displacement of politics and the weakening of democratic public spaces that allows for religious ideology and excess to define the basis of community, civic engagement, and the domain of the social. Against this notion of emergency time, educators, cultural workers, and others need to posit a notion of public time. According to democratic theorist Cornelius Castoriadis, public time represents ‘the emergence of a dimension where the collectivity can inspect its own past as the result of its own actions,and where an indeterminate future opens up as domain for its activities’ (Castoriadis, 1991: 113-4). For Castoriadis, public time puts into question established institutions and dominant authority. Rather than maintaining a passive attitude towards power, public time demands and encourages forms of political agency based on a passion for self-governing, actions informed by critical judgement, and a passion for linking responsibility and social transformation. Public time renders governmental power explicit, and in doing so it rejects the language of religious rituals and the abrogation of the conditions necessary for the assumption of basic freedoms and rights. Moreover, public time considers civic education the basis, if not essential dimension, of justice because it provides individuals with the skills, knowledge, and passions to talk back to power while simultaneously emphasizing both the necessity to question that accompanies viable forms of political agency and the assumption of public responsibility through active participation in the very process of governing. Against Bush’s disregard for public discussion of his policies, his fetish for secrecy, his clamoring for a notion of patriotism that is synonymous with a mindless conformity, and his flaunting of Presidential power, public time gives credence to a notion of democracy that calls for the establishment of unbounded interrogation in all domains of public life. Democratic politics and viable notions of community are created and affirmed when public spaces are made possible that enable individuals and social movements to exercise power over the institutions and forces that govern their lives. Under such conditions, politics is not relegated to the domain of the other as a form of pathology, but is central to what it means to build vibrant public spheres and democratic communities (Castoriadis, 1997: 85-98).

What has become clear, both in Bush’s State of the Union Address and in the policies enacted by his administration, is that there is no discourse for recognizing the debts a democratic society has to pay to past generations and to fulfil its obligations to future generations. His tax cuts privilege the commercial interests of the rich over public responsibilities to the poor, the elderly, the environment, and to children. His call for military tribunals for trying non-citizens, his detaining of over 1200 Arabs and Muslims for extended periods in secrecy, and willingness to undermine the basic constitutional freedoms and rights by enhancing the power of the police and other enforcement groups, pose a grave threat to those civil liberties that are fundamental to a democracy. Edward Said argues more specifically that:

Bush and his compliant Congress have suppressed or abrogated or abridged whole sections of the First, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Amendments, instituted legal procedures that give individuals no recourse either to a proper defense or a fair trail, that allow secret searches eavesdropping, detention without limit, and, given the treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, that allow the US executive branch to abduct prisoners, detain them indefinitely, decide unilaterally whether or not they are prisoners of war and whether or not the Geneva Conventions apply to them — which is not a decision to be taken by individual countries.

(Said, 2002: 2)

Most importantly, Bush’s ‘war against terrorism’ camouflages how democracy is being undermined through its relentless attempts to depoliticize politics itself. What began as the demonization of political Islam has now been extended into the demonization of politics itself as Bush and his cohorts put forth policies which attempt to erase the possibility of imagining a democratic future, the democratic space of the social, the meaning of democratic community, or the practices that anchor democratic life. As Barnor Hesse and S. Sayyid insightfully observe:

Through such processes, politics seems exiled. While the centre is reoccupied by a naturalised world order, politics is proscribed from the domain of order itself. Paradoxically, cynical reason becomes a dominant ideology within an apparently post-ideological West. In a Western world apparently deprived of political alternatives to corporate capitalism, neoliberalism and global social inequalities, what once passed for politics has been exclusively transposed to the space occupied by those discontented with the West, and dispossessed by it.

(Hesse & Sayyid, 2001: 3)

