The Politics of Hysteria:
AMERICA's IRAQ, JAPAN's NORTH KOREA

Tessa MORRIS-SUZUKI, Professor, The Australian National University.
Uploaded on 13 February 2003.



Pluralist Repression
Usable Facts
September 11 and September 17
The Inhuman Other
Purification Rites
Soundproofed Universes
Breaking out of the Closed Circuits


           In the United States, concern about terrorism after September 11 has been transformed into an obsessive media and public focus on the person of Saddam Hussein and the issue of Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction". In Japan, the admission by North Korea in September 2002 that it had been responsible for kidnapping fifteen Japanese citizens, and the subsequent return of the five surviving kidnap victims to Japan, unleashed a wave of media frenzy that continued unabated for months, with serious consequences for efforts to normalize relations between Japan and North Korea. Drawing on the analysis of "political hysteria" developed by the late Murray Levin, this article compares these recent events in the US and Japan with earlier waves of twentieth century national hysteria. It suggests some reasons for these phenomena, and emphasises the importance of open international communication as a means of combating the politics of hysteria.



Pluralist Repression

           The President of the United States of America speaks of a "crime against civilization". US newspapers condemn what they term "an act of war against the United States". A mysterious and unidentified terrorist sends deadly packages through the mail to dozens of prominent politicians. Police raids on a building in central New York uncover (according to press reports) enough explosive material to make one hundred bombs. Suspect aliens are rounded up, interned and deported.

           Sounds familiar, doesn't it? But these are not the events of the early 21st century. The year is 1919, and the phenomenon is the "Red Scare", as described by Murray Levin in his book Political Hysteria in America: The Democratic Capacity for Repression. (Basic Books, 1971) Published more than thirty years ago at the height of the Vietnam War, Levin's book now seems in some respects extraordinarily dated. Writing at the start of the 1970s, Levin felt fully confident in predicting that America was moving in the direction of a "grand New Deal" characterized by increased welfare spending, greater social equality and growing state intervention in economic life. But even this egalitarian abundance, Levin argued, would not secure true human happiness without fundamental political change.

           With the sad wisdom of hindsight we can see his vision of the future as wildly, if rather touchingly, wide of the mark. By contrast, however, Levin's analysis of the 1919-1920 Red Scare and of the phenomenon of political hysteria are all too relevant to the United States today; and, although Levin examines the phenomenon in a specifically American context, many of his comments also seem startlingly relevant to contemporary Japan.

           As Levin emphasized, the post-World War I Red Scare was just one example of waves of political hysteria which had intermittently swept across the face of US political life. Other examples included eighteenth and nineteenth century conspiracy theories about groups like the Bavarian Illuminati and the Freemasons, and the anti-communist hysteria of 1950s McCarthyism. Levin observed that these waves of hysteria tended to produce something he called "pluralist repression". This phenomenon, he was careful to emphasise, was not the same as the repression exercised by totalitarian and autocratic states, where opponents of the regime can simply be made to "disappear" and press criticism can be banned. The characteristic of "pluralist repression" was that it occurred without drastic changes to democratic institutions, and with the consent of the majority. It nevertheless led to severe violations of the rights of those minorities defined as "dangerous" or "subversive". In the world of the media, "pluralist repression" created a single enormously powerful dominant narrative about the key events of the day. Yet the press remained free. Critics were still allowed publicly to question the dominant narrative: it was just that anyone who did so was liable to be marginalized, ridiculed, decried as "unpatriotic" and labelled an "extremist" or part of the "lunatic fringe".

           The questions raised by such phenomena were these: Why does freedom of the press, instead of guaranteeing lively debate between a wide range of differing opinions, sometimes produce bursts of nationwide patriotic paranoia, any dissent to which is condemned as being "subversive"? What drives a prosperous democratic society, supposedly governed by the rule of law, into sudden acts of repression?


