Fearmongering is a useful political tactic for governments desperate to pass controversial laws which might otherwise be perceived as unjust or irrational.
The creation of fear of a perceived enemy – whether communists, fascists or terrorists – has signified the American political landscape for several decades, with academics describing the ‘paranoid style of politics’ as ‘uniquely American.’
But in recent years, our own politicians have been quick to embrace this approach, passing a raft of laws which are supposed to enhance security and protect our interests – often at the expense of basic human rights.
How Does Fearmongering Work?
The reason why this approach can be so effective is understood by examining the psychology behind it.
American sociologist David L. Altheide says that fear is used by politicians and the media to advance a particular opinion because it is so easily understood, and because it ‘provides a convenient way to articulate a common experience and identity.’
By using fear, politicians can therefore simplify complex political debates into two-sided arguments which feature a ‘victim’ (i.e. the wider community, whose interests are being ‘threatened’) and a ‘villain’ (i.e. the very thing that politicians and the media want us to be afraid of).
This provides an easy way for politicians to target and blame particular groups of people which supposedly threaten the ‘smooth functioning’ of society.
The media plays a crucial part in furthering the interests of politicians by disseminating fear.
Media outlets frequently use visual cues and provocative language to ‘accentuate drama’ and exaggerate facts. This is regularly seen on current affairs programs and in the pages of certain tabloid newspapers, such as the Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald.
Using these tactics, politicians can legitimise the destruction of civil liberties and human rights by telling the public that this the only way to protect our national security.
Recent Laws Passed as a Result of Fearmongering
The most obvious example of laws which have been enacted following a period of fearmongering are the Federal government’s so-called ‘anti-terror laws,’ which we have written about extensively in the past.
These include the new metadata retention laws which compel internet service providers to store your personal data for two years and hand it over to a raft of government agencies without a warrant, laws which afford ASIO officers immunity from civil and criminal prosecution (which make it legal to assault and torture suspects in the course of carrying out a ‘specialist intelligence operation’), laws against reporting about offshore boats and, most recently, laws which will allow the government to strip dual-nationals suspected of engaging in terrorism of their Australian citizenship before they have even been tried in a court of law.
Implementing and enforcing these laws costs the Australian taxpayer billions of dollars each year. This is in spite of the fact that there were just 113 deaths resulting from terrorism in Australia between 1978 and 2014 – far fewer than those caused by electrocution, falling off ladders, and of course domestic violence or suicide. Despite this, the government and media outlets have successfully persuaded much of the populace that the threat of terrorism justifies the wholesale erosion of our rights.
But while terrorism features heavily in the media, other groups have also found themselves the subject of harsh new laws grounded in unsubstantiated and irrational fears.
For instance, following the highly-publicised Sydney Airport brawl in 2009 and drive-by shootings attributed to motorcycle club members, so-called ‘outlaw motorcycle gangs’ found themselves the target of a relentless media and political campaign intent on creating a ‘moral panic’ and preventing members from associating with each another.
Recent years have seen a number of laws passed across the nation to ‘dismantle’ motorcycle groups, with the NSW Parliament passing the Crimes (Criminal Organisations Control) Bill in 2009.
This Bill gave the Police Commissioner the power to seek a declaration from a judge that a motorcycle club is a ‘criminal organisation.’ A declaration enables ‘control orders’ to be issued which prohib ‘controlled members’ from associating with each other, and restricting the ability of members to work in industries supposedly associated with crime.
But many argue that the government’s response has been grossly disproportionate to the actual ‘threat’ of motorcycle clubs, with statistics revealing that in 2012, gang-related crime made up just 4.7% of unlawfully discharge firearm offences.
This has led many to conclude that these laws unfairly interfere with freedom of expression and association, as well as the presumption of innocence.
Those concerned about the conditions experienced by asylum seekers whilst in immigration detention have also been targeted by recently passed laws which negatively impact on freedom of speech.
In the lead up to the 2013 election, Tony Abbott and other Liberal politicians repeatedly claimed that asylum seekers and foreigners pose a threat to our Australian values; repeating the slogans ‘Stop the Boats’ and ‘Keep Our Borders Safe’ at almost every media opportunity.
Government’s fearmongering paved the way for the introduction of the Australian Border Force Act in July 2015, which prohibits detention centre workers from speaking out about the appalling conditions within detention centres and reporting human rights abuses.
A Cause For Concern?
So, if we accept that our government is advancing a politically-motivated scare campaign in order to take away our rights, should we be concerned?
As discussed in many of our blogs, the erosion of civil liberties and fundamental rights can lead to injustice – and once we give away our rights it is often difficult to get them back.
This essentially creates a ‘domino effect’ whereby governments are able to legitimise the further erosion of other rights and liberties.
With this in mind, we have to ask ourselves – do we really want to be a country of 20 million constantly in fear, despite statistics which show that the threat is not as significant as the government and media outlets claim?
Do we want to give away our fundamental liberties and rights for a little security, when there is little evidence that doing so actually reduces any threat?
Perhaps our Aussie politicians would do well to remember the words of US Founding Father Benjamin Franklin:
‘Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.’