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Republic of fear
Separating the reality of terrorism, disease, and economic distress from the virtual world of media hype and political gamesmanship
BY DAN KENNEDY

No arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

— Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)

THE WORLD APPEARS to be a damned frightening place these days. Just consider what you run into when you start clicking around the federal government’s Web sites.

The Department of Agriculture leads with a statement on the fatal brain illness known as mad-cow disease, a case of which was discovered in Canada last week. And if that weren’t enough, a "Homeland Security" logo informs you, TERROR ALERT RAISED TO ORANGE, the last word nicely color-coded. Click through and you’ll learn that the Bush administration wants to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the food supply free from terrorist threats through such means as more inspectors, x-ray equipment, even dog teams. Doesn’t that make you feel better?

Over at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the first three entries are for "Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)," "Smallpox Information," and "Terrorism and Public Health." Select the last category, and you’ll find data on eight possible threats, from radiation and plague to anthrax and nerve gas.

As you might imagine, it doesn’t get any better when you load the home page of the Department of Homeland Security, which is festooned with an orange "Threat Advisory" bar, a drawing of Uncle Sam pointing at you to BE PREPARED, STAY INFORMED, and a link to an affiliated site, Ready.gov, which admonishes, "Terrorism forces us to make a choice.... Don’t be afraid. Be Ready." Here’s what Tom Ridge and company want you to do if terrorists set off a nuclear explosion: "Take cover immediately, below ground if possible, though any shield or shelter will help protect you from the immediate effects of the blast and the pressure wave."

Below ground if possible?

In contrast, calm is the order of the day at the Federal Reserve Web site. But even here, you’ll find a copy of Chairman Alan Greenspan’s May 21 testimony to Congress, in which his abstruse but generally reassuring demeanor was punctuated with this zinger near the end: "[W]e have reached a point at which, in the judgment of the Federal Open Market Committee, the probability of an unwelcome substantial fall in inflation over the next few quarters, though minor, exceeds that of a pickup in inflation." Greenspan didn’t use the word, but many analysts believe he was talking about deflation, which is what you call it when prices actually fall. It is a phenomenon that is almost unheard-of — except during a 1930s-style economic depression.

If the ’00s could be said to have begun on September 11, 2001, the signal moments of this decade have continued in a similarly distressing vein. Unlike the ’90s, which were so defined by peace and prosperity that the country was able to take a year-plus timeout over oral sex, the ’00s are so far shaping up to be a decade that Thomas Hobbes himself would recognize — terrorism at home and abroad, exotic new diseases, wars without end, a sputtering economy, even devastating earthquakes and tornadoes.

Welcome to the Republic of Fear. We’re here. We fear. Get used to it.

But the issue isn’t whether we have suddenly returned to a Hobbesian state of nature. After all, the world has always been a dangerous place. Even the 1990s were marred by genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the continued spread of AIDS, and deadly acts of terrorism in Kenya and Saudi Arabia, among other places. The difference is that, during the Clinton years, fear contradicted the overarching paradigm of the day. In the age of Bush the Younger, fear actually confirms it.

Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television, at Syracuse University, calls the ’90s "a wonderful little daydream." The end of the Cold War meant that, for the first time since 1929, Americans did not have "any big cloud over us." For 60 years, it was one thing after another: the Great Depression, followed by World War II, followed by smaller wars in Korea and Vietnam and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation.

Then the fall of communism ended the nuclear terror. The first Gulf War demonstrated that modern warfare would be barely even an inconvenience for Americans, except for those who actually had to fight it. "And then the extra bonus on the cake was, January, you put $40 in the mutual fund and by June it was $80," Thompson observes. "That gets really easy to get used to."

Thompson adds: "Now there’s a sense of entitlement ... that we should feel safe and secure. When that went away, it seemed like an inalienable right had been taken away from us."

And in a media environment in which traditional news sources such as newspapers and network newscasts have been supplemented and even supplanted by 24/7 outlets such as the all-news cable channels and the Internet, every bit of bad news is repeated, amplified, until we are all convinced that the end of the world is at hand.

There is, in fact, a curious phenomenon at work. Unlike, say, the hunt for Chandra Levy or the upcoming trial of Scott Peterson, the most frightening news of the ’00s is very real indeed. Terrorists did fly into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. SARS is killing people. Mad-cow disease is a threat that hasn’t been taken seriously enough (see "Don't Quote Me," News and Features, December 28, 2001).

At the same time, though, the possibility of becoming a victim of any one of these calamities — even a terrorist attack — is low to the point of statistical insignificance.

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Issue Date: May 30 - June 5, 2003
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