Usable Facts

           In his 1971 study, Levin sought to explore the forces which produced such waves of national hysteria. One key point, he emphasised, was the fact that they are never just the product of fantasy. Their persuasive power comes from the fact that they are always built around a core of truth about a real act of violence or a real source of danger. These kernels of truth he called "usable facts": "A most usable fact is a bit of reality ? like a bombing ? that outrages and creates a demand for a quick, simple and anxiety reducing explanation". (pp. 115-16) The problem lay in understanding how this factual core generated a narrative which then took on a life of its own ? multiplying, expanding, arousing passion, overwhelming skepticism, and ultimately producing political outcomes, which, in the calm light of day, proved to have made very little sense at all.

           The Red Scare of 1919-1920 was founded on a number of usable facts. The Russian Revolution had occurred just two years earlier, and Russia had been plunged into a civil war which involved terrible violence and suffering. The US economy was facing a postwar recession, accompanied by increasing social instability and rising trade union activism. The legacy of the war had left psychological scars and created cross-border flows of displaced persons. There were groups (albeit very small groups) of communists and anarchists in the US who aimed to overthrow the state, and believed that the revolution was nigh. On top of this came a series of disturbing incidents: the interception of parcel bombs sent to political leaders; terrorist bombings in several cities which killed two people and caused considerable damage to property; a police strike accompanied by riots and looting; a clash between veterans and anarchists at a war remembrance march, which left three veterans dead.

           There is nothing surprising about the fact that these events should have caused anxiety to government and many members of the public. But they did more than simply causing anxiety: they generated a panic which led large numbers of Americans to believe that their government was about to be overthrown by an unholy conspiracy of foreign agents and domestic subversives, and that western civilization as we know it was about to come to an end. One consequence of this panic was that thousands of "alien radicals" (many of them actually American citizens) were rounded up by the police and held in detention, and hundreds were deported. Yet, as historians now generally agree, there was not the remotest likelihood of a communist revolution in the US in 1919, many of those arrested had nothing whatever to do with revolutionary politics, and the arrests (in some cases involving police beatings) were a gross violation of human rights.

           A similar slide from "usable facts" to repressive hysteria was to occur again with the rise of McCarthyism in the 1950s. In this case, the undeniable realities of Cold War military tensions and a brutal Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union triggered a paranoia in which it became acceptable for a prominent Hearst Corporation journalist, writing in Newsweek five days after the outbreak of the Korean War, to propose that the most "sensible and courageous" way to deal with current crisis was to execute all American communists. The journalist in question, Westbrook Pegler, acknowledged that such a policy might result in some people who were not really communists being executed by mistake. But, he argued, "fastidious quibbling" about who really was a communist only served the interests of the enemy. (see John Neville, The Press, the Rosenbergs and the Cold War, Praeger, 1995, pp. 14-15)


September 11 and September 17

           The "usable fact" which triggered the current wave of hysteria in the United States was (in the US domestic context) a far more massive and devastating reality than any of the events of 1919. The bombings of the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11 2001 quite understandably produced an outpouring of grief and anger, and very reasonably led to demands for increased security measures and international efforts to track down those involved in planning or financing the attacks. They also raised well-founded fears of the possibility that terrorist groups might acquire biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.

           But the ever-escalating rhetoric of a "threat to civilization" which followed the September 11 attacks has produced consequences which go far beyond such responses, and which the historians of future decades may find quite difficult to explain. A very large number of Americans have been persuaded that it is logical for their government to launch an all-out war with Iraq ? a country whose connection to the September 11 bombings is tenuous to say the least. Americans, and much of the rest of the world, have become obsessively focused on Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction", when it seems just as likely that terrorists might (for example) acquire nuclear technology from America's ally Pakistan, or indeed biological weapons from America's own research laboratories (as at least one as yet unnamed terrorist appears already to have done). An attack on Iraq has come to seem natural and almost inevitable: yet hardly anyone seriously believes that such an attack would reduce the possibility of further acts of terrorism, and many argue that it will make such acts more likely. Millions of Americans have come to accept as quite normal the proposition that their nation should invade a country which has no realistic likelihood of launching a first strike on the United States, simply because it leader, Saddam Hussein, is a nasty person and may possibly do something harmful to some Americans at some point in the future.

