Neo-conservatives and militant Islamic fundamentalists both claim to be braver than the rest of us because they see a clear and present danger that we don’t. Both movements fear that liberalism and tolerance are powerful corruptive forces that are about to take over the world. They have that much in common. They differ on their other fears. Neo-conservatives feared Communists and now Islamists. Islamists fear capitalism and all Western influences, including neo-cons.

Both treat their fear as a sign of bravery and strength. They aren’t afraid to face conflict head-on. They don’t shrink from a bully the way the rest of us appeasers do.

In 1986 a new derogatory term entered political language. A chickenhawk is a wannabe hawk, a poser who promotes war with great bravado without having fought in one. The term is especially apt for those who exerted themselves to avoid military service. By this definition Bush and Cheney are chickenhawks.

But perhaps that definition isn’t broad enough, or maybe we need a second term to cover a different but more pervasive combination of fear and belligerence. By a broader definition, all hawks run the risk of chickenhawkishness, no matter how much military service they’ve seen.

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

If I told you the sky is falling, you’d think I was a timid Chicken Little. If I confessed a constant fear that I’ll die of cancer, you’d think me an anxious hypochondriac. If I sold my house to pay for round-the-clock guards to protect me from the boogeyman, you’d think I was a twitchy hallucinator. If I pummeled everyone who looked at me the wrong way, you’d think me a paranoid, hypersensitive idiot. If I kept interrupting our conversation to point at a spider on your shirt pocket that wasn’t there just so I could drag my finger up to poke you in the face, you’d think I was a manipulative jerk. In none of these cases would you think me brave.

Why then do hawks so successfully convince us that the very act of declaring things to fear makes them brave and heroic rather than timid or fear-mongering?

Paul Revere was a hero, but if he’d raced though the streets some other night crying “The British are coming” when they weren’t, there would be nothing heroic or brave about his ride. You’re brave when you confront real dangers. You’re a chicken when you flinch at phantoms.

There’s nothing intrinsically brave about attacking other people. We want the courage to confront real threats and the courageous serenity to resist flipping out about phantoms. And above all we want the wisdom to know the difference between threats and phantoms. That’s the hard part, of course, because today no one can say for sure what will and won’t prove dangerous to us tomorrow or in the years and decades to come. So yes, sometimes we’ll fear what ends up not being a danger, and sometimes we’ll ignore what does end up being a real danger. That should make the evaluation of potential threats all the more careful-and a dogmatic association between fear and bravery all the more suspect, reckless, and, well, fearful.

My point isn’t that the fear-mongers have nothing to fear. Maybe they do; maybe they don’t. Rather it’s that there’s something weirdly dogmatic about the simple assertion that because they’re anxious they’re brave. They want this association to stand without regard to the fear-worthiness of any specific thing they say they fear.

The all-out, expedited response fear engenders is a limited resource. It shouldn’t be squandered, so it pays to prioritize fears. But to hear these two movements and all their spellbound followers talk, no quantity of fearful reaction is too great for the troubles we face, and all fearful reaction is a sign of bravery.

At least that’s their theory. In practice, such movements are very selective in its application. Neo-conservatives laugh at liberal Chicken Littles for fearing global warming. Liberals are wimps, they say. Tough guys like us wouldn’t worry about some silly thing like that. And yet fearing terrorists on every corner means we’re brave. This selective application of the rule of thumb so that one set of fears always equals bravery and another always equals wimpiness is just an unsupportable double standard.

Taking it up a level, are these hawks real threats or fakes? Each is sure the other is a real threat. But to those of us who don’t share their certainty that they know what’s worth fearing, their strident alarm calls seem to be some kind of peculiar and difficult-to-separate blend of sophisticated manipulation and naïve paranoia.

They’re sophisticated manipulators to the extent that they don’t really care about threats anyway. They want what they want and will go about getting it any way they can. They’re crying wolf to gain attention and power. Dirty tricks including trumped-up fears are A-OK because they’ve already convinced themselves that the highest possible value, the one worth fighting for by any means possible, is the value of whatever they want.

They’re naïve to the extent that they come to believe their own rhetoric. It’s the rhetoric of weak prioritizers, people who think they don’t have to pick their battles and can afford to waste energy fighting any shadow that flinches.

We’ve been hearing about John McCain’s war record, the record of an extremely obedient soldier, one who was brave enough to sacrifice his comfort and life for a war many people questioned and history suggests may well not have been worth fighting. It’s pyrrhic bravery to give your all in battle for a war you don’t research well. Maybe I’m a chickenhawk for questioning whether his dogged obedience to mission during the Vietnam War is any evidence that he’d be good at the presidential challenge of evaluating missions. After all, the draft ended before I turned 18 and I would have avoided that war by any means possible, both because it didn’t look worth my life and because I really didn’t want to get hurt.

One battle I’ve joined with some enthusiasm is the one I’ve been going on and on about in recent months. I think one-sided virtues are a real peril. Some have challenged me, saying that I’m making a big deal about something trivial. I’m told that of course people know that not all niceness is good, and likewise that not all fear is brave.

I don’t think so. In theory we might. In practice we’re swayed by one-sided correlations. Fear equals virtuous bravery. Who would have thought a whole country would be willing to sacrifice its wealth, stature, and promise on such a simple, one-sided, and dubious assumption? And yet here we are.

For an engaging and controversial study of the manipulative/incompetent use of fear by Neo-conservatives and Islamic Fundamentalists to rally and unify populations see Adam Curtis’s three hour BBC documentary available free at google video: The Power Of Nightmares . Also check out Assault on Reason by Al Gore here in audio Pt. 1 and Pt. 2.