What makes Americans afraid?

9/11 has become the emblem of all our fears not because it represents a national security failure or because it exposed poorly crafted foreign policy.

From our perspective the most terrifying dimension of the threat posed by al Qaeda is not its destructive capacity but its operatives’ casual disregard for life. Like moths drawn towards a flame, death offers for them some irresistible allure.

In contrast, we see our own fear of death as a healthy expression of our love of life. Indeed we see death as signifying more than anything else the termination of life.

There’s a contradiction here which reveals the fundamentally secular nature of contemporary American society — a secularism masked by the ostentatious religious identifications to which so many Americans cling.

Strip away their diverse forms of worship and their often conflicting systems of belief, and each religion has at its core the same function: it provides the individual and society a means to face mortality and render it meaningful.

If you want to determine the degree from which any society has moved away from its historical religious orientation, there is no easier way than to look at how it handles death.

A death-denying society is one that finds little comfort in the promise of an afterlife. It invests most of its faith in this world in the absence of any real confidence about what might follow.

Consider the example of America’s religious fanatic-of-the-week, Pastor Terry Jones. In the face of death threats he professed his willingness to die in defense of his beliefs, yet he did so with a 40-caliber pistol strapped to his waist.

We say “One Nation Under God” as though we are guided by a transcendent perspective, yet more often we seem to worship the nation itself.

The holy book in which so many Americans profess their faith says quite clearly:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal;
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.

This, like so many others, is a throughly un-American Biblical teaching and where American values and Biblical values conflict, the outcome is predictable.

Our fears reign in this land — the place we have stored all our treasures — which is why, however much we spend on defense, we still struggle to feel safe.

We could instead endeavor to become less afraid.

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11 thoughts on “What makes Americans afraid?

  1. giovanna

    the conclusion to your excellent essay seems reluctant to complete the thought and say “and more spiritual,” or “more practicing of the religiosity we seem so attached to.” but i think that’s where your essay points, and i could not agree more. thanks for writing this.

  2. Paul Woodward

    As an atheist I’m less inclined to encourage anyone to be true to their religion than I am to simply say: be true to yourself and bring your actions and beliefs into accord.

  3. estebanfolsom

    the only thing i am afraid of
    is we [all of us] losing this chance
    to influence what happens next

    we are on a hair-trigger here
    and we need to remove the hand
    from the revolver- pointed at our heads

    american roulette – everyone gets shot
    all the chambers are filled
    and no one gets out alive

    and we think we can lead
    the ‘free world’

    -hypocrisy –
    the height of folly

    time to re-think this
    and we better hurry up

  4. dickerson3870

    RE: “What makes Americans afraid?” – Woodward
    SEE: “The Most Terrifying of All Battles: When the Enemy Lies Within Ourselves” ~ By Arthur Silber, 08/16/10
    (excerpt)…Those who repeatedly and furiously denounce the “Ground Zero mosque,” as they speak in horrified tones of the coming conquest of America by Islam, tremble before one possibility far more than any enemy they have chosen to identify. Their capacity for more accurate perception and even minimal self-awareness is altogether obliterated by their greatest of all fears: that they might have to hold up a mirror to their own souls and see the diseased, twisted nature of what they have allowed to permanently reside there.
    Such people cannot be reasoned with, and it is futile to try. But we should always remember what it is that actually drives them to such destructive rage, and that it has nothing at all to do with the source they are willing to identify. This pattern is, of course, as old as humankind. What we loathe in ourselves, we place in others. Then we destroy those others, believing we thus destroy what we loathe.
    But the enemy still lives, inside us. Until that is understood, the battle will never end, nor will the destruction, the suffering and the death…
    ENTIRE COMMENTARY – http://powerofnarrative.blogspot.com/2010/08/most-terrifying-of-all-battles-when.html

  5. Steve

    I think you are right that many American Christians are deeply insecure about their professed belief in an afterlife. Their religion is really very utilitarian in nature, and therefore quite shallow. Indeed, I think that most popular piety conceives atheism functionally as the lack of belief in an afterlife. Why bother believing in God at all if there is no afterlife? Perhaps this is the reasoning of many atheists on the other side of the divide as well. The belief in an afterlife looks like ridiculous wish-fulfillment. Therefore, there is no God. Perhaps the divide is not all that great.

    But one needn’t believe in an afterlife to believe in God. And one need look no further than the Bible for proof of this. The idea of an afterlife makes no real appearance in the Biblical literature until late in the Biblical period.

    To believe in God, one need only experience the world as a beautiful place. Atheists have a “problem of beauty” which is exactly analogous t0 the traditional theological problem known as the “problem of evil”.

    I guess that is peripheral to the main point of your post, which is a contrast between the weak American belief in the afterlife and the fervent belief apparently displayed by the al Qaeda operatives. Could insecurity of belief sometimes manifest itself in such a fervent manner?

  6. Zeke

    Personally, I think 9/11 had nothing to do with the “disregard for human life”. The issue is we lay waste to other nations and, for the first time, waste was laid on us. Our regard for human life is a myth and was from the very beginning. In fact, Christianity is largely myth and, most certainly, old testiment through and through.

    I find it amusing that after all our so called “progress” the world remains deeply involved in the religious wars that supposedly ended long ago. We never emerged from the Dark Ages, we simply replaced candles with electric lights.

  7. Vince J.

    9/11? Be very afraid! It was an inside job!!!
    Just check ‘Architects for 9/11 truth’ analysis of the collapse of WTC1,2 and 7.

  8. Philip Dennany

    Vince is Correct. The very first video I saw of the “collapsing” WTC buildings, it was obvious that 9-11 was something entirely different than the government was telling us. Our own corrupted government leaders instill fear and terror to gain power over us and disregard our constitutional laws and our rights and make wars of plunder for elite gain.