           Despite the very different circumstances and implications, a similar spiral towards hysteria also seems to be evident in current Japan's response to the North Korean "abduction incidents" [rachi mondai]. Here too, concern at a genuine and serious problem has triggered a public and media reaction that has become increasingly frenzied with each passing day. The confirmation, during the Japan-North Korea summit of September 17 2002, that North Korea had abducted Japanese citizens, of whom the eight were now dead and five were still living in North Korea, predictably created shock and anger in Japan. This bizarre criminal act by North Korea has caused great suffering to the families of the abducted. It seems entirely natural that the relatives of the victims and the Japanese government should request compensation, call for a thorough investigation of the circumstances, demand that those responsible be brought to justice, and seek to ensure that the surviving victims and their families are genuinely free to leave North Korea if they so choose.

           But what actually happened was something very different. The issue of the "abduction incidents" became a form of national obsession, threatening to swamp debate about other crucially important aspects of the Japan-North Korea relationship, including Japan's historical responsibilities for the colonization of Korea, and the future of the North Korean economy and political system. It also overshadowed, and prevented any meaningful progress, on the nuclear weapons issue: an issue which has potential implications for the lives of millions of people in East Asia. As a result, a unique and remarkable opportunity for Japan to play a key role in the political (rather than just the economic) future of the surrounding region was squandered.

           Even in terms of the welfare of the abduction victims and their families, who are the focus of the media's frenzy, the benefits of this frenzy need to be questioned. The rhetoric of media and victims' support groups seems to have created a public perception of the five survivors, and of the partners and children they have left behind in North Korea, less as individuals with a right to make their own diverse choices about their own futures, than as stolen "national property" to be "returned" at all costs.

           The media's frenzied response to the rachi mondai has not, of course, produced the sort of "pluralist repression" evident in the American Red Scare, with its mass deportations of "radicals". It has, however, encouraged a disturbing upsurge of xenophobia directed at those identified in some way as "associated" with North Korea (many of whom have no connection whatever with the North Korean government and no sympathy for its politics). It has also prompted official calls for the outlawing (under the terms of the Subversive Acts Prevention Law - Habôhô) of the North Korean-affiliated General Association of Korean Residents in Japan [Chongryun / Chôsen Sôren], a body that (whatever it may or may not have done in the past) hardly seems to pose any plausible immediate threat to Japan's national security.


The Inhuman Other

           Murray Levin's anatomy of political hysteria in America provides, I think, some useful clues to understanding the causes and structure of these escalations from fact to frenzy. Levin suggests that political hysteria is not simply a product of the media alone. Rather, public, interest groups, media and politicians become drawn into a complex reciprocal relationship as the level of hysteria rises and the narrative spirals ever further outward from the initial "usable facts". Typically, the story is first taken up by activists or interest groups who see themselves as representing both particular moral causes and a broader national interest (though in the case of US "Iraq hysteria" national politicians also played a direct role in promoting panic). Once it becomes clear that the issue strikes a receptive chord with the public, a widening range of groups become involved, and begin to add their voices to the chorus of public statements. The media realize that the story helps their sales, and intensified media reporting interacts with the public statements of activists. Interest groups and media form relationships with each other: "each agency builds on the definition of the situation created by other agencies and thereby participates in the transformation by which the definition of the situation becomes fact". (p. 179). As public emotion rises, the government responds with ever more strident statements on the issue. This growing government role, in turn, makes it justifiable, indeed necessary, for the media to treat the story as headline news. And so the spiral continues.

           A key function of such political hysteria, Levin argues, lies in its capacity, in times of rapid change, uncertainly and instability, to unite people of many differing ideologies and social backgrounds in a shared community of outrage. Political hysteria, in other words, creates a sense of national unity in the face of a common threat. This threat is typically seen as coming from an "other" which exists both without and within the nation ["they are alien, but they are also in our midst"], and which is depicted in dehumanized terms. The "enemy" is at once subhuman ? barbaric, irrational, devoid of feeling ? and superhuman ? capable of infinite cunning and deception.

