Fear Eats the Soul | The Nation


Fear Eats the Soul

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Let us return, now, to the mountain, which proposes another time scale, and observe from there. The victors, with their historically unprecedented superiority of weapons--the victors who were bound to be victors--appeared frightened. Not only the gas-masked Marines, dispatched to a problematic country and undergoing real desert storms, but faraway spokespeople in the comfort of the Pentagon, and, above all, the coalition's national leaders, appearing on TV or conferring, conspiratorially, in out-of-the-way places.

About the Author

John Berger
John Berger's collection of essays, The Shape of a Pocket, was recently published by Pantheon.

Many of the errors committed during the early stages of the war--soldiers being killed by friendly fire, civilian families being blown to pieces at point-blank range (an operation called "killing the vehicle")--were said to be caused by overnervousness.

Any of us can become terrified at any moment if fear overlays us. The leaders of the New World Order, however, would seem to be married to fear, and their subordinate commanders and sergeants to be indoctrinated from above with something of the same fear.

What are the practices of this marriage? Day and night the partners of fear are anxiously preoccupied with telling themselves and their subordinates the right half-truths, half-truths that hope to change the world from what it is into something it is not. It takes about six half-truths to make a lie. As a result, these leaders become unfamiliar with reality, while continuing to dream about and, of course, to exercise power. They continually have to absorb shocks while accelerating. Decisiveness becomes their invariable device for preventing the asking of questions.

Married as they are to fear, they cannot come to terms with, or find a place for, death. Fear keeps death out, and so the dead desert them. And people deserted by the dead lose any sense of continuity. The past becomes obsolete and the future frenetic and short-term. The present is reduced to a sequence of instants, unrelated to the experience of past and future lives. Those deserted by the dead find themselves alone on the planet. Married to fear, deserted by the dead, they still wield incomparable power, both economic and military, and are terrifyingly dangerous. But, in the long run, can their power survive? Ask the dead and the not-yet-born. I doubt it.

On the twenty-third day of the war the chaos increased exponentially. The regime had toppled. Saddam Hussein could not be found. The aerial bombardments continued their havoc wherever Gen. Tommy Franks saw fit. And on the ground in Baghdad and some other liberated cities, everything was being pillaged, stolen, dismembered, not only from deserted ministries but from shops, houses, hotels and even hospitals, to which more and more maimed and dying were being hopelessly carried. Some doctors in Baghdad took up guns to try to defend their services and equipment. Meanwhile, the forces who liberated and traumatized the city stood by, astounded, nervous, doing nothing.

The scenario for the jubilant toppling of the statues was foreseen in the Pentagon and studiously prepared for, because it contained a half-truth. The whole truth of what is happening in the cities was not foreseen. Mr. Secretary Rumsfeld has referred to the chaos as merely an "untidiness."

When one tyranny is overthrown not by its subjects but by another tyranny, the result risks being chaos, because it will seem to the people that the ultimate hope of any social order has been totally destroyed, and then the impulse to seize for personal survival takes over and looting begins. It is as simple and terrible as that. Yet the new tyrants know nothing about how people in extremis behave. Their fear stops them from knowing. They are familiar only with half-truths addressed to clients.

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