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Flee, fight or freeze
In the natural world, there are two kinds of responses to imminent threats: either flee or fight. Most of the time, in order to maximize chances of survival, the decision has to be made by individuals or groups in less than a split second. On one hand, the option to flee is motivated by this immediate assessment. It has, of course, an important fear factor. On the other hand, the option to fight seems brave on the surface, but intense momentary fear perhaps had to be overcome by a massive adrenaline rush. Fear is a primal and powerful emotion that is essential for survival, but it can also be used as a tool to control people through mental, emotional and even physical paralysis.
There is a third behavioral option when fear completely paralyzes the individual or a group: it is the freeze option, similar to the imaginary sense of the impossibility to act or react for someone going through a deep clinical depression. As a collective or a nation, this freeze or depressed state when facing danger is also possible. Eighty years ago, with the exception of General Charles de Gaulle and a few men who decided to flee to carry on the fight, France capitulated to the German enemy. France froze and became trapped in the ignominy of a collective depression that was the collaboration by the Vichy government.
In human society, during the barbaric lunacy that has been called the art of war, many substances have been used in history to make soldiers less fearful before combat. Drinking alcohol is an obvious one in Europe; chewing coca leaves for South American native tribes; smoking or eating hashish in the Middle-East and Asia — this concentrated form of cannabis is the etymological origin of the word assassin; more recently, during World War II’s spectacular German Blietzkrieg 1940 attack on France, German troops were given the powerful methamphetamine Pervitin. Naturally, the notion of the fearless master-race Nazi soldiers was nothing but a mythology! The intrepid soldiers of the Reich and their beloved Furher, Adolf Hitler, had the fearlessness of crystal-meth addicts. Pervitin kept Nazi troops awake and fighting for days and nights, and increased their aggressive behavior.
Of course, one cannot reduce the apparent fearless madness of the entire German nation during World War II to the massive consumption of Pervitin. What was probably the most sophisticated propaganda machine of the time had been put together by the Nazis; it had been brainwashing the minds of Germans, young and old, for almost a decade. Hitler and co. spent about 10 years molding a sophisticated and cultured society into their ideological monstrosity with the mythology of the purity of blood, master race, and crucially the invention of Jews as evil, depraved and subhuman personified. If this was possible in an advanced society like Germany circa 1930, one must consider that such a gruesome turn of events is possible anywhere at any time, as madness can be a contagious disease.
Fear of other cultures is a crucial component of racial hatred. Once a group of people like the Jews in Nazi Germany or the Africans during the slave trade to the Americas have been thoroughly dehumanized, it becomes easy, almost trivial, to torture and kill them. All propagandists are psychologists. Therefore they understand that their manipulation of fear gives birth to powerful dark impulses. A fear of abandonment as a child can later bring about morbid jealousy and various sociopathic behaviors. A fear of destitution drives the compulsion to greed. Collectively, fear can be a giant web of invisible chains that enslave a society in a psychological straight jacket. In this regard, September 11, 2001 and its aftermath was a turning point, and to some extent the Western world has been conditioned to live in fear ever since.
The war of terror
Putting aside the inside-job narrative, what matters is how crises are used. The net benefit of 9/11 for some was to create a constant sense of uncertainty for the population, and cynically a jackpot for the military-industrial complex. It was the notion that the enemy could be lurking anywhere. The war on terror was, and still is, a conceptual war: an absurd Orwellian war without end because it is supposed to fight diffuse groups of people called terrorists whose only common ground is the use of fear as a weapon. Because fear breeds more fear, the 20-year conceptual war made people, almost worldwide, believe security was more important than personal liberty. The war on terror made people slaves of fear, and they were told it was for their own good.
Do not blame only Donald Trump for the current authoritarian police state in the US. The Department of Homeland Security was a fascist invention of George W. Bush, using 9/11 as a pretext, and it was maintained by Barack Obama, every time with the complicity of Congress. On one hand, the war on terror wrecked several countries: killed or displaced millions at a cost of several trillion dollars. Everyone knew it was not winnable. On the other hand, what worked for the US and its Western allies was the almost 20-year old war of terror that slowly victimized their own populations with the jackboot of a police-military apparatus constantly on their throats. When fear overcomes an entire society it can be beaten to submission. Where fear rules, servitude becomes acceptable.
Strategy of fear and the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has given an entirely new dimension to the slavery of fear initiated on 9/11. There have been almost two decades, which is one generation, of a war of terror on the collective psyche. There could not have been a better introduction to the global fear of a pandemic. A diffuse Muslim fundamentalist enemy who could be anywhere has morphed to an invisible virus that is everywhere. The quantum leap was easily made, because it is intrinsically the same mechanism. It went a lot further than 9/11, because governments managed to convince their populations to submit themselves to various level of lockdown. Imagine this! Almost all complied worldwide, with little resistance and absolutely no organized rebellion.
Just like the post 9/11 world infringed on human rights and privacy with various invasive policies, the post COVID-19 world has adopted its own arbitrary rules. They have in common that they fuel a fear of everyone and everything and engender agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorders, Stockholm syndrome, and depression. The panoply of mandatory social distancing measures and mask wearing decrees have made people hostile, fearful, and paranoid. Authorities worldwide have been on a joy killing mission. Populations have been successfully infantilized and traumatized by forbidding the most essential human behaviors: the joy to see a smile or the surprise of a flaring nostril; the smell of a ripe fruit at a market; the fortitude of what seems to be a time gone when you could dance with a stranger and perhaps steal a kiss.
More than two hundred years ago, Haitian slaves managed to free themselves, and in the process they defeated the world’s three largest empires: respectively, the French, British, and Spanish. Have we all become such pathetic shadows of our former selves? Are we so weak and cowardly today that we cannot free ourselves from the billionaire class and the fear it is imposing on us?
Editor’s Notes: Gilbert Mercier is the author of The Orwellian Empire. Photographs one by Nathan O’Nions; two by The Malt; three by Torbak Hopper; four by Kyle Pearce; five by Mark Rain; six and nine by Hartwig HKD; seven by Duncan C; and eight by Terence Faircloth.