           In 1919 America, "Reds" were referred to as "vermin", "lice" or "cobras", but were also seen as engaged in a vast conspiracy whose potential influence knew no bounds. They were "fanatics", driven by superhuman energy but utterly unamenable to reason. In the America of today, this combination of "subhuman" and "superhuman" qualities re-appears in images of the "enemy": those composite images where the face of the arch-terrorist Osama Bin Ladin has somehow become superimposed on the face of the arch-dictator Saddam Hussein; and the wider and even more dangerous images in which the notions of "Islam", "fundamentalism" and "terrorism" are superimposed on one another. Japanese images of North Korea, meanwhile, seem to focus less on the person of Kim Jong-Il than on the notion of a faceless North Korean bureaucratic apparatus whose agents are at once utterly ruthless and utterly unpredictable.


Purification Rites

           The "dehumanized conspirator" of the Red Scare was, Levin notes, an "inverse image of the American ideal type". (p. 152) In other words, the image of the inhuman "other" serves to highlight human, warm, homely images of "us", the national community. After September 11, public emotion came to be concentrated above all on the very "ordinariness" of the "ordinary Americans" who were victims of the bombings. More than anything else, it was the family photographs and the trivial details of the victims' lives which evoked shared mourning and which stoked the fires of communal passion. To millions of Americans, these people could have been their brothers, sisters or next-door neighbours.

           Media representations of the North Korean abduction incidents, too, centre precisely a contrast between an "inhuman other" and the profoundly human images of the returned abduction victims: greeting long-lost school friends, helping their families with the housework and strolling through the streets of their home villages. The return home is not just a return to the nation but also a return to the native soil of the birthplace, to nostalgic scenes of regional small-town Japanese life, to the local shrine, the small corner store, the timeless community of caring neighbours.

           It is the very human-ness of the story that makes it so compelling as a subject for media reportage. We come to care about these individuals whose ordinary and yet extraordinary lives we see played out each night on television; we respond to the human drama; we want to know the next episode in the story. Debates about missiles programs or the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) seem by comparison distant, abstract and arid.

           But this shared identification with ideal images of national "ordinariness" has another side to it. For, as Levin observes, "political hysteria is, amongst other things, a purification rite". (p. 169) Arising in times of social instability, it allows people to regain a sense of security by identifying themselves with the crusade to defend the homely, human world of the native land from infiltration by the inhuman "other". In doing this, it draws on a deep reservoir of myths, imagery and symbolism distinguishing the nation from the foreign. In America today, adorning one's house with the national flag has come to be seen by many as an important gesture of resistance to terrorism. And it is particularly recent immigrants to America, and above all immigrants whose origins might in some way associate them with ethnic "difference" and with Islam who must participate in this purification rite through visible displays of patriotism. (On a visit to San Francisco in the spring of 2002, the place where I saw the largest and most impressive display of stars and stripes was an Indonesian restaurant).

           In Japan, the purification of the national community requires, not just that the abduction victims and their families be "returned", but also that they become re-assimilated into the ideal world of the home village. The Japan to which they have returned is, to judge from the media images, one where there are no blond-haired teenagers, no "restructured" salarymen, no weary commuters, no foreign residents, no homeless people. This is the Japan of distantly remembered childhoods, of quiet country lanes and tranquil rice-fields. Into this pure Japan the returnees must immerse themselves through the rituals of re-inscribing their names in the family register, visiting the most scenically attractive local landmarks, or turning the pages of the class album members of the high school alumni association. Such imagery of return to the native and the national is endlessly repeated in press photographs, headlines and the captions which accompany television programs. Most clearly of all, perhaps it is illustrated by the public struggle for the soul of kidnap victim HASUIKE Kaoru.

