WE FEAR these new threats because they are unknown, novel; they are terrifying precisely because they are exotic. Consider SARS. According to the World Health Association, 725 people around the world had died of the disease as of May 26, and more than half of those deaths were in China or Hong Kong. The US death toll: zero. During the past couple of weeks it has even seemed possible that SARS was burning itself out, despite new outbreaks in Toronto over the weekend. By contrast, more than 40,000 Americans die each year in traffic accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Yet according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 37 percent of Americans are "very worried" or "somewhat worried" that they or a family member will be exposed to SARS. Compare that to a Harris Poll from a few years back that showed 67 percent of Americans think it is "very likely" or "somewhat likely" that they will "be seriously hurt in a car accident" — a far more realistic assessment of the risks of driving.
And even though Americans understand that their cars are extraordinarily dangerous places to be, they have internalized the risk, dismissing it as something they needn’t worry about day to day.
"Where does the average car crash come in the evening news?" asks Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor at Boston University. "Is it common or is it something new? The media loves new scares. There’s nothing unique about that."
But is the Republic of Fear a media-driven phenomenon? Well, yes — and no. To be sure, SARS has been a big story, but not nearly as big as it would have been had it not broken out during the war in Iraq. And when the war began to wind down, the cable channels, at least, tried to pump up the Laci Peterson story. After all, sex, betrayal, and murder trump foreigners in surgical masks any day.
Last week’s outbreak of mad-cow disease in Canada brought a flurry of news reports but no discernible panic. A LexisNexis search of major newspapers conducted this past Tuesday found 289 stories on mad cow from the previous week. Most of those stories were published in Canada, where fear of economic catastrophe is at least as palpable as the possibility of contracting new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or nvCJD, the fatal illness that has killed about 100 people in recent years, nearly all in Britain, because they ate mad-cow-tainted meat. (And what is the deal with Canada? Was Kyle’s mother on South Park right all along? Blame Canada!)
A few minutes spent watching Tuesday’s "crawl" on the top-rated Fox News Channel revealed some interesting tidbits about the new fear, even as a no-account hearing on the Peterson case ran live in the foreground. The crawl began with a big, orange TERROR ALERT: HIGH and segued into such stories as dog food that may be tainted with mad-cow disease; continued worries about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities; a defiant statement from the foreign minister of Iran, also suspected of trying to develop nuclear weapons; a terrorist separatist movement in Indonesia; the killing of a pro-Taliban leader in Afghanistan, where a forgotten war continues to be fought; Islamist terror in Algeria; and a 14-year-old boy arrested in North Carolina, allegedly for attempting to bring bomb-building chemicals onto an airplane. And, oh, this: "Consumer confidence edges higher in May."
In other words, for all the bad news that is out there, for all the scary headlines and bulletins, the public does not seem to be panicking.
But if our chances of catching SARS or nvCJD are vanishingly small, that doesn’t mean they won’t affect us in other ways. Last Friday, the Boston Globe’s Naomi Aoki reported on a study conducted by Bio Economic Research Associates, of Cambridge. Its authors found that SARS could cost the world economy $100 billion. Aoki wrote, too, that "Canada’s $7-billion-a-year beef industry is bracing for possible disaster in the face of bans from the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and South Korea."
Then, too, 9/11 devastated the airline industry, as well as the economy of New York City.
Thus even if the new threats we see, hear, and read about in the media every day do not kill us, they may have a serious effect on the quality of our lives — not just on whether we can fly on vacation or eat a fast-food burger, but whether we can maintain a strong enough economy to keep employment high and to protect those whose very existence depends on prosperity.
Given the tax- and budget-cutting priorities in Washington and, for that matter, Boston these days, the prognosis is not good. Maybe SARS and mad cow will end up killing some Americans after all — in youth programs eliminated, detox centers closed, and health care denied.
ON MAY 21, President Bush delivered the commencement address at the United States Coast Guard Academy, in New London, Connecticut. His theme: terrorism, and his hope that the graduates will protect Americans from those whom he has previously labeled "evildoers." His address took note of the fact that authority over the Coast Guard has been shifted to the Department of Homeland Security, whose secretary, Tom Ridge, was on hand as well.
