Sorepoints: The Culture of Fear

About a year ago, a nine year old in New York City rode the subway for about an hour, traveling from a department store to his home. He did this with the knowledge and permission of his mother and arrived home safely. He didn’t even carry a cell phone with him. His mother wrote a column regarding the experience for the New York Sun, and set off a firestorm of pearl clutching. Didn’t she know how dangerous the world, let alone New York, is? There are sex offenders out there, not to mention muggers, drug dealers and murderers. Doesn’t she know how horrible the world is today?

Actually she did know—specifically she knew that crime, even in New York City, is down to levels that haven’t been seen since the early 1960s. She said as much in her post-odyssey column. There are other statistics which, when you look at them, make the alarm over her son’s trip seem even more.

A child is more likely to be struck by lightning than to be abducted by a stranger—1.5 times more likely to be exact. And her son was probably safer on the train than if she had driven him the whole way. Car accidents are consistently the leading cause of death for children in the US. What is important is that she realized that there is an entire industry dedicated to keeping parents scared and offering them feel-good solutions to things that are hardly problems. There are dangers and the unthinkable does happen. But there are people that make a lot of money convincing society to organize itself to attempt to prevent absolutely every tragedy.

It’s bullshit. This is security theatre for home and family, the equivalent of forcing grandmas to take off their shoes and banning any liquid not in a hotel-size container from the airport. It doesn’t actually keep anyone safe, it just reassures people that they’re doing everything possible to be prepared for every contingency. And it’s fed by a media that encourages a perpetual state of fear, because fear drives ratings. The world is out to get you—tune in at ten to find out what you can do! Fear sells. It’s a primitive emotion that can run right over our sense of reason and proportion.

And just like the media, politicians know this and use it to sell their product too. It just happens that this product is themselves and their policies. We need to never forget the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks when our nation collectively lost its mind and crapped its pants in fear. That wave of fear—the terror that every little town would be next, was fed and fanned by people looking to push a specific set of policies which actually, when we look back, didn’t have much to do with the September 11 attacks and probably wouldn’t have done anything to stop them anyway. But, at the time when the President was talking about “a smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud” a good many people were scared enough, and naive enough, to take him at his word. And there were a many more who, though they knew better, didn’t have the nerve to stand up and question what exactly was going on.

Standing up to fear is never easy, because fear is just one step removed from anger. Our history is rife with riots and pogroms that started because someone whipped a group of people into a fearful frenzy, then gave them a target. Trying to short-circuit that fear—to tell people that they’re not thinking straight, can be a dangerous prospect indeed. That’s why there was so much rage against the people who were against things like the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. There was a false perception that the opponents of those things were increasing the dangers we faced as a society. It was a perception that was eagerly fanned and fed by the right wing in this country to make any opposition seem illegitimate.

That fear is starting to come back. This time, it’s been whipped up by economic uncertainty, high unemployment, a rising cost of living and the collapse of the housing market as much as physical insecurity. That fear is thrashing around right now, looking for a target. We’re starting to see that in reactions to things like the Cordoba House and illegal immigration—people taking non-problems like the former and small problem like the latter and trying to impose draconian solutions.

To listen to the rhetoric of many right-wing commentators, one would think that a community center and farm workers who overstay their visas are an existential threat to this country—something that, if it isn’t dealt with immediately and brutally, will destroy us. But take a step back and you’ll see that almost nothing is as threatening as people would have you believe. Problems like these, if they actually are problems, need rational solutions, not panicked lashing out. That panic—the need to do something, anything regardless of the actual effects, has driven this country to the brink of financial ruin. We can’t afford to be scared anymore.