           Soon after Hasuike's return to Japan, his older brother is reported in the press as having made the disturbing discovery that "within my brother's soul there is an ambivalence between Japanese and North Korean citizen" A key problem is Hasuike's insistence that he wants to talk to his children first, before committing himself and them to permanent settlement in Japan. By the second week of November, when it is clear that he cannot return to North Korea himself, Hasuike states publicly that he wants first to bring his children to Japan to talk to them face to face, before making big decisions. This is broadcast on NHK news accompanied by a large red caption reading "to Japan first" (thus neatly shifting the burden of the sentence from the need for discussions between parents and children to the need for "return" to Japan).

           On 12 November, Hasuike's older brother is quoted in the press as having reached the reassuring realization that beneath the outer husk, his sibling's inner being shin- literally "wick"] is Japanese. By now, Hasuike, still separated from his children without immediate prospect of reunion, is increasingly acknowledging the need to undertake the difficult task of readjustment to the Japanese society so that he can shield his children from the shock of cultural dislocation if and when he is finally allowed to meet them. The Yomiuri newspaper reports him as saying "first I want as far as possible to understand and adapt to present-day Japanese conditions myself, and then bring my children over" (other newspapers omit the words "as far as possible" from the quote). Somehow, all of this now allows a visiting national politician to interpret Hasuike's feelings to fellow kidnap victim SOGA Hitomi with the somewhat confused statement "Mr. Hasuike sort of says he has gradually become Japanese feeling, Japanese". NHK news tidies up these awkward and semi-audible words by providing viewers with a snappier subtitle: "Mr. Hasuike says he has become Japanese"

           National identity has at last been purified. The damaged community has again been made whole. Courtesy of the national media, the harrowing complexities and confusions of the abduction victim's predicament are reduced to the satisfying one-liner "I have become Japanese".


Soundproofed Universes

           There is a further aspect of these images of "us" and "them" which deserves particular attention. A crucial characteristic of the dehumanized "enemy" is deceptiveness ? nothing that "they" say can be believed. As Ellen Schrecker recounts in her study of American McCarthyism (Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, Little Brown, 1998), almost every report from the McCarthyist era quoted a passage from Lenin in which he spoke of the need for Communist Party members to resort to "stratagems, maneuvers, and illegal methods, to evasions and subterfuges" in order to advance the cause. The conclusions drawn by the American media and public were straightforward. Wherever there was evidence of communist subversive activity, this was proof of a threat to America's existence; but where there was no evidence, this was merely proof of the Communists' sinister capacity for deception.

           The same rhetoric, of course, is at work in the US today, most notably in the statements of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld has repeatedly asserted that UN weapon's inspections are meaningless, since any failure by inspectors to find evidence of these weapons will just go to show how cunning Saddam Hussein is in concealing them. Indeed, Rumsfeld argues, a recent statement by the Iraqi government that they had nothing to hide was in itself a violation of "the spirit" of the UN resolution, because the statement must be a lie. In other words, as they used to say of the justice system in Franco's Spain, "you are guilty until you have been proved guilty, and then you are guilty all over again".

           Likewise, the North Korean regime's admissions to the kidnappings and to developing nuclear weapons in violation of the KEDO agreement are interpreted as confirmation of the regime's misdeeds; their denials of the presence of further kidnap victims, on the other hand, are just taken as evidence of their untruthfulness. Any expressed desire on the part of the surviving kidnap victims and their families to move permanently to Japan is a natural desire to escape the horrors of the North Korean system; reluctance to move, on the other hand, is merely proof of the regime's capacity to brainwash or coerce them into lying.

           This image of the "deceptive other" is powerful precisely because it too is constructed around a kernel of reality. Stalinism did indeed encourage Party members to use deceit for strategic purposes. Both the Iraqi and North Korean regimes have a long record of lying to their own people and to foreign governments, and it would indeed be extremely naïve to take their statements or denials at face value (though authoritarian governments hardly have a monopoly on lies). Both Iraqi and North Korean regimes also use dictatorial methods to suppress the free speech of their citizens, making the task of assessing the real opinions of those citizens difficult and sometimes impossible.

