Who is afraid of the “Schwarze Mann”?

As a child, I used to be frightened by the
"Schwarze Mann" (the bogeyman) who would come and kidnap me if I dared
to leave my secure home territory. I did not know what the "Schwarze
Mann" looked like; he had no name, no body, no face. He terrorised me
in my grandmother’s tales. For instance as the stranger in the park
hiding behind the bushes.

I grew up in a country that was stuck fast in the deep-freeze of
history for forty years. I have been saturated with Cold war rhetoric:
the horrors of capitalism, the betrayals of consumerism, the warning
that any individual restructuring spells the end of collective
solidarity.

Tonight, as I turned a switch searching for the news, it was as if my
grandmother was on television again, telling me that we – the citizens
of the "civilised" countries – are menaced by terrorism, that freedom
is imperilled, that Osama Bin Laden has to be stopped, just as the
"Schwarze Man" had to be stopped.
What is the connection between this state of mind – the Cold War
mentality, the attribution of all our problems to an external enemy –
and the contemporary media debate so focused on terrorist evil and the
threat to freedom?

The rhetoric of the discourse is the same. It constructs an evil Other
who makes the idea of a secure home stable and lasting again. The
traumatic events of the 11th of September have shocked and scared ‘us’
to death, made us question the foundations of our identity: safety,
reliability and trust in the advanced capitalist freedom and liberty.
Enemies like "terrorism", "nationalism", "fundamentalism" are wearily
abstract. They have no name, no body, no face. They exist as ideas in
our heads. After what the television programs label "Attack on
America", all the ‘civilised’ countries are now struggling for
accountability, to cope with the pervasive sense of insecurity and fear
of what more could happen. And that is the true terror: What else could
happen.
Investigators are following the money and communications trail of
telephone calls made by the hijackers. But it isnt the old children’s
game where you choose one strand of colour in the web and follow it
back to find your prize, ignoring the others as mere distractions. The
portraits that are emerging of the 19 hijackers are striking in their
ordinariness. The suspect men lived normal lives, paid their bills on
time, chatted with neighbours, ordered alcohol in bars.

How to take action against the evil Other when it lives in our midst?
The State Security Service all over the place, barbed wire and border
controls, secret files to protect us? In the aftermath of the terrorist
attack, it became clear that this free and open society risks losing
some of its civil liberties. Experts are discussing the failures of US
Intelligence, which should have known what was afoot, dismal airport
security, lifting the banks’ privacy policies, and computerised
searches for people with specific characteristics.

We need fear. It is a part of our life-support system, it enables us to
react to new and unexpected situations. But the fear becomes a sickness
when it looks for objects to be scared of, when the really scary things
are not there (yet). Propaganda depersonalises the evil powers and
constructs abstract Others like "Terrorism", "Capitalism", or the
"Schwarze Mann". Just like my grandmother’s tales, they put me under
permanent stress, since the "Schwarze Mann" could be everywhere, or
nowhere.

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