The politics of fear

We just finished a long nightmare with the Government which began three years ago with a raid by nearly 100 FBI agents on my office and the homes of my employees. The agents raiding my law firm had Kevlar vests and extra clips of ammunition – shock and awe. Were they looking for terrorists? No. Their allegations were that we had violated Campaign Finance Laws. More armed FBI agents were assigned to investigate our contributions to the Edwards presidential campaign than troops had been tasked to find Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora. I’m not kidding! In the end, the Government spent millions of dollars to investigate less than $150,000 in contributions. Why?

The heavy-handed tactics of the Justice Department were calculated to produce one thing: FEAR. Bush justice hoped that fear would produce evidence so they threatened my employees – who were offered deals to buy their freedom through false testimony. Dozens of people were told “you are a criminal and you will lose your job, your family and go to jail unless you cooperate against Fieger.”

This brings me to a point: fear is a powerful emotion and a powerful tool.

Fear is the tool that Governments have used to get consent. We need look no farther than the past few years to passage of the Patriot Act and FISA as contemporary examples of how many Americans are willing to sacrifice liberty for the illusion of security. Fear is the companion of tyrants. The only defense to fear is the courage to act for something more important than ourselves.

“Fear is the companion of tyrants. The only defense to fear is the courage to act for something more important than ourselves.”

In my case, the Government wanted to take me out as an example to other attorneys. In a policy that originated in the White House, the DOJ began to target trial lawyers who were contributing to the 2004 Edwards Campaign (Edwards was considered by Karl Rove as the probable Democratic nominee) with the goal of suppressing contributions by prosecuting trial attorneys in highly publicized trials. I was a trial lawyer, a former candidate of the Democratic Party for Governor of Michigan and prominent advocate of Edwards as President. “W” had attributed his loss of the Michigan Primary in 2000 in part to me in a concession speech delivered at Lawrence Technological University. In other words, I was a perfect target for them – except for one thing: I wasn’t afraid of them.

I wasn’t afraid of them but I was afraid of what they could do to my friends and their families. In the end though, I was less afraid then I was outraged by their tactics. I was NOT going to let them get away with it. Not only my career and freedom were on the line, but also the livelihood of over 60 loyal employees and hundreds of their family members, not to mention the of safeguarding the electoral system and the judicial system.

It sounds like an exaggeration to consider my resistance as important for the electoral and judicial systems but this is how I thought of it. If we allow the Bush Administration to control who their opposition was (by intimidating contributors), then we were in big trouble. This was not an isolated case of payback or intimidation. I was part of a campaign being run by the DOJ.

A Medal of Honor winner once was asked if he was ever afraid. His response was that he was always afraid in combat. He said that real heroes were not people who had no fears; they were people who overcame their fears and did the right thing. I was fortunate to have the best trial attorney in the country representing me – my friend Gerry Spence. He is a man of great courage, maybe not so much for fighting the government as for being willing to have a trial attorney as a client. Together, we had the courage to fight and to prevail. I must admit that during jury deliberations I felt fear — loss of control of my destiny, and it was Gerry who got me through this tough time.

I am most proud of the fact that my partner, Ven Johnson, was also charged and faced the same penalties I did, but he never wavered once. He was charged for one reason only – to flip against me in exchange for a “deal”. He could have easily saved hundreds of sleepless nights and his career by taking their deal. He had a family to consider as well as his own career and freedom. The same was true for each and every one of the employees of my law firm. Some of them were scared to tears. Yet not one single employee agreed to falsely testify for the Government. I could not have been more proud of them. You see, these were ordinary citizens, secretaries, maintenance, couriers, etc., many with no training in the law, who overcame their fears and became heroes. In contrast, and very much to my embarrassment as an attorney, many of my fellow Michigan attorneys were cowed into silence. I guess lawyers are subject to the same fears as everyone else – fear for their livelihood, their freedom. I have always believed that attorneys were the first line of defense against tyranny. But in this case the courage of ordinary citizens shamed the silence of the legal community. In this case, ordinary citizens showed attorneys how to defend liberty.

We all have fears and it is a powerful, primal emotion. Fear helps us to survive. But when fear paralyzes us then it is debilitating. I chose to fight. I believe that what distinguishes real lawyers from those who simply have a law degree is the strength to overcome fear and act for the good of all.

How do you deal with your fear?