           But the danger is that, in the heated atmosphere of political hysteria, healthy skepticism about the statements of the "enemy" readily gives way to the view that there is no point in listening at all to anything the "other side" says, because nothing you hear can be believed. And this view, in turn, all too easily slides into the further belief that listening to "the other side" is not just useless but positively dangerous -1 subversive, unpatriotic, immoral. Since "they" always lie, anyone who wants to listen to "them" must (at best) have been duped by "their" propaganda, or (at worst) have sinister intentions.

           Even in a globalized age where cross-border communications supposedly create scope for easy international exchanges of ideas, media frenzies can thus serve to divide the world into separate and almost soundproofed universes, where most people are exposed only to a single set of images from the same dominant narrative as they circle endlessly round and round the closed circuit of the national media. In democracies with freedom of speech, of course, dissenters and critics of the dominant narrative are allowed their occasional columns in the national newspapers, and may air their views freely on the Internet or in relatively small-circulation magazines. But these dissenting "fringe" voices have little appeal to mass media audiences waiting eagerly for the next installment of the unfolding dominant narrative. And besides, the dissenters and critics often find themselves subtly and almost unconsciously influenced by that dominant narrative, absorbing its use of language and allowing the stories they criticize to set the agenda for debate.


Breaking out of the Closed Circuits

           That is why, in attempting to combat the politics of hysteria, it is so important to listen to the voice of "others". It is vital to pierce the soundproofed walls of the dominant narrative, and this can only be done by listening to the voices of domestic minorities, by considering how a particular dispute looks from the perspective of countries that are not directly involved, and, yes, even by listening – skeptically, critically, cautiously – to the voices of the "other side".

           If Americans could turn down the oppressive volume of their national media hysteria, they might more readily be able to hear voices like that of a Latin American New York taxi driver, whose startling words were recorded by Pakistani-born London-based writer Tariq Ali soon after September 11. Until the confusion, pain and anger in such voices as these is more widely heard, no solution to the root causes of terrorism can (I think) be found. Asked whether he was near the twin towers at the time of the bombing, the driver, whose cab was festooned with American flags, replied: "No, I wasn't, but I wouldn't have cared if I wasc It wouldn't have mattered if I had got killed. The important thing is that they were hit. I was happy. You know why?cYou know how many people they've killed in Central Americac Hundreds of thousands. Yes, really. They're still killing us. I'm really happy they were hit. We got our revenge. I feel sorry for the ones who died. That's more than they feel for us." (Tariq Ali, The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, Verso Books, 2002, p. 292)

           Listening to the voices of others is important, not just because it reveals what "they" are saying, but also because it helps participants in the dominant narrative to realize just what it is that "we" are saying. Without listening to others, it is very hard to notice how particular habits of thought and speech, familiar stereotypes and omissions have come to frame one's own thinking. If more people in Japan read and listened to Korean media (of many political persuasions), they might ask why (for example) the Japanese media repeatedly refer to the proposed resettlement in Japan of the abduction victims' partners and children, none of whom is a Japanese citizen, or speaks Japanese, as "repatriation". They might also notice that the Pyongyang Declaration of 17 September 2002, which is so often mentioned by the Japanese media but so seldom quoted in detail, contains promises by both sides to "sincerely discuss the issue of the status of Korean residents in Japan and the issue of cultural property", and they might wonder what their government has been doing to fulfill that promise. Until the multiple voices of Japan's Asian neighbours are more clearly heard within the Japanese media, normalizing relations with North Korea is going to be a very difficult task.

           The global communication networks of the early twenty-first century are very different from the American print media of 1919 and 1920 which fuelled the Red Scare. Yet breaking out of the closed circuits of national hysteria demands as much effort, courage and ingenuity today as it did then. And today, whether in the United States or in East Asia, there is far, far more at stake.


SEKAI, no. 710 (February 2003).