Bush Doctrine Fueled Our Worst Fears

In 2004, a City Club of Eugene member asked me what I thought would be George W. Bush’s most lasting legacy. Bush’s eventual term of office hadn’t yet reached its halfway point, but his policies defined a certain trajectory that continues today. Its label then (and my answer) was “the Bush Doctrine.”

It posited that pre-emption can make us safer. We should act on our fears. The Iraq War was launched on a suspicion of weapons of mass destruction, colorfully described by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

A decade has passed, so it’s fair to ask whether we’re feeling safer or more skittish since this indoctrination began. Here are some recent cases in point.

• Treyvon Martin was killed because George Zimmerman believed he could pre-empt some imagined evildoing with his handgun and Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.

• Attorney General Eric Holder signed new guidelines, directing the National Counterterrorism Center to retain private information about Americans for five years, even when there is no suspicion that they are tied to terrorism. Information collected about you and me previously could be retained only for six months.

• An American citizen recently was killed in Yemen by a missile launched by an American drone. When asked by what authority the president ordered the killing, Holder replied, “The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.” He then declined to describe what constituted “due process” in Anwar al-Awlaki’s case.

• The United States Supreme Court this week ruled that a strip search for any jail inmate may be necessary for the security of the facility, its staff and the other inmates, even if the inmate is not suspected of attempting to smuggle inside weapons or contraband.

The Bush Doctrine has amplified our fears, not quieted them. Now contrast those national headlines with recent local stories. For once, our tone has been less pitched. Examples:

• After the initial shock and dismay over a downtown housing project for thousands of students, the debate has settled for the moment into a constructive conversation about concessions and amenities we should expect from the developer in return for any public subsidies.

• Eugene’s Downtown Exclusion Zone was extended for seven months, but continues only under the watchful eye of the City Council, for a shorter duration than requested, and applies only to those who have been charged with certain crimes.

• Eugene’s urban growth boundary may soon be expanded by nearly a thousand acres, but so far the issue has not stirred the usual rancor from either end of the political spectrum. Ed McMahon, executive director of the Homebuilders Association of Lane County, spoke for many, “Did we get everything we asked for? No, but we can live with what’s been proposed.”

Why has the local mood been less fevered than elsewhere? Call it the Ruiz Doctrine. Instead of pre-emption, Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz emphasizes engagement. He encourages people to talk openly about their worst fears, but not to stop there.

He recognizes that we all harbor fears. Getting them into the open decouples the fear from the harboring. That lessens the risk of panic, when our responses can become automatic, even involuntary. “Fight or flight” hides deep in our brains. Talking about our fears is often a necessary first step.

Once we discover that our fears cannot protect us, we begin protecting our fears.

Ruiz instead pushes people to stay engaged, walk past the fear and give equal time to hopes and dreams — those things that we’re afraid we may never see.

When Ruiz interviewed for his job here in 2008, he was invited to ask Eugene City Councilors a question. He asked them to describe what he calls Best Outcomes: “What would you most like to see happen here?”

Our imagined best outcomes can be relied upon to pull us toward a future that we’ve already embraced. Each step that draws us closer feels like a small success, increasing our motivation and resolve. We don’t feel beaten down. We feel lifted, naturally pulling together.

The Ruiz Doctrine has us on the upswing. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Everything that rises must converge.”

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.