Cultures of Paranoia in Ender’s Game and the War on Terror

In class yesterday , the question arose as to whether or not our present situation with ISIS is in any way comparable to the war between humanity and buggers in Ender’s Game. While I agree with the rest of the class that there are very concrete differences in the kind of warfare, there is no denying the shared culture of paranoia.

One of the scariest aspects of terrorism is not the fact that it is impossible to pinpoint the enemy on sight (though that is definitely a cause for discomfort), but the fact that, by default, it relies on the element of surprise. In other words, whereas a traditional war involves maneuvers, strategy and more or less expected movements of the enemy, terrorist attacks are random; and nine times out of ten, they target civilians more than soldiers. This translates easily into its primary function of creating mass panic, because not only do people react to the initial random attack but also the threat of future ones that are equally unpredictable.

This looming threat — and the inability to substantially combat it — has resulted in what I would consider a culture of paranoia, a culture in which we become obsessed with and act according to what-if’s which are at times the most extreme worst case scenario. We’re seeing it right here and now, as America in particular reacts to the attacks in Paris. From over twenty governors proclaiming they will no longer accept Syrian refugees to Donald Trump citing a need to keep tabs on all Muslims living in our country, the shock of what happened in Paris paired with the belief that something similar could happen here has lead to bigotry bred in paranoia, pre-emptive action that makes enemies out of innocent people to help these lawmakers — and those that think like them — cope with a difficult threat.

Even the rhetoric we use to talk about the terrorism issue plays into this culture. In calling the conflict “The War on Terror”, we make terror our enemy and, given the explicitly ambitious nature of ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’, fear and paranoia an inevitable bedfellow. After all, the only way we’ve ever related with terror as a concept is through fear and when the war is presented as us versus terror and terrorism, it is difficult to pull away from that visceral and at times destructive reaction.

This same culture of paranoia exists even more clearly in Ender’s Game. Pre-emptive attacks are, in general, an understandable tactical move; but that isn’t to say that it is always justifiable and, furthermore, logical. It is mentioned multiple times in the novel that the buggers haven’t been an actual threat to humanity for decades and yet, all discussion about them whether it be culturally (‘buggers and astronauts’) or in the military context assigns them an air of absolute urgency. The clearest indication of this extreme culture is the very existence of Ender himself — his parents had received permission from the government to have him only because their other two children were lacking and couldn’t contribute to the “war” efforts. In other words, Ender is outright bred to be a weapon against an enemy that might attack and might be plotting even after decades of no activity.

For me, that was easily the most fascinating but also unsettling aspects of the novel: the way that paranoia not only guides those in authority but also allows the citizenry to be guided. The circumstances of Ender’s birth reveal a dystopian-esque relationship between the government and its people; yet it’s painted as logical — and sometimes even justified — because of the bugger threat or, more specifically, the military’s obsession with it.

Indeed, by the end of the novel, we learn that any threat the buggers posed at that point was imagined and amplified by the paranoia that had come to define the culture. And while that isn’t to say that ISIS and other terrorist groups are only as bad as our paranoia is making them, it does call into question the way that we relate to the War on Terror and the collateral damage our paranoia-based pre-emptive attacks can cause.

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