Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/02/2010

Ghost Stories, 9/11, Pickles, and “Terror-profiling”

(I have been trying for days to write this post; however, the subject disturbs me so that writing has been difficult. My writing reflects my dismay. I do NOT intend to belittle the horror of the events of September 11, 2001 or the reality of some persistent threat. Reading that into what I say is slander, plain and simple.)

A favorite amusement on Boy Scout camping trips is telling ghost stories, scary tales told around the campfire.  Baptist summer campers learn ghost stories, too. You can buy books of ghost stories to memorize if you don’t have a good enough imagination (1). I have a copy of The Jack Tales, by Richard Chase—the premier Appalachian folklorist, not the Sacramento serial killer (2).  Jack tales aren’t very scary, but old Jack does get himself into some pickles.

As a nation, we’re in a pickle (3).


Shortly before the 2008 election Mike Peters published a political cartoon. A menacing Dick Cheney says in a TV ad, “Are you more frightened now than you were four years ago?” an allusion to Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan in 1980.  A woman watching says to her husband, “I miss the old slogan”(4).

One’s answer to Reagan’s question depended on politics. The answer to the hypothetical Cheney question in 2008 was (and is) a resounding “Yes!”

Americans have become shrinking violets. We’re all about being terrorized.


  1. the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes (5).

“Terrorism” is not an act of violence. It is the use of violence (or the threat of violence) to achieve a political purpose. The “terrorists” of the world have achieved their political purpose—they have scared the bejeebers out of Americans. As a people, we perceive ourselves to be under a constant threat of violence, so we act as if we are being terrorized.

Because the threat is mere perception, the source of the threat is also a perception. We have pickled ourselves. When we were children and awoke in the night terrified (the Bogeyman was a perception), we needed the protection of Mommy or Daddy. We needed to put our trust in a reality we were certain had the power to keep us safe from our perceived danger. As adults, we need to put our trust in some reality we are certain will keep us safe from perceived danger. We’ve chosen to submit to the Department of Homeland Security.

On September 20, 2001, George W. Bush said, in an address to a joint session of Congress

I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans. . . . Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. . . . The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends (6).

In a Rose Garden speech on June 24, 2002, he said

. . . . for the people of Muslim countries.  Your commitments to morality, and learning, and tolerance led to great historical achievements. And those values are alive in the Islamic world today. You have a rich culture, and you share the aspirations of men and women in every culture. (7).

That section of his speech followed his statement that

I can understand the deep anger and despair of the Palestinian people. For decades you’ve been treated as pawns in the Middle East conflict. Your interests have been held hostage. . .  as your lives get worse year by year. . . .  An end to occupation and a peaceful democratic Palestinian state may seem distant, but America and our partners throughout the world stand ready to help, help you make them possible as soon as possible (8).

Mr. Bush called upon the Palestinian people “to elect new leaders.” On January 27, 2006, they did so. They elected a new Parliament with a large Hamas majority. Hamas and Fatah attempted a coalition because the U.S. and Israel would not deal with Hamas. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas soon ousted Hamas. The United States was complicit in the removal of the “elect[ed] new leaders” of the Palestinians.

Now I make a leap of logic, a non sequitur, if you please.

One cannot deny Mr. Bush’s assertion that the Palestinians’ “interests have been held hostage to a comprehensive peace agreement that never seems to come, as [their] lives get worse year by year.” Americans choose to deny it, however, and refuse to understand it is one significant reason for the “terrorist’s” hatred of everything American.  It’s as if we collectively wake up in the night hoping to be saved from the Bogeyman rather than turning on the lights. We choose to be terrified, to be “intimidate[d] or coerce[ed], esp. for political purposes (to have the bejeebers scared out of us). We allow an inappropriate response. Cowering behind the power of our government is worse than fearing a perceived threat (or a real one for that matter).

Since 9/11 many Americans have been willing to let our government, through vague and intimidating laws passed in fear, control us by taking away freedom in the name of saving us from the Bogeyman. And the government has conspired to create and sustain the perception of Bogeypeople: Muslims. Americans, by and large, have bought into that conspiracy.

For example, Sarah Palin wants to control the conspiracy. She knows the way to control is not to turn on the lights of reality but to play on Americans’ fear:

We are at war with radical Islamic extremists. . . . This is a war on terror not an “overseas contingency operation”. . . .  [The Christmas Day bomber] was. . . radicalized and trained by organized jihadists, not an “isolated extremist” who traveled to a land of “crushing poverty.” He is an enemy of the United States, not just another criminal defendant (9).


If this were a “war on terror,” we would be fighting our own fear. “Terror” is a reaction to the perception of danger. I am not saying there is no danger. Of course, there’s danger. All kinds of danger (I feel terrorized by Brian T. Moynihan).  A “war on terror” would mean a concerted effort to dispel our “terror,” not to take away our freedoms to protect us from people who use “terrorism” to scare the bejeebers out of us.

That war would begin with an end to xenophobia, hatred of our Muslim neighbors and co-workers. Every time a public figure says we are “at war with radical Islamic extremists,” too many Americans believe unthinkingly that, “Muslims are terrifying.”


In their article “Walking While Muslim,” Margaret Chon and Donna E. Arzt (10) aver that Americans have fallen prey to this kind of thinking before. In 1943 the Supreme Court (deciding that Japanese Internment was constitutional) said that a “factor to be taken into account in considering the viewpoints and loyalties of the West Coast Japanese is the existence and nature of Shintoism.” Chon and Arzt explain that

The Court accepted the overall premise that cultural differences justified the government’s differential treatment—what today is called profiling—of Japanese Americans because a propensity to espionage and sabotage can be inferred from those differences.

Chon and Arzt suggest that, because this line of reasoning is prevalent in both government and public consciousness today, we should adopt new terminology for our response to our perception of the Bogeyman: terror-profiling. That is, we should name our irrational response to a perceived threat for what it is, and admit that we practice a kind of “profiling” we claim we do not practice between races. We “profile” all Muslims without regard to their ethnic background, their citizenship, or their dedication to the freedom and justice for which America stood before 9/11.

We believe in the Bogeyman. It’s time to turn on the lights.
(1) Schwartz, Alvin. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. New York: HarperCollins, 1986.
(2) Richard Chase, ed., The Jack Tales, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1943.
(3) Shakespeare, The Tempest Act V, Scene 1. Alonso asks Trinculo, “How camest thou in this pickle?”
(4) Peters, Mike. “Mike Peters’ Editorial Cartoons, number 8482.” The Cartoonist Group. 2004-10-08. Web.  28 June 2010.
(5) “terrorism.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 28 Jun. 2010.
(8) Bush June 24, 2002.
(9) Palin, Sarah. “It’s War, not a Crime Spree.” Sarah Palin’s Notes. Facebook. Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 12:39 pm.
(10) Chon, Margaret, and Donna E. Arzt. “Walking while Muslim.” Law and Contemporary Problems 68.2 (2005): 215+.


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