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"Once a government resorts to terror against its own population to get what it wants, it must keep using terror against its own population to get what it wants. A government that terrorizes its own people can never stop. If such a government ever lets the fear subside and rational thought return to the populace, that government is finished."—Michael Rivero. [1]

Fear as propaganda, and motivation by fear

Fear is one of the most primordial human emotions and therefore lends itself to effective use by propagandists. Human beings can do great and terrible things when motivated by fear. Fear is essentially the survival instinct kicking in: "I'd better watch out because you can harm me." Fear being fundamentally irrational, it is one of the techniques most widely used by propagandists.

"When a propagandist warns members of [his/her] audience that disaster will result if [it does] not follow a particular course of action, [he/she] is using the fear appeal," observes the Propaganda Critic. "By playing on the audience's deep-seated fears, practitioners of this technique hope to redirect attention away from the merits of a particular proposal and toward steps that can be taken to reduce the fear."

Specific types of fears include xenophobia (fear of foreigners), fear of terrorism, crime, economic hardship, ecological disaster, disease, overpopulation, invasion of privacy, or discrimination. With such a broad spectrum of fear, the propagandizer can pick relevant phobias and incorporate them into his/her messages. The power of this propaganda technique can be multiplied when it is exploited in conjunction with uncertainty and doubt, that is, when information at hand is not sufficient enough to completely rule out the cause of the fear. In order to instill fear, uncertainty and doubt, propagandists exploit general ignorance. Pushed to its extremes, this combination can lead to conspiracy theories.

An example of this technique is the use of the as yet unsubstantiated claim that Iraq posesses weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the US lead invasion of Iraq.

Emotional control

"One facet of emotional control focuses on the excessive use of fear. Fear of the outside world (flying, opening mail, large crowds and tall buildings) and fear of enemies (evil-doers). We are asked to stay on full alert, while carrying on with life as usual. While knowledge is power, the withholding of information exacerbates this fear, as we walk through our days in a general sense of impending doom and distrust of those who look different or dress different from us. Total paranoia." [2]

  • "This is an administration that will not talk about how we gather intelligence, how we know what we're going to do, nor what our plans are. When we move, we will communicate with you in an appropriate manner. We're at war. There has been an act of war declared upon America by terrorists, and we will respond accordingly. And I appreciate very much the American people understanding that. As we plan, as we put our strategy into action, we will let you know when we think it's appropriate - not only to protect the lives of our servicemen and women, but to make sure our coalition has had proper time to be noticed, as well. But we're going to act." --President George W. Bush, 15 September 2001.
  • "President George W. Bush said Sunday he is confident the nation will rebound from this week's terrorist attacks, and he urged Americans to go back to work on Monday knowing their government is determined to 'rid the world of evil-doers.'" --CNN, 16 September 2001.
"I think America needs to know that we in government are on alert; that we recognize life around the White House or around the Congress is not normal, or is not the way it used to be, because we're very aware that people have conducted an act of war on our country; and that all of us urge our fellow Americans to go back to work and to work hard, but we must be on alert." --President George W. Bush, 19 September 2001.
  • "In the months ahead, our patience will be one of our strengths -- patience with the long waits that will result from tighter security; patience and understanding that it will take time to achieve our goals; patience in all the sacrifices that may come." --President George W. Bush, 7 October 2001.
  • "We must be steadfast. We must be resolved. We must not let the terrorists cause our nation to stop traveling, to stop buying, to stop living ordinary lives. We can be alert and we will be alert, but we must show them that they cannot terrorize the greatest nation on the face of the Earth. And we won't. We will not be terrorized, we will not be cowed." -- President George W. Bush, 17 October 2001.

"The Bush administration has made no apology for the need for information control, which includes both withholding and distorting information to make it acceptable, and limiting access to other (non-cult) sources of information."[3]

  • "The point to the networks -- and let me just say that I think the networks have been very responsible in the way that they have dealt with this -- my message to them was that it's not to me to judge news value of something like this, but it is to say that there's a national security concern about an unedited, 15 or 20-minute spew of anti-American hatred that ends in a call to go out and kill Americans. And I think that that was fully understood. We are still concerned about whether there might be some signaling in here, but I don't have anything more for you on that yet." -- Condoleezza Rice, October 15, 2001, on her request to the television networks to not broadcast al Qaeda/Osama bin Laden messages.

Selling fear

"Another more destructive form of deception today is the selling of fear. Fear is the most debilitating of all human emotions. A fearful person will do anything, say anything, accept anything, reject anything, if it makes him feel more secure for his own, his family's or his country's security and safety, whether it actually accomplishes it or not....

"It works like a charm. A fearful people are the easiest to govern. Their freedom and liberty can be taken away, and they can be convinced to believe that it was done for their own good - to give them security. They can be convinced to give up their liberty - voluntarily." --Gene E. Franchini, retired Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court, 12 September 2003.[4]

Franchini goes on to use USA PATRIOT ACT as an example.


