A specter is haunting Europe after the Paris attacks of Friday, the 13th of November. We feel this specter of fear as we hypnotically click onto news sites for updates, analysis and pictures of the latest terror attacks. There is an awful sense that we have been here before — the patterns are all too familiar. The declaration by President François Hollande that France is at war bears an uncanny resemblance to that of President George W. Bush in 2001. Although it is too early to tell, what seems to be sinking in is an erosion of our sense of security and safety. The veil of order is shifting, opening us to the horrifying uncertainty of fear. While political analysts reflect on the international world order, European security and surveillance, what can philosophy offer with respect to fear? As it stands, quite a lot. Michael Weinman reminds us of the importance of moral sentiments and Chiara Bottici emphasizes the power of imagined communities such as “the West” in contemporary politics. For reflections on individual and state violence, one could turn to Albert Camus’s The Rebel (L’homme revolté) or Hannah Arendt’s On Violence. More recently, there is the work of André Glucksmann, Giorgio Agamben, and Judith Butler. But, for a sober meditation on the power of fear to affect our moral sense of self and innate desire for state security, Thomas Hobbes continues to offer much food for thought.

In trying to understand the terrorist attacks of 9/11, political philosopher Samuel Scheffler reflected on the Hobbesian vision of the state of war with great clarity. His article from 2006 entitled “Is Terrorism Morally Distinctive?” suggests that terrorism differs from individual and state-sanctioned acts of violence by affecting our moral sense of self in different ways. Terrorist attacks, by inflicting terror and panic lead to the unraveling of our everyday social fabric. This sense of “unraveling,” of things falling apart and dropping to pieces, results in the perception of disorder, insecurity, and frailty. The world still functions but seems to have been thrown radically off kilter.

The heart of Scheffler’s argument that terror unravels the ordinary and hidden social fabric of our lives hinges on the seminal insights of Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan. Fear hollows out the self: it destabilizes and destroys the person. Although related to anxiety and Angst, fear is not the same feeling. It is far more primal. When individuals lack the state, or “a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition of which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man” (Ch XIII, para 8). Scheffler emphasizes that the Hobbesian “state of war” is predominantly a state of mind. Indeed, it is precisely this inclination towards war that is visible in the US “war on terror.” As an American citizen who has been living in Estonia since 2001, I don’t remember a single year when I have not received a “terror alert” e-mail with the subject: “Security message for US citizens: continued security awareness.” Red alert, orange alert — every day the level of terror is measured as if on a thermometer of fear. The Hobbesian inclination to war is key to the fear that individuals feel when confronted with terror attacks on innocent civilians — at home or abroad. As Hobbes famously wrote, the ever-looming sense of war is similar to an inclination to rain. “For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together, so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the human disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace” (Ch XII, para 8). We don’t need to have “actual fighting” everyday, merely a tendency towards violence that could suddenly erupt like a sudden rain shower.

For Hobbes, the experience of fear is an extended period of time whereby we live in “continual fear and danger of violent death” (Ch XIII, para 9). Fear is not momentary, but a state of mind and tract of time. Only the Leviathan can relieve us from this condition and guarantee peace. According to Scheffler, “terrorists take these Hobbesian insights to heart.” Terrorism, as the very word suggests, aims to instill fear and terror into individuals and onto the existing social order. Scheffler calls our attention to the “corrosive power of fear.” Not only does sustained and continual fear corrode and unravel individuals, fear is contagious as it is “transmitted” over social media, chats, live updates and news reports. While we might disagree with the Hobbesian version of how the Leviathan enforces peace, his characterization of how we live our daily lives in fear of immanent danger rings true today. Locks, passwords, video surveillance and security guards — not to say anything about individual weapons — are part of the social fabric that we associate with the normalcy of security. Only when terrorists break through this tightly woven reality do we return to the state of war and perceive violence lurking at every corner. What seems particularly unsettling with terrorism is that we don’t detect a clear and present danger. Rather, we are caught within the inclination to danger and continual war. We are surrounded by mistrust and, as Scheffler writes, “the corrosive effects of fear.”

