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Essay

From Cold War To Code Red, The Aura of Fear

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2004; Page C01

Back then, there were blacklists. Now, we've got no-fly lists. Then, we had the Doomsday Clock. Now, we've got the looming Code Red terror alert.

Schoolchildren trained a generation ago to duck for cover under their desks (as if that was protection from a nuclear bomb!). Now, they are parents who fine-tune their families' terror evacuation plans (and wonder: Can we really escape?).


Now: Police patrol a Metro car in August after a security alert. (Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

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We live once again in an era defined by fear, just as we did through nearly half the 20th century, during the Cold War.

Though it's been only three years since the Sept. 11 attacks launched the United States onto a war footing, it's clear, from all indications, that the war on terror is likely to go on and on. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, compared the war on terror to the Cold War recently and noted the latter conflict took 40 years to win.

In three short years, we've already become accustomed to fear.

In profound ways, fear is redefining our lives, as well as the paradigm of our politics. Unlike the presidential election of 2000, this time we're voting with fear as a backdrop. Fear factors into our daily plans. We're reflexively responding to it, expecting the worst, as when that pepper spray episode on K Street last week seemed like a terror incident and sent the stock market tumbling. From fear.

Fear is real, even justified. But it is also a problem, some scholars say, for one of the greatest lessons of the Cold War is that we should be afraid, very afraid, of the things fear can make a society do. Just say the word: McCarthyism.

During the Cold War, we feared the "fellow travelers" in our midst. Now, we fear "enemy combatants." And the Constitution has again become a battleground over the rights of all citizens in order to protect us from a few.

But the fear of this age is very different.

"I think things are worse now, because it's the fear of the unknown," says Jerrold M. Post, professor of psychiatry and political psychology at George Washington University. He is former director of the CIA's Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior.

Our enemy today is very different from the communists of the old Soviet Union, he says.

"We knew them, and we knew we could count on their sensibility that they didn't want to be destroyed any more than we did."

But now, the enemy is a shadowy global network of Islamic militants whose hatred knows no national boundaries, who don't abide by the rules of war, who could be anywhere -- even right here -- ready to strike again. And unlike the Cold War days, when mutually assured destruction (known, yes, as MAD) kept both us and the Soviets from going over the nuclear edge, our enemies these days want nothing more than to die, taking mass casualties with them.

And so we wait. It's a matter of when, not if. We focus our fear everywhere, which means nowhere, since we don't know what we're looking for. So Metro plans evacuation drills. So the World Bank and IMF still soldier on under Code Orange, as targets. The days of duct tape may be behind us. But we need only reflect today on life and the tragic loss of it to realize that fear has unpacked its bags and moved into our homes.


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