3 Responses to The politics of fear

  1. George Harrington says:

    God , Are you right about fear !
    I was lucky enough to take in almost all of that trial and was not concious of it at the time even though I saw a fleeting glimpse of it early on. I was walking back to the
    courtroom during a break and saw a very slight elderly black lady, wearing her Sunday
    finest and shaking your hand. She had not been in the courtroom earlier and would not be there after the break. She had come just to shake your hand and lend support. The sight of this shamed me and when I reached you I also took shook your hand and wished you luck. It was a good five seconds before you were able to respond with “thank You”. Walking away I thought- should I have done that- what if they saw.
    I had to extinguih those thoughts with a firm “Screw it.”. Thus does fear play it’s tune on all of us.
    I have been at trials that were packed from begining to end. This should have been one of them. On the few days it was packed ( opening , closing ) at breaktime all the lawyer conversations avoided the merits and were just cocktail party chit-chat. It was only afterward that I realized that it was fear. Congratulations and keep it up.

    P.S. your website design does not make it clear that people can comment. You might want to consider putting some sort of statement in your right hand margin.

  2. John C.Kersey, Sr. says:

    The political corruption of the DOJ by Alberto Gongales under the orders of George W. Bush is the most frightening event to occur in this nation that I have witnessed in my lifetime and I will soon be 61. I have a law degree and I practiced in Tennessee for 17 years until I was set up with a female by a former Mayor (for 46 years), turned drug pusher. I fought judicial corruption while I practiced law and I have been fighting it for the past 18 years. In 2005 I discovered that 5 of 6 judges in my county had been selecting Grand Juries illegally for over 10 years. Instead of selecting 12 as required by law, they selected from 16 to 40 and then let the Grand Jury forewoman actually select the Grand Jury. She is married to an attorney whose law firm has represented the county for over 40 years. She had the power to control the entire criminal process.

    I talked to the FBI and the agent seemed interested. The U.S. Attorney in Nashville told the FBI: “to leave it alone.” I have written the DOJ for the past three years and I never got past the “Correspondence Section.” The DOJ even returned the 70 – 80 pages of certified court records to me rather than have them “on record” in a flie for someone to see later. People, especially the news media, are not willing to tell the American citizaens that three people in Tennessee have absolute control over the FBI: The U.S. Attorney for the Middle, the Eastern and the Western District of Tennessee. The new U.S. Attorney is just as politically controlled as the old one.

    When citizens rights are violated they have no place to turn if the FBI and other DOJ agencies are controlled. What I found most amazing was the result of two letters that I mailed, via Certified Mail to Washington. One of those letters was addressed to the Office of Professional Responsibility, which oversees U.S. Attorneys. The other letter was addressed to the FBI. I received the Return Receipt Card from the Office of Professional Responsibility in a couple of weeks. After more than a month I received the Return Receipt Card for the letter that I sent to the FBI. I simply filed the green card and it was several months later that I looked closely at the initials on the Return Receipt Card. The initials were “OPR.” The Office of Professional Responsibility of the DOJ even censors the mail sent to the FBI.

    As a result of this corruption of the DOJ, I am convinced that George W. , a man that I voted for twice, will go down as one of the worst Presidents in American history. What is more frightening is that attorneys are at the center of this corruption and they are simply pawns without any courage.

    John C. Kersey. Sr.

  3. InYourFaceNewYorker says:

    “We all have fears and it is a powerful, primal emotion. Fear helps us to survive. But when fear paralyzes us then it is debilitating. I chose to fight. I believe that what distinguishes real lawyers from those who simply have a law degree is the strength to overcome fear and act for the good of all.

    How do you deal with your fear?”

    The way fear manifests itself today is interesting, seeing as how our society has evolved much faster than humans have (well, of course! It takes millions of years for evolution to do anything significant). We evolved the fight-or-flight response, which is when the body releases adrenaline which in turn increases the heart rate, slows down digestion, constricts blood vessels, and a lot of other fun things. The person experiencing fight-or-flight can either fight the predator or flee it. These days, we don’t have predators. We have politicians (oh wait…), credit card debt, unemployment and other stresses that evolution didn’t take into “consideration.” Our brains, being the fool organs that they are, still receive the same adrenaline rush in response to stressors that don’t warrant it. And what a nasty hormone adrenaline is! Who can honestly say he or she HASN’T made a rash, destructive decision as a result of fear and, by extension, an adrenaline rush?

    What you talk about, Mr. Fieger, seems to me a mind-over-matter issue, consciously training oneself to override the primal fight-or-flight response with rationality.

    How do I deal with my fear (in today’s society I think it is indistinguishable from stress, it least in terms of the physiological response it evokes)? Well, if for a nanosecond I can hit the pause button and think clearly enough, I go outside and run or otherwise engage in a vigorous workout in order to work off the adrenaline so that afterward I can think about the situation with a clear head. But I’m also guilty of handling it in stupid ways (who isn’t?): yelling at people, making stupid decisions, and otherwise doing things that I may later regret.

    Unfortunately, most people don’t recognize what fear (or stress) does to their thinking and so they make very destructive decisions based on fear… like voting Bush for a second term.


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