While terrorism uses violence, it is unique in the type of fear that it instills in people. While state terror tries to preserve and reinforce an existing social order through violence, terrorism seeks to destroy the social order. As Scheffler puts it, “Terrorism, as I understand it, standardly invokes the use of violence to generate fear with the aims of destabilizing or degrading an existing social order.” It is at this very moment when we feel our moral self beginning to unravel, that the door is open to demagoguery, facile conflation of terrorist and refugee and the dangerous polarization of friend versus enemy, us versus them. We have been down this road before and know that fear is precisely the aim of terrorism. The moral distinctiveness of terrorism is to promote the sense that the world is spiraling out of control into a state of anarchy and an indefinite period of war. How we respond to this horrendous violence is not only a question of international security, it is also about the moral contours of the self and our capacity for moral judgment.

2 thoughts on “The Specter of Fear

  1. Well said, and a reminder of how important a political thinker Thomas Hobbes was and still is.

    That said, I think that one lesson we need to learn after November 13, 2015 is how important it is to NOT be Hobbesian. Hobbes’s Leviathan begins from the premise that we need a political contract in order to be social and hence moral: the sovereign clamps down upon our “wolf-like” human nature (I think this is kind of unfair to wolves given Hobbes’s description of the State of Nature), basically sops up all our natural right to do what we want when we want for the sake of a measure of peace, secured by a social contract, that gives us some very limited measure of self-determination back. Put aside, for the moment, a human nature that is utterly incapable of comprehending, no less upholding, any kind of legitimacy-granting social contract. What’s wrong with this?

    I think it misunderstands the nature of human sociality — Hobbes, no less than Locke or Rousseau, thought of Society as a contrivance rather than something “natural” to humans, or as something that biologically emerges as we do — and thus it misconstrues human nature as something statically given rather than dynamically formed. Thus the “state of war” that Hobbes takes to be the essentially human “state of mind” may mean something very different to someone dynamically educated or trained in the virtue of courage, as, say Aristotle understood it.

    I often thought Aristotle was a good foil against Hobbes on many scores. (Quick disclaimer: I do not think one can be an Aristotelian any longer without many major qualifications: his sexism, his defense of slavery, his Greek provincialism, his lack of historical perspective, all merit quick rejection. But I think his thought retains some key insights that should not be forgotten — a reason that I often describe my own, pragmatic self as “reform Aristotelian.”) Consider what Aristotle says about Courage in Nicomachean Ethics 3.6-9. The problem is not fear per se — we should fear some things (e.g., disgrace) and not others — but there are certain kinds of things the courageous person should not fear, in particular, dying in a just cause. Viewed in this light, the panic expressed by the American Right-wing about Syrian refugees takes on new resonance. If it is just to take in Syrian refugees, both because they need and deserve refuge and because their plight is in part caused by our own reckless actions in Iraq, then the risk, however minuscule, that one or more of these properly vetted refugees might engage in terrorist actions on American soil is one that we are obliged to take. If one is afraid to risk death by doing so — and to reiterate, the risk is minuscule, if beside the point on Aristotle’s terms — then one is simply being a coward. Our right-wingers hate being called cowards and chicken-hawks, but, well, it is what it is.

    Aristotle describes courage as acting well, despite fear, in accordance with orthos logos (proper rationality) and the right motive. So, if you act in a way that seems courageous because you are being driven by passions like anger, you are not acting courageously at all. Your motive is all wrong. You are being led by your fear, and (here there is some contact between Aristotle and Hobbes) you are letting the exploiters of fear, the terrorists, have the upper hand. And I dare say, if the fulmination of the Republican presidential hopefuls and their legions of fans are any indication, it is anger, rather than courage, that is holding sway.

    After this point, Hobbes and Aristotle diverge. For Hobbes, state violence or state terror is, at base, the sole ground of social order: terrorism seeks to destabilize it by opposing it with “more of the same.” But for Aristotle, aside from force, there is another, more powerful form of political glue that holds society together: a commitment to common goods — values, virtues, excellences — that cannot be compromised without in a very real sense compromising the political society itself. I think that November 13, 2015 may prove to be, for the United States at least, as pivotal a moment as September 11, 2001 — a moment where we decide whether we have compromised ourselves out of existence, by letting fear, and the anger follows on its heels, get rid of the last vestige of real courage our polity has left.

    1. what is terrorism? IRA? Cromwell’s massacres in Ireland in the 17 C, Begin’s attacks on the British mandate authorities, the murder of Bernadotte or Rabin, the Algerian resistance to the French colonial regime, US bombing of Hanoi, Song My, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki…. Is there any sense in discussing this -ism?

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