The Art of Revolution: The War on Irrational Fear

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It’s not unheard of to fight against an invented enemy.

In his novel The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje cites Herodotus’ description of a nation so enraged by an evil wind – the simoon – that “they declared war on it and marched out in full battle array, only to be rapidly and completely interred.”
And, in the twentieth century, long after Emperor Hirohito surrendered on August 15th, 1945, Japanese soldiers in remote locations continued to gather intelligence and to ‘fight’ in attempt to vanquish the American enemy, unaware that the war had ended. For some of these soldiers, it took years, even decades to convince them to give up their imagined battle positions.
Though separated by millennia, these two examples speak to the power of collective delusions, and the way in which not just individuals, but entire nations may make truly frightening, or tragic sacrifices in the name of an idea, which may not be borne up by reality.
Making this very point about America’s disproportionate use of resources in the so-called war on terror is what creative agency Incitement Design hopes to do with its recently launched campaign, The War on Irrational Fear.
Using a multimedia platform that includes social media, video, and their own website to get the word out, this New York based design agency, which has a history of providing high-end design to progressive political campaigns, non-profits, and the arts asks this question: what if the War on Terror is like using high level spying, and weapons of mass destruction against, say, the common cold? In other words, what if the actual threat of terror simply does not warrant the massive public expenditures and the suspension of articles of the constitution in its name?
According to director, Robert Arnow, the idea that terrorism should be a major national priority is largely unchallenged in mainstream media, and with this in-house campaign, Incitement Design hopes to change the nature of public debate around this issue so that when terrorism is discussed, the relative size of the threat will also be mentioned as one of the relevant points. As Arnow says, “We hope this will be a powerful argument in trying to protect liberty and avoiding massive waste of public dollars.”
To back this idea, the campaign itself includes a parodic video, done in the form of a newscast, that begins by pointing out that, on average, Americans are far more likely to die of a lightning strike (8x more likely), or by drowning in the bathtub (87x more likely!) than by a terrorist attack. Using the logic of the War on Terror, the video goes on to report that America is now “at war with lightning”, noting that individuals will now be required to suspend their participation in such activities as tree climbing, outdoor swimming, and, most importantly, kite flying. After all, these things could kill you! Moreover, the video reports, America will be spending “megajabillions” of tax dollars to build a 2,000 story high, impenetrable shield to protect Americans from lightning. As a side benefit, Americans will no longer be able to leave the U.S.A. And, who would want to, anyway? I’m sure we can all agree that freedom is a small price to pay for safety against lightning.

As preposterous as all this sounds, Incitement Design has the facts to back up the satire and to demonstrate that, perhaps, certain American policies regarding the War on Terror are ripe for a hanging on their own petard. A series of powerful posters on their website provides some sobering information. For example, on average, in the last 5 years, 4.6 Americans have died from terrorism, while 12.8 have died playing football and 402.6 have died by drowning in a bathtub. So, the obvious question is this: where is the massive war on bathtubs?!
Perhaps the most startling figures are the ones to do with dollars. The federal expenditures per terror victim per year amount to $400,000,000. What about federal expenditures per heart disease and stroke victim per year, you ask? They get $79.60. Cancer victims fare somewhat better, receiving $9,000 of federal money per victim per year. Cancer and other similar killers must be green with envy of the attention that the amorphous threat of terror gets.
Incitement Design has taken on a tricky challenge here: in pointing out what might be disproportionate spending and draconian lawmaking in response to terrorism, they risk provoking the ire and the pain of anyone who was affected by, for example 9/11 or Benghazi. And I’m sure that many would argue that it was all Americans that were affected by these events. Moreover, the same people may argue, reactions to terrorism must be, by their very nature, extreme in order to handle the unpredictable nature of such attacks.
Still, the national preservation of a traumatized response over the long term may make normative measures that are no longer appropriate or reasonable, and may, in fact, be dangerous and harmful in their own right. And this fact is one that all victims of trauma must face at some point: perhaps the aggressive response to trauma may eventually become maladaptive and need to be replaced by something more constructive.
So, what is the solution? According to Aviva Oskow, Communication Designer of Incitement Design, “the national response should be proportionate to the level of the threat. In the case of the war on terror, the response has been hundreds of times greater than the danger of the threat, so our solution is to scale the response (in terms of funding and national attention) accordingly.”
As a creative agency, Incitement Design does well to provoke a conversation about what has become normative in American society, and whether or not this “new normal” is either necessary or acceptable. Without underestimating the intolerable grief, and profound sense of injustice that must be felt by those who may have lost someone in 9/11, it does seem worth asking if the current state of affairs still warrants the response that was cooked up in those shattering days after the worst attack on American soil.
Considering Incitement Design’s campaign, I imagine an individual, once threatened by a lion, living the rest of his/her days hunting domestic cats with the heaviest artillery available. In this light, the waste of resources seems tragic.