When confronted with persuasive messages that capitalize on our fear, the Propaganda Critic advises asking ourselves the following questions:

  • Is the speaker exaggerating the fear or threat in order to obtain my support?
  • How legitimate is the fear that the speaker is provoking?
  • Will performing the recommended action actually reduce the supposed threat?
  • When viewed dispassionately, what are the merits of the speaker's proposal?

Red alerts


A new wave of fearmongering ensued after British authorities announced the arrest on August 10, 2006, of "24 people in an alleged plot to blow up U.S.-bound planes." Airport security screeners "scrambled to implement a new ban on all liquids and gels" passengers had in their carry-on luggage, "from lip gloss and toothpaste to perfume and tequila." "Baby formula, prescription medication and essential nonprescription medication are still allowed." [5]

"Travelers are going to be inconvenienced as a result of the steps we've taken. I urge their patience and ask them to be vigilant. The inconvenience is -- occurs because we will take the steps necessary to protect the American people," President George W. Bush said August 10, 2006, while in Green Bay, Wisconsin, "where he attended a Republican congressional fundraiser." [6]

The Associated Press reported on August 11, 2006, that "airport officials across the country" promised that the confiscated "liquid goods discarded by airline passengers at security checkpoints will end up in the trash, not in the pockets of airport employees or others."

However, apparently so intense was the fear that explosive materials could possibly be present in the confiscated goods, the AP reported that "Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport planned to give 11 boxes of surrendered items to the city's human services department, which will give the unopened bottles of shampoo, toothpaste and other items to homeless shelters, airport spokeswoman Lexie Van Haren said." [7]

In Pennsylvania, the AP said, "state officials were considering pulling some discarded items for a state program that resells on eBay any items of value relinquished at airport security checkpoints, said Edward Myslewicz, spokesman for the General Services Department. However, officials at the state's main airports in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh said they were discarding all the liquids and gels." [8]

John Aravosis of AMERICAblog commented August 11, 2006:

It "seems YOU can't take it on the plane because it might be a bomb, but THEY can sell it on eBay without knowing if it's a bomb, or they're sure it's not a bomb, so then why did they take it in the first place? ...
"It's duct tape all over again."


One good example of fearmongering is the red alerts that occurred frequently in the U.S. after 9-11. A red alert was (and is) a signal of a supposed need for heightened security because of a possible terrorist attack, but in reality would have done very little to thwart a real attack. Only vague reasons were given for the alerts. This Orwellian tactic created an atmosphere of fear rather than a feeling of protection and was used to justify any number of assaults on various freedoms in the name of anti-terrorism.

In The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America, Eric Alterman and Mark Green describe in detail the Bush administration's use of fear after 9-11 to terrify Americans for political reasons:

"With alarming consistency administration figures terrified Americans with near-certain, but curiously vague, warnings about upcoming attacks. Vice President Cheney explained that such an attack was 'almost a certainty' and 'not a matter of if, but when.' A day later, FBI director Robert Mueller promised, 'There will be another terrorist attack. We will not be able to stop it.' On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld added, 'We do face additional terrorist threats. And the issue is not if but when and where and how.' Rumsfeld also added that terrorists will 'inevitably' obtain weapons of mass destruction. Director Mueller announced that more suicide bombings were 'inevitable.' US authorities issued separate warnings that al Qaeda might be planning to target apartment buildings nationwide, banks, rail and transit systems, the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge. As a Time writer noted of the fearmongering: 'Though uncorroborated and vague the terror alerts were a political godsend for an administration trying to fend off a bruising bipartisan inquiry into its handling of the terrorist chatter last summer. After the wave of warnings, the Democratic clamor for investigation into the government's mistakes subsided.'"
"Indeed, the national security historian John Prados found 'ample reason to suspect that some of these recent warnings of terrorist threats have been made for political purposes.' In the case of alleged 'dirty bomber' Abdullah al Muhajir - a former Chicago gang member who was born Jose Padilla - Prados notes that the suspect was apprehended on May 8. 'A desire to allay public fears should have led to an immediate announcement of the arrest. Instead the act was kept secret, allowing Donald Rumsfeld to have his cake and eat it too: The administration could raise the specter of al Qaeda nuclear attacks while not revealing that the man who constituted the threat was already in custody. Thus the arrest was only revealed when it offered maximum opportunity for turning attention away from inquiries into what went wrong before 9 - 11.' The actual announcement of his arrest was another scene in what would be a comedy of errors were the consequences not so serious. Attorney General John Ashcroft revealed al Muhajir's arrest through a television hookup while he was on a visit to Moscow. In fact, al Mujahir had no nuclear materials when arrested or any immediate prospect of obtaining any, and the nuclear 'plot' was actually just accounts of conversations between the suspect and another US prisoner, Abu Zubaydeh.'"
"Yet another indication that the warnings were largely politically motivated was the fact that just as his administration was issuing them, Bush was telling the country not to take them too seriously. At one point, the president flew to Chicago and urged Americans to 'get on board' airplanes and enjoy life 'the way we want it to be enjoyed.' Yet only three days later Ashcroft warned of 'a very serious threat' of additional terrorist activity, particularly if the United States launched a military retaliation."

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