By depoliticizing politics, the ‘war on terrorism’ becomes both an empty abstraction and a strategic diversion. Empty because terrorism cannot be either understood or addressed through the discourse of moral absolutes and religious fervor. Militarism does not get at the root of terrorism, it simply expands the breeding grounds for the conditions that give rise to it. Military intervention may overthrow governments controlled by radical fanatics such as the Taliban, but it does not address those global conditions in which poverty thrives, thousands of children die every day from starvation or preventable diseases, where 250 million are compelled to work under harsh conditions, or some 840 million adults are without adequate shelter and access to health care.1 As long as such inequalities exist, resistance will emerge and terrorism will be the order of the day. Not only is this a problem that will not be solved by dropping thousands of bombs on poor countries (with or without accompanying packets of food), it also requires us to rethink how the United States actually contributes to these conditions through its support of military dictatorships, its unilateral disregard for international coalitions, and its ongoing support for the ruthless policies of global neoliberalism. The rhetoric of ‘anti-terrorism’ cleanses Bush and his cohorts of the obligations of political and ethical responsibility on a global level by ignoring the complex bonds that tie the rich and the powerful to the poor and the powerless. Such ties cannot be explained through the language of a rabid nationalism, hyped-up patriotism, or religious zeal. As Judith Butler points out, fatuous moralism is no substitute for assuming responsibility for one’s actions in the world. She writes:

…moralistic denunciation provides immediate gratification, and even has the effect of temporarily cleansing the speaker of all proximity to guilt through the act of self-righteous denunciation itself. But is this the same as responsibility, understood as taking stock of our world, and participating in its social transformation in such a way that non-violent, co-operative, egalitarian international relations remain the guiding ideal?

(Butler, 2002: 19)

Moralism may offer Bush and his cohorts the ground of innocence, but it does nothing to further the dynamics of democracy or civic engagement and may, as John Edgar Wideman suggests, even serve to ‘terrorize’ those Americans it claims it is benefiting:

By launching a phoney war [Bush] is managing to avoid the scrutiny a first-term, skin-of its teeth presidency deserves. Instead, he’s terrorizing Americans into believing that we require a wartime leader wielding unquestioned emergency powers. Beneath the drumbeat belligerence of his demands for national unity, if you listen you’ll hear the bullying, the self-serving, the hollowness, of his appeals to patriotism. Listen carefully and you’ll also hear what he’s not saying: that we need, in a democracy full of contradictions and unresolved divisions, opposition voices.

(Wideman, 2002: 33-38)

If Wideman is correct, and I think he is, then Bush’s innocent posturing, wrapped as it is in the righteousness of the rhetoric of anti-terrorism, also provides a massive diversion from addressing those political issues at the heart of what it means to measure the reality against the promise of a substantive democracy. Bush commits us to the dark world of emergency time, a world divided between good and evil, one in which ‘issues of democracy, civil comity and social justice–let alone nuance, complexity and interdependence simply vanish’ (Barber, 2002: 17). In the name of ‘fighting freedom’s fight,’ he constructs a world view in which the growing gap between the rich and the poor is ignored, massive unemployment is disregarded, the war against youth marginalized by class and color does not exist, poverty and racial injustice becomes invisible, the folly of attacking the public sector is passed over, the shameful growth of the prison-industrial complex is overlooked, Enron is easily forgotten, and threats to the environment evaporate.

Bush’s notion of community depoliticizes politics and makes a sham of civic complexity and responsibility. If we are to challenge his policies, progressives need to reclaim a notion of politics that embraces a notion of public time, one that fosters civic engagement and public intelligence. This means at the least creating the conditions for rendering governmental authority accountable for its actions while also mobilizing the conditions for citizens to reclaim the power necessary to shape the regimes of power and politics that influence their lives on a daily basis. The greatest struggle Americans face is not terrorism, but a struggle on behalf of justice, freedom, and democracy for all of the citizens of the globe. This is not going to take place, as Bush’s policies will tragically affirm, by shutting down democracy, eliminating its most cherished rights and freedoms, and deriding communities of dissent. On the contrary, the struggle for democracy has to be understood through politics, not moralism, and if politics is to be reclaimed as the center of individual and social agency, it will have be motivated not by the culture of fear but by a passion for civic engagement and ethical responsibility, and the promise of a realizable democracy.


1 These figures are taken from Pogge (2000: 37-43).


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Henry A. Giroux holds the Waterbury Chair Professorship at Pennsylvania State University. He is currently the Director of the Waterbury Forum in Education and Cultural Studies at Penn State University. His most recent books include: Channel Surfing: Racism, the Media and the Destruction of Today’s Youth (St. Martins Press, 1997), Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope (Westview/Harper Collins 1997), The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999); Stealing Innocence: Youth, Corporate Power, and the Politics of Culture (St. Martin’s Press, 2000) and Impure Acts: the Practical Politics of Cultural Studies (Routledge, 2000), Public Spaces/Private Lives: Beyond the Culture of Cynicism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), and Breaking Into the Movies: Film and the Culture of Politics (Basil Blackwell, 2002).