  9. DE Teodoru

    Thoughts on MY 9th 9/11 as a survivor of the first:

    First, as a Christian, I would say that since we all supposedly face the Lord in Judgment naked and alone with all our sins each on his own face, following Mr. Woodward’s advice is a wonderful idea. You live and die by your own self-judgment and the Bible ain’t no “how to” book. It is an opiate for the Jews and an after-the-fact self-imposition for the Christians wondering: since Romans are having such a hell of a good time, why shouldn’t we do so as well by dropping all these Judeo-Christians self-contradicting prohibitions? Instead of saying to their followers that Jesus lived among us as one of us– thus showing us how to struggle with moral issues as social animals– before we suffer pain, disease, and aging onto death, they made very political decisions and reverted to the old hellfire&brimstone garbage that totally contradicted what Jesus was all about. Jesus repeatedly said that we are all fundamentally our own judges and saviors and we must feel for others what we want them to feel for us. All religions have made that point only to be turned into observance-oriented excuses for killing professional clerical enemies over authority over the various churches. But at their source, all the founders of all the faiths were equally blessed with the sense that as social animals we must live with generosity&compassion for eachother, whether atheists or believers, for we all face daily each his own determination to be good or bad to the day we end life as ultimately each his own last living responsible judge&master. The rest is all commentary and canonic bureaucratism.

    And now to 9/11 that made us ALL blind, deaf and mute followers of a mentally deficient pompous dummy and the criminal ventriloquists that controlled his mindless mouth. Insisting that “they hate our freedoms,” Bush absolved us of our human tendency to ask: what about OURSELVES made 19 well educated young men with their lives ahead of them, and those who sent them knowing that retribution would destroy them, sacrifice their lives to dent our illusion of invincibility? Bush&Co saw it as an opportunity to offer us an alternative to introspection in “shock&awe” destroying them for it was their cunning evil minds that made 9/11 happen, not the avaricious irresponsible profit hunting of the corporate types running our airlines and our nation’s addiction to oil.

    In the same way, Israelis have been gradually brought to believe that the Arabs&Chriatians were killing Jews because of jealousy that they are God’s chosen people. Both they and we also were fooled into thinking that we’re both great peoples because we beat the Muslims instead of realizing that we only beat the Muslims because the Muslims are so technologically backwards and disunited. Had we realized the latter we would have appreciated that the Muslims could not possibly be so bad disunited&disabled forever thus making us superior forever? 9/11 taught us and Lebanon 2006 thought the Israelis that we can’t exploit and push Muslims around without them finding a chink in our armor and penetrating it.

    Yet, in contrast to all the assaults from Muslim-extremists Eurasia and Mideast suffered, America had long known Muslim Americans to be loyal and supportive of the America that treated them fairly and gave them equal opportunity. After 9/11 we abused them and sought to overcome our fears of alQaeda by bullying about the ever-loyal Muslim Americans. And now Obama stupidly wonders why an American born Muslim would devote himself so selflessly and skillfully to hurting the nation of his birth. No one sees the evils we helped Israel visit on the world and subterfuges we imposed on Arab lands in order to get their oil cheap. The fact of the imperial avarice and hateful insult we inflict on Muslims with our current “crusade”– guided by a small cabal of scrawny Zionist psychotics seeking their mensch-hood recognized by treating America as a mad dog on their chain– escapes our consciousness so the competence of Muslims in resisting us causes us bafflement&fear. They were not supposed to be so able, insist Israel and WashDC. But fact is we are a fallen corrupt power whose Congress is bought off with cold cash by the neocons to accept their notion that if it’s good for Israel, ipso-facto, IT MUST be good for the USA.

    Most of all we fear our realization that we followed an imbecile president and incompetent generals because “it ain’t my son going to war” in seeking cheap gas and campaign funds for Congress as if a mercenary army. Now we see that these Taliban “towel heads” we so derided are far cleaner than the Karzai Gov we imposed on Afghanistan and they are far more resilient that our forces sent in intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb. The Weakileaks of Pentagon secret files expose the corrupt and Bush-it war we fought for a decade (longer than any war) against Afghanistan to impose Karzai over the Afghans, making them fight like devils with the Taliban. We realize that our Iraq surge was a similarly corrupt corporate boondoggle for Bush’s corporate friends. We realize that we Americans refused to deny incompetent generals the ability to do with America’s mom&dad soldiers– OUR kids– what we would not allow them to do with our biological kids. We see that we are run by crooked legislators and there are no more imperial cloaks to hide all that. We realize that we have met the enemy and he is us…and so, now nine years later, we are afraid because our fish rots first at the top as does Israel’s and all the dedicated volunteer patriots we wasted in war can’t change that. We are afraid of us, not of alQaeda, as it never was anything but a reflection of the weakness in our corruption at the top that weakens us so that “towel heads” are beating us with all our machines of war. It’s the end of the second Rome a millennium later and we must wake up wiser and humbler than on 9/11 nine years ago. And now, totally out of fear of ourselves, it’s on to Iran led by the Israelis!

  10. anti amerikan

    “What makes Americans afraid?”
    generally, just a tap on the shoulder, then shout “boo” at them, and they shit themselves.

  11. Jo Houston

    When, courtesy of man-made technology, we are allowed to look deep into the Universe-into eternity perhaps, and see our place in it as a very minute ‘dot’, how can any intelligent being believe in the panoply of ‘gods’ designed largely in our own image to explain the human dichotomy of good v evil? What a wonderful world it could be if we dispensed with the ‘gods’ and concentrated on the here and now, and on humanity itself.

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