"The men and women of this class are the first ever to graduate into the Department of Homeland Security, which is charged with protecting the American people against terrorist attacks," Bush said. "You are bringing a long tradition of duty to this new and urgent task. Terrorists who seek to harm our country now face your ‘Shield of Freedom.’ Every citizen can be grateful that the Coast Guard stands watch for America."
On one level, the president’s remarks that day were straightforward, strictly a matter of common sense. On another level, though, the notion that we are surrounded by enemies is enormously helpful to Bush politically. Consider the scary language on the official government Web sites mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Consider Bush’s constant invocation of the war against terrorism, the phony Top Gun–style landing on the Abraham Lincoln, and the slimy attempts by some of his supporters to smear political opponents — even fellow Republicans, such as Maine senator Olympia Snowe — as less than patriotic.
According to Lloyd deMause, editor of the Journal of Psychohistory, research has shown that periods of belligerence tend to follow periods of prosperity, as that half of the population who were "abused" as children seeks punishment, purification through violence, for the good fortune they had experienced and that they unconsciously believe they didn’t deserve. Then, too, deMause argues, Bush, by directing American anxiety toward external enemies such as Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il, has taken on the role of the "Phallic Leader." In his 2002 book, The Emotional Life of Nations (online at www.psychohistory.com), deMause quotes from a 1997 book by Robert Robins and Jerrold Post, Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred, that he says describes Bush’s role well:
"It is as if the therapist said to the paranoid-schizoid patient, ‘You really are being persecuted. Let me help you by naming your persecutors ... you and your true friends can fight the persecutors and praise each other’s righteousness, which will help you realize that the source of aggression and evil is out there, in the real world. And you thought it was all in your head!’"
This is not a role Bush came to naturally, like, say, Richard Nixon, whom deMause specifically cites in his book. Indeed, Robins and Post employ their theory to describe some truly evil human beings, such as Stalin and Hitler. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t applicable to Bush. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush’s main themes were "compassionate conservatism" and a goofy, Alfred E. Neuman "What, Me Worry?" grin. To say those were not potent political weapons is an understatement: he was named president only after a disputed election, and his intelligence and work habits were widely mocked during his first few months in office. Since 9/11, though, Bush and his political adviser, Karl Rove, have obviously discovered the benefits of phallic leadership, invoking the enemy without — and within — at every sign of political trouble.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, dissects the Republic of Fear in a more traditional way: "We’ve gone from a culture where sex sells to a culture where fear sells. It’s a natural transition — after a while, people get sated. We had enough sex in the ’90s, from politics to Oprah, to last us for a while."
Even though (or maybe because) Sabato sees the phenomenon in pop-culture terms and deMause as mass psychology, they are not that far off from one another. Each is talking about a change in cultural orientation that exists separate and apart from the very real threats that are out there. Look at the stock market, which has plunged from "irrational exuberance" to irrational depths in just a few short years. Yes, there are concrete reasons for this — a technology spree in the late ’90s that will take years to work through the system, a dot-com bubble built partly on corporate fraud, and the like. Yet, at root, the change in the stock market is about a change in the national mood, from hope and optimism to fear and pessimism.
In a front-page piece in the Wall Street Journal on April 24 headlined WHY DO AMERICANS BELIEVE DANGER LURKS EVERYWHERE?, reporters Jane Spence and Cynthia Crossen noted how nonsensical our fears really are: life spans are 60 percent longer today than they were a century ago, many infectious diseases have been cured, and food and water are cleaner. "Even the risk of financial disaster was reduced by insurance, pensions and Social Security," they wrote.
And they really didn’t have a satisfactory answer to the question posed by the headline beyond the obvious, such as the shock that accompanies an early death today, and a general ignorance of statistical probabilities.
In the end, there may be no explanation for the Republic of Fear except this: everything in its time. Set off by 9/11 and deepened by economic calamity, war, and pestilence, fear is a natural reaction to the knowledge that everything we thought we knew in the ’90s turned out to be wrong.
Amplified by a media that repeat bad news incessantly just because that’s what they do, and by a political leadership that uses fear for its own purposes even as it genuinely tries to grapple with the reality that feeds it, we are caught in an echo chamber of negativity.
And it’s not going to end anytime soon.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.