As Halloween approaches, many of us play with one of humanity’s most primal emotions: fear. We go to haunted houses, watch horror movies, and generally seek thrills, terror, and shocks. Fear can bring us exhilaration and adrenaline rushes. It can provide a bonding experience between friends or lovers. It can set a mood for a festive season with zombies, costume parties, and candy. That’s the fun side of fear.
But fear also has a dark side, particularly when filtered through perverse political incentives. When crises or disasters happen, the public is prone to panic. Their fear is then further fueled by media sensationalism, and exploited by politicians and bureaucrats to give dangerous new powers to the state.
We saw this process in action after the 9/11 terror attacks. After the attacks, the American public’s trust in the federal government dramatically increased. Meanwhile, the government used 9/11 to claim authoritarian powers and launch two aggressive wars in the Middle East: Wars that continue to this day. Congress passed the PATRIOT Act, authorizing indefinite detention of immigrants, secretive “sneak and peek” searches, and warrantless searches known as National Security Letters.
These powers were granted in the name of national security and fighting terrorism. But rather than being used against terrorists, these powers have largely been wielded against people who commit victimless crimes. For example, 76% of sneak and peek warrants between October 1, 2009 and September 30, 2010 were used for drug cases, while only 1% were used for terrorism cases.